Something magical happens when I send a draft to a beta reader. I’m not talking about the feedback I will receive once the beta reader has read it, or how useful it can be to let the text rest for a while before going over it again – I mean the very instant that mail is sent or that envelope is posted. It’s like waving a wand and abracadabra: New eyes! Typos pop up from the text like mutated gophers. Purple prose wash onto a beach of shame like so much flotsam and jetsam. Paper doll characters bloat and explode upon the page – setting themselves up for execution or refurbishing. Stilted dialog sticks out like thorns, and logical flaws make themselves known in deafening roars.
It’s hard to explain, but knowing that your words are being read by others makes a difference in how you read them yourself. I’m not saying that I’ll spot every little flaw myself before the wizards get a chance to point them out, but the knowledge of those eyes makes a remarkable difference.
An Obelus Wheeze is in its third round of being read by new eyes – the final round before I make the finishing touches and send it off to proofreading. Each round is different and serves a purpose in the editing process.
- Round one: I send the first draft to a trusted friend who is also a writer. I almost feel sorry for her for doing this – the first draft is the text in a fetus stage, not something that is ready for the world. But because of the magic of beta readers it serves its purpose, and I am grateful for early feedback if there should be any major plot holes to see about.
- Round two: A revised draft is sent to another trusted friend who has an eye like a magnifying glass. It is almost annoying how good she is at pointing out anything awry – from characters acting out of character to displaced descriptions of nature. She makes me feel dumb as shit, and I love her for it.
- Round three: After implementing changes based on feedback from round two, I send the text to a bigger selection of beta readers – six people (this time), to be precise. At this stage, I pretty much consider the book done, what is left to do is merely minor tweaks – or so I hope. I will, of course, take any feedback to heart, but what I’m crossing my fingers for are thumb ups and hell yeahs.
I find that editing a book is a fluid process that takes its own sweet time. I spend more than twice the amount of time editing the text than I do writing the first draft. I don’t have a count on how many times I go over the text – in the end there are far more drafts behind the final result than the ones the beta readers get to read. And in the end the book would not have been the same without the wizards.
I’m currently editing my second novel: An Obelus Wheeze, the follow-up to Embers at Dawn. Before I started editing An Obelus Wheeze I completed Embers at Dawn, and then jotted down the first draft for the third book in the series The 9 Lives of the Outlaw known as Crazy Cat. I find that this method works well for me (write a draft, and then edit the forerunner). It gives me distance to what I have previously written before starting the process of editing.
Writing a first draft and editing are two very different kinds of beasts. I have realized that there is no point in even trying to write a perfect first draft – I tried it with Embers at Dawn about four years ago – it just ain’t gonna happen.
The first draft is the story in a hairball form, coughed into words by a rambling author. You will commit logical flaws, unsavoury purple prose and less than cohesive sentences. Your characters will be rag-dolls failing at the seams and with too little stuffing, exchanging halting dialogues and performing a series of mundane tasks in between the actual story (that you will later edit out). But that’s fine. That’s exactly what a first draft should be: a rabid, bastard of a beast.
It took me two first drafts of novels before I figured out that a first draft is just that: a first draft. The important thing is to get the story down. The polishing comes later. What I found out after drafting the second book, and then returning to the first book to edit it was:
- My writing had improved
- I had somewhere along the way found “my voice”
- I had gotten to truly know my characters (the only way to truly get to know them is spending time with them)
- I had made absurd flaws in the story that I didn’t notice while writing
- I had made absurd flaws that I didn’t notice until someone else pointed them out to me
- It doesn’t matter if I write by hand, type on my computer or tap it into my iPad – the words and story will be the same
- It doesn’t matter if I’m at home, on the bus, or on a lunch break. I don’t need a room of my own to write… sort of speak
I have also learned that:
- Wordcount is a curse. Trying to fill whatever metre you’ve set yourself will only result in a whole lot of mundane noise – that you’ll banish during the editing process anyway
- There is no point in commencing the editing process as soon as you’ve completed the first draft – you’ll be blind to the text and wrongly think that the rabid beast is not in need of medical attention
- Paper is king. Red pen is the mighty queen. Get the beast out of the computer and let it breathe – it is so much easier to spot sore paws and the bubblegum stuck in its fur that way
A friend of mine recently finished the first draft of her debut novel. I told her time and time again to quit fiddling with the first few chapters – to get on with the damn story – but of course she didn’t listen. I wouldn’t have listened to me neither, but this is what she wrote on Twitter after finally completing the first draft: “Rewriting is so exciting! If I’d known how much it’d change and how much it would improve, I’d have jotted down the draft sooner!”
I guess that that very first of first drafts is something every author has to face alone and come out of it facepalming herself just like every other noob before her. Seems like none of that “just get it done” business makes any sense until you’ve started editing the damn thing.
What I’m trying to say here is that the first draft is a feral mongrel, as well it should be. Spawning that beast will not teach you how to write, teaching it to sit and not shit on the floor will, or in other words: editing will transform that wild puppy into a (hopefully) nicely groomed champion.