This is the fourth in a series of every-other-week blogs about my writing process. Once I have a completed first draft it’s time to go back through and see if the book makes sense. Because of the scope of the task of writing a novel, inevitably I will forget about things as I progress through a draft. I will find that I have started plot threads that I never completed, introduced inconsistencies, and often written long passages that, helpful though they may have been to me at the time, are not really contributing to the book.
The key question in the first revision is: What is the story that I am trying to tell? Once I have figured that out, it is much easier to decide if a particular passage is pulling its weight. Is it, in fact, helping to tell that story? Usually I can tell right away if a passage needs to be there or if it was just me exploring characters. Most often the passages I do cut come fairly early in the manuscript.
While I like to compose at the computer, I like to edit and revise with a hard copy of the manuscript in my hand, so I generally print out a copy and plop down with a good old-fashioned red pen. I know we are told that we shouldn’t grade students’ papers with red pens anymore—I guess it’s not good for their self-confidence. But my eyes are getting old and I need ink on the paper that I will see.
Not only do I excise passages at this point, I often have to add some in as well, when I discover something that isn’t clear, makes no sense, or is flat out missing. So, my edited manuscript often includes paragraphs scrawled on the back of the page or extra sheets of paper inserted with new material.
I call this step the first revision, but in fact I may go through the manuscript several times at this point. Usually I do at least two passes before continuing on to the next step. In the case of The Bookman’s Tale, this part of the process took several years, as I would pull it out of the metaphorical drawer every few months, do a rewrite, and send it off to a new batch of agents who would politely decline to represent it. Once I feel like the book makes sense and I have solved all the major problems, it’s time for the next step. It doesn’t take long, but it’s not easy.