So, I just finished a read-through of the first draft of “The King’s Sons,” the final installment in my Herezoth trilogy. As an independently published author, that initial read-through after finishing up a draft and letting the story “bake” for some amount of time is really critical. It’s the stop between composing a first draft and editing.
I always try my best not to stop and edit too much during that read-through, but rather to get through the text as quickly as possible, to get an overview of how the novel fits together scene by scene. That means, you have to take NOTES (as says Stephen King in “On Writing.” BEST WRITER’S HANDBOOK I have ever come across.)
That begs the question: WHAT to note? Here are some tips based on my first-hand experience dealing with this topic.
- CONSISTENCY CHECKS. This is something character sheets and written descriptions of settings really help with. HMMM… The floor of the Palace library, is it really marble? Did I call it wood elsewhere? And how many stories is the library really? Did I describe Jane Trand as hefty or the opposite? While composing a first draft–especially if, like me, you don’t use an outline and you don’t know ahead of time when a new, important character might arise–it is vital to check these things.
- INFORMATION DUMPS. I, at least, have a tendency in first drafts to expose too much information all at once. My fabulous first reader Greg likes to call this “information dumping.” That becomes boring, and with so much to keep track off, readers can get lost. It’s good to note, during a read-through, where those sections are with a lot of exposition. Maybe some of that info can be moved elsewhere.
- ANOTHER SCENE NEEDED. First, a disclaimer: a good edit ALWAYS involves more deletions than additions. That said, with the way I use the writing process, I sometimes don’t realize in the first draft a scene is necessary, because I’m not clear yet where the final product will end up. On a read-through, knowing how things close, it’s often fun to realize I can go back and add an important reference or even a whole scene to make what happens later mesh with the rest of the story better. Cohesion matters.
- AWKWARD WORDING/CLARITY NEEDED. This is often the most tempting thing to edit on the spot, because it’s usually a pretty quick fix. However, it’s best to just mark that something can be worded better. Maybe a peasant character is speaking like he’s educated. Maybe you realize the princess wouldn’t necessarily use that phrasing. Maybe a background description is just too convoluted. It tied you up as you read it. Mark it and move on.
- HE DOESN’T KNOW THAT YET! I have a bad tendency in first drafts to not realize that a certain character, say, hasn’t yet heard that the girl he’s talking to will be apprenticing as an architect and then make him reference her apprenticeship. Oops! Make a note and fix later (by deleting the offending reference, if possible. Remember, you should cut before you add.)
- NOT CLEAR WHY SHE’S DOING THIS…. Unless it’s SUPPOSED to be unclear why a character acts a certain way at a given moment (to be explained later), your readers should understand why your characters do what they do. If you find yourself wondering, “Why doesn’t she do this instead?” or “That would be smarter, wouldn’t it?” you need to explain why the “smarter” choice isn’t an option, or at least why your character passes it over. Your characters don’t have to be perfect or do the smartest thing. But their actions need to make sense FOR THEM.