Questions to Ask when Editing your Second Draft

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A year and a half ago I finished the first draft of The Librex.  But when I came back to it after a break, I knew it needed more than a check for punctuation errors.  The entire structure needed a re-haul.

But it was hard to know where to start.  I wasted time, knowing a scene didn’t work, but not knowing how to fix it.

But last year I also had the privilege of doing a Fantasy writing course with writer CS Pacat.  One of the most helpful things she covered was what keeps readers engaged, or as she calls it ‘Narrative traction’.  She argued readers keep reading because of the promise that what will be on the next page will be even better than what you are reading now.  Narrative traction can be tension or suspence, but it is more than that.  What’s the reader waiting for?  It might be crucial information about the world and how it works.  It might be a romantic moment between characters.  And drawing on her lessons, I came up with some helpful questions to ask as I worked on my second draft.

What will the readers want to know? AND What will readers want to see?

Is there any information that the reader will want to know?  Information about a particular magic system?  A character’s past?  Something that the reader will be curious to find out about your story, characters or world.

And what will readers want to see?  What aspects of the story are fun or novel?  What characters are entertaining?  They might be things that are already in your story.  Or there might be things that you decide to add because you know the readers will be wishing it was there.

And once you know the answers to these questions, you can structure the novel accordingly.

If there is something the reader will want to know, you might decide to hold off telling it to keep the reader hooked.

Similarly, if there is something you readers want to see you might hint that it will happen eventually to keep them turning the page.

Or alternatively, it might involve giving the people want they want.  I knew, from my own feelings and from the few people who read my book, that one minor character was compelling.  So I used that.  I included more scene’s with him.  I used him to get across information that the reader needed to know.  And I gave him a history with a character who comes up later in the book, so that when we met said character, we are already pre-disposed to care about him by association.

The secret is, you always want the reader wanting more.  If you give a tasty piece of info, or if you give the readers what they want, make sure there there is a question left hanging, or a new scene they are dying to see, to keep them hooked.

What scenes will excite your readers (and what about them make them work)?

The question “What scenes will excite your readers?” is helpful in two ways.  First it tells you where you have nailed it!  These are the scene’s that are worth keeping.  But secondly, it will help you work out how to make your other scenes better, or what scenes to add.  There is a type of magic in my novel that my husband loves, and every time we talk about my novel he demands I add more.  Knowing which scene’s work and why, can help you to give the readers more of what they want.

But then you have to look at what is not working.

What will the reader skim through?

My husband ‘read’ my first draft by listening to me read it aloud as he offered special comments along the way.  This was fun, occasionally painful, and a great learning experience.  If my husband insisted we kept going, I knew the scene was working.  But if he ended a scene by saying, “that’s enough for now, let’s read some more tomorrow”, it was almost guaranteed that the scene was dull.

And even without a guinea pig, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually work out which scene don’t work.

So what happens when you realise that a scene is the kind of scene a reader will skim through?  You then are faced with two options:

Scrap it

OR

Add drama and tension to the scene to make it engaging.

Some scene’s just need to be scrapped and that is okay.  A big part of structural editing is getting rid of dead-weight.  If a scene isn’t engaging, or doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t belong in the novel.  If there is something important that the reader needs to know, but it is otherwise a boring scene, either change up the scene so it engages, or add the info to another scene.

ACT II of the Librex started with a skim forward in time, and a navel gazing internal monologue from the protagonist about how much she had changed, and how she hadn’t.  It was (embarrassingly) terrible and I scrapped it.

But I was able to add in a scene where two characters (in the protagonist’s hearing), argued about whether she was ready for a particular promotion.  It was two characters we had never seen alone together, who had a complicated history and huge stakes in the protagonists path. It got across the same information as the navel gaze, but was now full of drama and tension.

Exposition Questions

Exposition is one of the banes of Fantasy writing.  You have created your own world, and so there is copious tomes of information to pass on to the reader, so they can understand the world and the story.  But no one picks up a fantasy book because they are dying to read an essay about imaginary fauna.  They pick it up for the story.

One struggle at the moment in my other novel is that that I have lots of information to get across about a particular crop (which is unique to my world and quite crucial to the story).  But not everyone (okay, almost no one) is interested in fabricated, fantasy agriculture by itself.

I was grappling with this when a member of my writing group gave me two helpful questions to ask when struggling with how to do exposition:

When will the reader be most excited to get this info?

And

How can I make the reader want to know this info?

I realised that the start of a novel was NOT the time for dumping info about my beloved grain.  Much better to give little information early (on a needs to know basis) and then to get more information across when it was relevant to the story, and the reader cares.

Or in The Librex, I had a character explain, before we meet a someone, that they did a terrible thing. But in my second draft, I took that scene out.  Now we met the character with a fresh slate.  We grew to like them.  So BANG, when I dropped the news of what they had done, we cared.  This news now had a significant emotional impact on the protagonists, and hopefully the reader.

So those are the questions that are helping me through my second draft.

What about other writers out there?  What questions help you edit your second draft?

 

My Year in Writing and the Lessons I am Learning

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August seems as good a time as any to take stock of the year so far and to think about what is ahead.  It has been a year of writing, editing, procrastinating, and life getting in the way.

But I have been learning many things through the process.

THE TRAP OF SOCIAL MEDIA

I love social media.  It feeds my extroverted heart in a stage of life where I am at home most of the day.  It connects me to many precious friends, and it is my main avenue for conversing with other writers.

But it is a great time drain.  What I noticed this year is the way I rely on it when I am struggling.  If I am feeling discouraged about my writing, or getting bored with editing, then I fall to social media for comfort and a break.  But it doesn’t help the problems, and so I go back to it over and over again.  I have taken to putting my phone on it’s charger and turning off the wifi on my computer.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still check SM regularly, but the act of having to get up, or turn wifi back on, makes me more conscious of how I am using it.

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO ASK WHILE RESTRUCTURING

Restructuring is a new skill that has not come easily to me. I made lots of mistakes as I edited my novels first Act, because I was too focused on fixing individual scenes and not enough on the big picture of what needed to happen when and why.  But working out the right questions to ask has made a big difference.

I will be writing a blog post about specific questions I ask when I edit, but the general questions of “What things would the reader care about at this point?” and “Which scene’s would the reader skim over or find dull?” helped me to work out what things needed to go and what scene’s could be added or re-tweaked to make it hum.

THE NEED FOR (ARTIFICIAL) DEADLINES

One of the hardest things about writing a novel when unpublished is there are no immediate dead-lines.  Unless there is a competition you are entering or an assignment you need to hand-in, you are the only person who cares when you get your novel done.  This means it is very easy to go slow, or to be side-tracked by other writing projects.

So I create artificial deadlines.

I have a on-line writing group where we have the option of submitting a scene for feedback once a month.  But even though it is optional, I make myself submit every month.  Not only do I find the feedback invaluable, but the deadline acts as wonderful motivation.  And once I have submitted my scene, I am in the habit of working hard, which sets the tone for the rest of the month.

Also, this year I watched lots of writing friends enter pitching competitions and attend Editor/Agent meet-ups with their completed manuscripts.  So, if that is my aim, then I work backwards to think about what I would need to do to get my novel complete by the same time next year.

These deadlines need to be short enough to motivate.  “Get my novel edited this year” didn’t motivate me in Feb to edit.  Deciding in April to get Act I edited by the end of May worked much better as a dead-line.

So, where am I up to with my writing?

The Librex

This is my baby, my first novel, everything that I love to read in other books condensed into a book of my own.  A friend said to me yesterday “You’ve finished your first novel, does that mean you are editing?”  The answer was yes and no.  I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote the first draft of The Librex, and so it is not so much editing as a complete restructure/re-write.  I have finished the restructure of Act I and have just finished plotting out Act II.  My goals are to have Act II finished by the end of September, Act III finished by the End of December, and to clean it up and make it sparkle over January, ready to give to some beta readers for feedback.

Savey & Mason

Savey & Mason is my Fantasy/Romance.  It is based on a dream I had many years ago, a vivid scene filled with intense emotion and interesting magic.  The next day I had to sit down and work out a world and story in which that dream ‘scene’ could fit.  I put it away while I finished The Librex first draft, but began to turn it into a novel during the Fantasy writing course I did last year.  I am getting closer to finishing the first draft, and am giving scenes to my writing group for their feedback.  Hoping to get the first draft done by the end of December, so I can edit it up while The Librex is off in feedback-land.

AJ

One of my biggest challenges in editing is sticking to task and not getting side-tracked by new, shiny stories.  AJ is my new, shiny story that I am doing my best not to write. I am consoling myself by knowing I will devote November’s Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) to working on it.  I am hoping this will be the year where I finally succeed in writing 50,000 words in a month.

So that is my year so far. Fellow writers out there, how has your year been tracking?  What new things have you learnt?

2017 Writing Lessons- The Power of Distance

It says something about the start of 2018 that I am only just getting around to this post.  Blogging has once again dropped down my list of priorities, as I navigate life with 4 kids and settle my boys into a new kinder year.  But I am keen to blog, and I thought the best way to start the year was to give you a picture of how my writing life has been tracking.

2016 ended with the excitement of knowing that I had actually finished something.  A full first draft of “The Librex”; my first novel.  There were no such exciting milestone’s last year. Yet 2017 was probably one of the most significant years in my writing life.  I decided to take a little break from my work-in-progress (WIP) to work on other projects.  I though it would be prudent to do some more formal learning, so I enrolled in an on-line Fantasy writing course.

The lessons that I learnt last year will be crucial tools in the years to come.

One of those lessons was the power of distance.

One of the most repeated suggestions for editing a first draft is that you need to have a break from it to get some perspective.  That distance can help you to see it in a realistic light.  But having just finished my first ever novel draft I was itching to work on it, to make it better, to bring it closer to the stage where I might actually be able to get it published.  But I made myself promise to leave it alone for three months, while my sister and husband read through it and gave me their feedback.

That three months became six months because my husband was still finishing off his feedback.

Then six months became almost a year because editing is soul-crushing and writing from scratch is much more fun.

But as 2018 begins, I am beginning to edit.  And I am amazed at how helpful a bit of distance has been in how I edit my novel.  I am willing to scrap. I am willing to change. I have the gained the ability to read my work almost as if it wasn’t me who wrote it.

A year ago, changing the name of a character seemed impossible because I-love-that-name-I-picked-it-because-of-XYZ-He-Just-Couldn’t-Be-Called-Anything-Else.  Now I am willing to cut characters, scenes and events, because I am more committed to what the book can be, than to what I originally wrote.

Though changing the name of that character is still heart-breaking!

I may not always have the time or opportunity to get a years break from a writing project.  But I’ve found a little distance is a great gift to the editing process.

The first fear hurdle

Dreams are delightful.  They start when you are young.  For me it was always the dream to be a famous author.  When I realised I didn’t have the face for TV/Movies, or the voice for singing, I was left with writing.  But don’t misunderstand me, it was not the poor cousin!  Writing was the best of the lot.  Books were magical. They transported you into a new persons head and let you live out their interesting/scary/powerful/exciting lives.  The idea that I could make such a power object was a rather delightful fantasy, even as a small child.

And dreams are a lovely distraction.  Walking along my leafy street, pushing a heavy pram filled with heavy children, it is wonderful to dream of a possible future time where people might want to read my books.  Of book-signings and fans and travel and money.  And even knowing the reality that at least number 4 is unlikely to happen, it is still delightful to dream.

And the beautiful thing about writing a novel is, that for most of its creation there is no one to question your dream.  There is no objective voice saying “I’m not sure you are really capable of this task.”

And then you finish.

On the 1st of Jan this year, I stood by the desk at Officeworks, chatting with a friendly shop assistant about why I wanted two bound, identical copies of my 400 page document.

“I wrote a novel.”

“Oh, really, I want to read it.”  She grins and turns to the screen between us

“No, don’t.  I’m embarrassed.  It’s only a first draft” I splutter, throwing up my hands to block my words.  She frowns and nods, and then begins to interrogate me about how one goes about getting such a thing published.

I answer, the awkwardness of the exchange fading.  But it hit me then what it meant to be finished.  Suddenly my novel wasn’t just my novel, and my dreams weren’t just a fun distraction from the ordinariness of life.  My novel and my dreams were going to be tested.

I have taken the first step of that testing, passing those 400 pages on to my sister and my husband.  And as much as I love them and they love me, it was a terrifying step.  There has been helpful and painful feedback, in fact some of the most helpful feedback has been encased in some painful truths.  But this is only the beginning.  Not just for my novel but for the short stories that I am currently writing.  They will be sent out to magazines, and according to every authors biography that I have ever read, they will be rejected.  And people who have no interest or investment in my dreams will read my novel and decide that it is “not a good fit” or worse, “not of a publishable quality.”

There is a great deal of fear that I must push to through if I am ever going to get my novel published.

One hurdle down.  Many, many more to go.

Welcome to my new blog.  This blog will be a reflection on writing, some reviews and reflections on books and television, and bits of everyday life as well. Thanks for reading 🙂