Editing and Publishing: Editing Your First Draft.Congratulations! Through blood, sweat, and tears, you’ve completed your first novel. Now it’s time to tackle that first draft. What do you look for?
Your first draft likely sucks. Seriously. I’m not saying this to slam you, I’m saying it because no matter who you are or how many books you’ve written, it’s probably true.
Finishing your first draft doesn’t mean you’re done. If you’re a skilled and experienced writer with many published novels under your belt, you might have only two drafts to go. If this is your first novel, you might have ten, or more, to go. So what do you look for?
Beyond typos, spelling errors, and errors in grammar, usage, and punctuation—which I guarantee you’ll have, and you should look for all the time with each new pass—you’ll want to look for problems with continuity, flow, consistency, and language.
Time continuity is a big thing you’ll check. For the fourth Passionate Pantheon novel, Eunice and I tried something new: we wrote a nonlinear storyline from three characters’ perspectives. The various chapters don’t take place in linear time; the timeline skips around.
We made a chart, an actual literal chart, that showed the important events of the story linearly, so we could graph the perspective of the three POV characters against it and make sure everything lined up properly, since there are key events witnessed/attended by two or more of the protagonists (and we see those events from different points of view).
And yet, even with this chart, the first draft had a continuity error, with one of the characters (Royat) in two places at the same time. You had to read the book twice and really be paying attention to catch it, but it was there, and we fixed it.
Keep your characters straight This exact same kind of chart can help you with a novel where you jump from character to character. It’s surprisingly easy to screw things up like having a character in two places at the same time, or having two characters whose timelines don’t match. A chart can really help you not get these details wrong.
In Black Iron, we taped a long strip of butcher paper to the floor, drew a literal timeline on it in Sharpie markers of the last 36 hours of the story, and plotted where all the characters were hour by hour, since that novel had a lot of moving parts. There’s a scene where one group of characters sets off down a road from one city to another, and then later in the book, a second group of characters sets off from the second city to the first. We realized after we made the chart those two groups would have to encounter each other on the road; the timing was such there was no way they couldn’t. So, they did; that encounter is in the book.
In the cyberpunk novel Eunice and I wrote together, quite a lot changed between first and second drafts. We realized when we re-read the first draft there was a pacing problem in the first act, which required adding a new chapter to fix. We also realized an important piece of information was conveyed between two characters twice, once in the second act and again in the third act, so we consolidated those two scenes into the second act.
So yeah. Timing errors, pacing problems, continuity problems, background cohesion (it starts out spring and a month later it’s winter, one character describes a vicious storm in one scene where another character a hundred pages later describes the same city on the same day as sunny and calm), basic structural cohesion, basic timeline cohesion (there’s a really bad error in one of the Terminator movies—Terminator 3, I think?—where it jumps from early morning to mid-afternoon in about half an hour).