On Writing #13: Momentum and Focus — And a Trick to Keep Novels On Track

Finishing the rough draft of a novel is all about momentum and focus. It’s about not giving up halfway through, not giving into the temptation to go write something else when you’re almost done.

Novels are big. You have a long way to go until the end, and chances are things won’t be perfect after the first pass (there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — a famed “first draft” novel — actually went through several revisions before publication, and I have sneaking suspicion this happens to all of them).

Basically, don’t worry about making your novel perfect the first time through. It’s probably not going to happen. The key is to keep slogging on. Don’t let your momentum wane or you might get stuck. Don’t give into temptation and go write a different book or you will (most likely) never come back to this one.

I hear you ask, dear reader: But how? How do you keep going when there is so much still broken?

I use three relatively common techniques (and while I have not sold a novel yet, I have, at least, finished several, and gotten a full in front of an agent).

A) I revise the previous session’s work before starting new words. This is probably the most common technique out there, and it works for many of us (everyone is different, of course). I simply re-read and edit-as-I-go all the words I wrote last time. It gets me into the voice again, and into the flow, and it helps keep the total number of continuity errors down.

B) I keep a “Fix Later” list. Sometimes there are really big changes — changing the sex of a central character, inserting a character/theme you’ve just invented throughout the rest of the story, or maybe I’m worried that someone’s pistol is anachronistic or changing brands — edits that would require some research or maybe even days of work to fix. In these situations, I usually just jot down a few notes about what I think is wrong on my “Fix Later” list. Then I put it out of my head and pretend it’s already done. It’s kind of like Wile E. Coyote running on air, and it’s probably the most important technique I learned to actually finish a novel.

C) I fix the ones that give m nightmares. Sometimes B) is not enough. Sometimes your brain starts to feel out of balance and can’t “pretend” anymore that all the edits have been made. In these few situations, I go back and make the edits that are bugging me ASAP. Best practice is to keep these times to a minimum, less the momentum of your novel die.

My current novel editing process:

1) When the “very rough” draft is done — meaning that I have have finished writing the last chapter — I work through all my “Fix Later” list. This takes a while. As I go, I find more scenes that I don’t like and places where I’m missing info. I make a list of these too. Then I fix them. Once all these basic edits are done, I have a first draft.

You say: A first draft! You must be done, right?
No.
You must be ready for beta readers?
No.
What do you do with a first draft then?
Well, the primary rules is — I don’t show it to anyone. It’s only a first draft, and not even really that. It’s the first take of the first draft.

2) Now I search the first draft for overused phrases, -ly words, etc, and make sure I need them. If I HAVE to have them, I leave them. Otherwise they end up dead on the floor. I now have the first draft, second take.
So you’re done, right? Beta reader time?
No.

3) I now read the whole first draft to myself, ALOUD. Reading aloud really helps me catch rhythm mistakes, missing words, awkward phrasing, and (unintended) grammatical errors.

I also usually can see the major clunky bits of scenes, and I end up either adding description or taking away stuff I don’t need. Lots of scenes get rewritten from the ground up.

Once this is done, I have a second draft. And before you ask, no it’s not done.

4) Now I read the second draft aloud to my wife (or other willing victim, though I have yet to find one). The performance of the piece makes me note where things still don’t move smoothly. Also, she will catch flaws as well. When this is done, I have the third draft.
Ahh, beta readers now?, I hear you ask.
Yes. Now you’re right.

5) This third draft goes to beta readers. After I incorporate feedback from them, I have a fourth draft and (hopefully) a submittable novel.

But if you’re hoping this is the end of the story, let me burst your bubble right here: I haven’t sold a novel yet, but I’ve heard that this is just the beginning of edits. The agent may request changes, then the editor at the publisher, then there are page proofs, galleys, etc.

My advice: Write a novel you love, or you may end up sick of it.

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