Monday 23 July 2012

After The First Draft: Part 1

A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 1: Avoiding the Accordion.

Once you have a complete first draft it isn’t always clear what to do next.

By a complete first draft I mean where you have a beginning, middle and end with no place markers you intend to fill in later. It may need a lot of work and even wholesale changes, but there are no gaps in the sequence of scenes.

At this point there will be some obvious technical changes you need to make. Clarify, cut, develop etc. but generally the story is there.

So you have this thing. Now what?

If you try to look at it as a whole, it can be confusing. Does it flow? Does interest build? Will people care about the character? These sorts of questions are too big to handle, especially in an early draft when the foundations are still settling. But one of the things you can look at is making sure the good bits are in the right place.

When you start a story, it’s very tempting to overload the opening few chapters with introductions, explanations and questions you hope the reader will find intriguing.

It is also common to find yourself with an ending where all your story threads collide and you have ten thousand answers in ten pages in order to tie up all the loose ends.

This bunching up of stuff can give the story an accordion shape, with a saggy middle. You may even be fretting about how to make the middle section more interesting when everything you need is there, just squeezed up at either end.

But again, looking at the story as a whole is tricky. If you have an excellent memory you may be able to do it, personally I don’t. I find it helpful to make a reverse-outline. This is where I finish the draft and then make a short outline from it. Even if you wrote the draft from an outline in the first place, this can be useful as things can change as you write.

Using this brief summary of the major action in each chapter, I can see where things happen, and where they don’t. I may even use a little colour coding.

The thing is, a lot of the stuff you feel is necessary for the reader to know up front, isn’t. It can be moved further along into the narrative.

If the character is doing something self-evident (an assassin lining up a shot, a girl’s first day at school, someone parachuting out of a plane) then the specific reason they are undertaking those actions isn’t necessary for the reader to be able to follow the story.

That doesn’t mean you should be vague. It’s important the reader can tell what the character is doing, even if they don’t know exactly why. 

If my assassin lining up his shot is written in such a way he could be putting a camera on a tripod or building a model airplane, that won’t make the scene more intriguing, it’ll make it more confusing. But detailing who hired him, how much they paid him and who the target is and why he needs to die isn’t going to add any tension to him trying to get a clear shot past the guy’s bodyguards, wife and children.

Endings, on the other hand, can feel like you need to wait and wait and wait and then reveal everything with a big flourish. But some answers can be revealed halfway through the story. And if they can, they should.

Learning some answers earlier can change the dynamic, giving the story momentum and make it feel like the character is getting somewhere. And it can fill in the middle with more than people wandering around collecting ever more questions.

And the way to see if things can be moved around isn’t to think it over and decide in your head, it’s to do it. It’s always going to feel like you can’t. Until you do. 

Even if it’s just in the outline, putting down he finds out he has a twin brother in Ch. 12 instead of Ch.42 will generate all sorts of ideas. 

Might work, might not. But if you play around with the structure, eventually you will make improvements to the flow and the story will start to feel more cohesive and have a better rhythm.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.
I'll be cutting back to one post a week over the Summer. Next post in this series will appear on Monday.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm finishing up the first draft of CassaStorm right now and safe to say the ending isn't tying up all the loose ends. I did conclude quite a few things along the way. Had to - this one has the most subplots I've ever dealt with! But I'm sure I'll find issues when I go through the second time.

mooderino said...

@Alex-Having lots of answers to give out is a good thing, just not all at the same time.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I pick on saggy middle so much that I think you are prejudiced against fat people.

mooderino said...

@Mike-we always hurt the ones we love.

Cindy said...

I tend to use a lot of conflict to keep the middle from sagging, but then controlling all of it can be like juggling. Novel writing isn't easy, but it's supposed to read like it was easy.

Elise Fallson said...

This is exactly where I'm at right now. I've got my first draft and am going through edits and know I'm going to have to seriously cut my word count which is a smidgen over 100k. I've been able to avoid the dreaded outline up until now, but I'm afraid I'm not going to have much of a choice at this stage in the game.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Great advice and examples Mood. And you are so right about sagging middles. IT is SOO important to keep the reader excited and interested in the middle. A great story can lose its steam in the middle if the author doesn't pace the story right.

Like Cindy said, "It's a juggling act," Just remember not to drop your balls. LOL.

mooderino said...

@Cindy-it's not just about making the middle interesting, it's also making sure about finding a rhythm. If a hundred things happen at the start, one thing happens in the middle, and a hundred things happen at the end, it will feel off-kilter.

@Elise-learn to love the outline, that's my advice.

@Michael-juggling balls is something we all need to familiarise ourselves with. I have years of practice.

Claudia Zurc said...

Love it! Avoiding the accordion, nice analogy.
It's so easy to overlook or overwork the middle part of your MS. That's why I've learned to take breaks. ;)

mooderino said...


Unknown said...

I love the analogy! This post is so good for me. I have a first draft I'm almost ready to start revising, only of course I had no idea where to start. Now I have a starting point. Thanks!

Jason Runnels said...

Always thought provoking and helpful tips!

mooderino said...

@Imogen-you're welcome.


Lydia Kang said...

Well said, Moody! The saggy middle is only one problem, it's really the saggy connectors.

cleemckenzie said...

Reversing the outline process is excellent. Get the creative flow down, then structure the beast. I love it!

mooderino said...

@Lydia-good thing you're a doctor or that would sound quite rude.

@clee-I find it helpful to tame the beast.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Story structure is so important to get right.
Great post!

mooderino said...

@Lynda-and the earlier the better.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you! I have been sitting on a first draft for 7 months and have not figured out how to approach editing it. Great tips.

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