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?