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We’ve all heard it, said it. First draft crap. You can’t revise what you haven’t written. Sound advice. But is it always helpful?

Characters can wobble a little. Grammar can gag on itself. Purple prose can wax poetic. Adverbs can abound. The first draft does not, indeed, have to be perfect. I believe that is what the above advice is talking about. What it doesn’t mean is: write anything as long as there are words that start with Once Upon A Time and finish with The End. As an editor, I’ve seen the result of this in too many manuscripts to believe it’s not a case of good advice gone bad.

Handwavery—it is a death knell for manuscripts. It might get the story done, but it doesn’t get the story done right. What is handwavery? Plotholes. Characters who wibble whichever way a particular scene needs them to wobble. Threads that drop off, or appear out of nowhere. A little of this in first draft is a natural part of the process. A lot leaves many writers in holes too deep to climb out of. Some writers will never realize they’ve actually handwaved at all (stage 1.) Others will know the plot isn’t working, but have no idea how to fix it (stage 2.) Either way this results in a trunked manuscript. Finished! But trunked. Because handwavery doesn’t make for a publishable novel, or even an enjoyable one.

The above advice really isn’t for those who won’t see, or will see and not know what to do about it and they, unfortunately, are most often the ones who misinterpret what first draft crap actually means. The advice is aimed at the writers who will see and know and rewrite accordingly (stage 3,) or those who either know how to avoid handwavery or use it to their advantage (stage 4.)  

We can, and often do, bog down in revising as a form of catwaxing no matter what stage we are in as writers. Perfecting the words that make up a scene that might end up cut completely is a waste of time. Getting the details right is not. Leaving pivotal gaps in the hopes that they will right themselves in revision, or altering a character’s character to a fit a scene instead of making the scene work to the character might save you the hair-pulling now, but it’s going to bite you in the ass in a big way once there are so many holes, often contradicting one another, after you’ve typed The End.

So what do you do? How do you learn? How much revision is too much? Too little? Everyone’s process is going to be different; I’ll share the one I’ve found that really helped me learn to realize, then to see, and finally, to avoid:

Print up daily pages and set them aside. Before you move on the next time you sit to write, line-edit those pages.

WHAT? Line-edit first draft?

Yes. Once. It gives a head start into the writing session. It reminds us of where our story has been, who it has been with, and why. As we line edit away the snatches of purple prose or clip the LY off an adverb, the repetition allows writers in stages 1 and 2 the opportunity to begin to recognize, and eventually, how to fix the sort of handwavery that can trunk a novel. For those in stage 3 and 4, it allows the writer to catch the handwavery before it gets out of control.

I write several hours every day, but some writers only get an hour here or there. Sometimes there can be days, even weeks between writing sessions. Refreshing our memories of what has already happened, how a character reacts to this or that, of a piece of a thread we mean to pull through the manuscript will go a long way to keeping focus. And—yes, yes—line editing gives that need to polish a little leeway. Got to throw ourselves a bone once in a while, eh?


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 3rd, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
WHAT? Line-edit first draft?

Absolutely, YES! I always read through the previous days work. It may not be 100% thorough but I do believe it is an essential part of my process.

Process: n. progress, course. A series of actions or steps; changes, or functions bringing about a result and achieving an end.

The clue's in the definition.

I particularly like your mention of how some writers fail to ask how a character would react in a given situation rather than allowing them to act in manner that makes no sense. We have to adjust out reactions to challenges in real life - why would it be any different for our characters?
Oct. 3rd, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
Yup, characters have to adjust to circumstances just like we do. What bothers me is when I see a character who has been timid and shy and oh-so-cooperative suddenly and with no evolution, underlying hint or reason whatsoever become a dominatrix for the simple reason that the author decided a dominatrix was needed for a scene.

There is a reason for a character to flip-flop IF that is the character of the character! But not if it's a convenient way to put her in a scene she shouldn't be in.

BTW--you wrote OUT for OUR. Another way we are psychic sisters. I do the same thing almost every time I want our.
(no subject) - readthisandweep - Oct. 4th, 2012 07:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 4th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - readthisandweep - Oct. 4th, 2012 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 3rd, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
Great post! I really like the 'line editing once' advice. I find it helps get my head in the game, like a pre-writing warm up.

Thanks for sharing :)
Oct. 3rd, 2012 08:09 pm (UTC)
If you'll pardon my naughtiness, it's like that old joke about boys and peeing--shake it once, fine. Shake it more than once and it's masturbating.

(Deleted comment)
Oct. 4th, 2012 12:03 am (UTC)
Your post the other day actually sparked this post. YOU can write first draft crap without fearing the consequences--but so many of the manuscripts I get prove that many can NOT. So--thanks! :)
Oct. 4th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)
Awesome advice, I did this with my current MS with the writing and the translation. It not only help with plot or character development it helps also with voice, so the voice of the narrative doesn't change.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's very helpful in keeping all things consistent.
Oct. 4th, 2012 03:55 am (UTC)
Oh yes: as one of those writers who doesn't get daily multiple-hour opportunities to write, I definitely agree that you need to spend some time rereading to catch yourself up with what you're doing (and, in doing that, I often find things to edit or change).
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:45 pm (UTC)
I haven't worked on TSOW in over a week, so I'll probably go back and re-read the last several chapters, just to keep up to speed. It's hard keeping all the detail consistent!
Oct. 4th, 2012 07:27 am (UTC)
As an academic historical researcher and writer, so nonfic, I tend to have 'straight through syndrome' in that I want to complete a piece before editing and proofing, but it certainly means that editing and proofing takes longer which can be an issue when working to deadlines
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:52 pm (UTC)
I imagine the process is much different with non-fic. I've never actually written any. Books? Or schoalary articles? Or does it not matter?

For short stories, though I seldom write them, if I don't finish the thing in one fell swoop, it never gets finished. Those will get a straight through draft before I ever edit.
(no subject) - cmcmck - Oct. 4th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 4th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cmcmck - Oct. 4th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 4th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cmcmck - Oct. 4th, 2012 03:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 4th, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cmcmck - Oct. 4th, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2012 07:55 am (UTC)
Great post - made me laugh a lot!

I always read the previous chapter at the beginning of a writing session, editing as I go, as it helps get me to climb back into the story. Also, I find that I can't make forward progress if I know there's something wonky in what has gone before.

I think the trick is in finding the right balance between editing what has gone before, in the interests of catching the cat-waxing (lol! and handwavery - also lol!), and in getting so bogged down in the ms, especially at first draft stage, that you end up completely stultifying and never make forward progress. I usually know where I've been lazy and fudged things, and the perfectionist in me pokes at me until I fix it!

I'm at something like 9th draft with SeaNovel now, and I know I'll need to do at least one more pass before it's ready to be beta read. I'm currently making a list of things to check in the next pass, like plot points that I need to make sure are seeded, so I don't get bogged down in the rewriting pass I'm currently involved in.
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:54 pm (UTC)
As in all things, balance. Sometimes a novel NEEDS nine or ten drafts--or more! I, personally, never hand anything over to betas until they've gone through a minimum of four drafts. It's usually five. And then another one or two before my editor ever sees it!
(no subject) - jennygordon - Oct. 5th, 2012 07:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 5th, 2012 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 4th, 2012 09:16 am (UTC)
Stage (2b Writers who know it's not working at a subconscious level, but won't admit it to themselves...
Oct. 4th, 2012 01:43 pm (UTC)
That would be stage 2, yup. And sometimes, they admit it but just don't know quite how to SEE what it is, or how to fix it.
Oct. 4th, 2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
Great advice. Thank you.
Oct. 5th, 2012 12:35 am (UTC)
I've done this for years now and I always thought I was crazy, lol. Glad to see I'm not the only one!

Thanks for the great post! :D
Oct. 5th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading! :)
Oct. 5th, 2012 02:45 pm (UTC)
Interesting posts about writing – w/e October 5th 2012
User jongibbs referenced to your post from Interesting posts about writing – w/e October 5th 2012 saying: [...] (Natalie Whipple) Writing, revising, and how handwavery kills manuscripts [...]
Oct. 10th, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
i'm totally one of those "an hour here or there" types - this is wonderful advice - very good to keep the juices and momentum going - i love it =D
Oct. 11th, 2012 12:43 am (UTC)
So glad you found it useful. :)
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )