Completing a first draft is a key milestone in the long process of writing a novel. Although it is most definitely not the end of the process, it certainly is the culmination of a considerable amount of research, planning and writing. In a slow literary alchemy, dozens, hundreds of scribbled notes, fragments of descriptions and segments of dialogue have been transformed into a (more or less) coherent narrative. The journey is not yet complete, but I think it is important to take a moment to reflect that reaching the end of a first draft is an achievement in itself, and a crucial staging post on the road to the final destination – a completed and published novel.
I have discussed in a previous blog post my process for writing a first draft and have recently finished the first draft of my latest novel, a dystopian SF story called Second Sun. It has been an enjoyable, if testing, draft to write – the research / planning took longer than expected, and the setting proved to be more complex than I had initially expected. However, this is, for me, one of the chief joys of writing a novel – the opportunity to learn new things; for example, as part of the research I have delved into subjects as diverse as the poetry and art of William Blake, the history of the Avebury stone circle, and 1970s space rock. I was also lucky enough to visit the sublime Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum, which both helped to inspire my writing and shape some of the themes of the book. I believe learning derived through research is valuable not only for writing, but for life in general, and I welcome the chance to explore subjects I otherwise would perhaps miss.
So, once the first draft is completed, what is the next step? Well, lots of reflection and lots of revision. At this point, you need to step back and look at your first draft with a fresh pair of eyes to understand the weaknesses and (hopefully!) strengths of your work. It can be a dispiriting experience – I always find the quality of my writing and storytelling is much lower than I expected; I stumble across glaring inconsistencies, there are pacing issues, needless repetition, and a myriad of other problems. It is easy, and understandable, to feel at this point like giving up, or starting again from scratch. The important thing I always try to remember is that it is a first draft – no one else needs to read it, there is a lot more work to do and the final published version will be much, much stronger.
Even putting aside the quality of the writing, I always find my first draft is different, sometimes very different, from the idea of the book I had in my mind’s eye. Unexpected themes emerge, and characters who I originally perceived as relatively minor players develop into leading roles; this is certainly true as I begin to read back the first draft of Second Sun. For example, one character, a former soldier named Jael, was, in my original plan, only in the story for a short time – however, the more I wrote about Jael, the more I found her an interesting, challenging character with strong potential for a rich and resonant back story, and a good counterpoint to the main character. I like writing Jael, I think I found her voice quite quickly, and the more deeply she is involved with the narrative, the better the story becomes.
In this way, reading back and revising your first draft becomes something of a journey of discovery, both revising familiar, expected components of the story, and finding new, unexpected elements. As I begin to work on the next draft of Second Sun, I know I will add new ideas, and remove and reshape existing ones – this will continue both throughout all future drafts too. There is lots more work to come, but in the months ahead I look forward to gradually developing my somewhat messy first draft into a final book that I hope readers enjoy.
How do you feel when you've just completed a first draft of a story? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for free, from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBooks or Smashwords.
So you’ve finished your book – you’ve read through the manuscript line by line, word by word. You’ve found and corrected every typo, your grammar is flawless…until the very first reader picks up the book and finds an error!
Even the most diligent, most grammar savvy author cannot spot every mistake in his or her own manuscript. And this is why employing the services of a professional editor / proofreader is a must for your book.
Helen Baggott is an accredited proofreader and copy-editor, and a partner member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors). Helen offers a range of professional services including editing, proofreading and self-publishing advice. Helen has worked on all four of my novels, and I strongly endorse her services – Helen’s professionalism and attention to detail certainly improved my books.
Helen kindly agreed to an interview about the role of an editor / proofreader, and about the benefits this can bring to authors.
What attracted you to working as a professional editor/proofreader, and how did you start?
As the self-publishing market blossomed I recognised the need for affordable proofreading. Too many writers were publishing their books without having the content edited and proofread. I had already completed a course to complement my work on a local magazine and as a writer of articles for other magazines.
Do you have a specific method you use for each book or does it change from manuscript to manuscript?
By the time a manuscript is finished an author can almost recite the content, that’s how familiar it becomes. Even the way the paragraphs break on a page will be imprinted and the brain and eye will conspire to deceive. It’s unlikely friends and family will criticise or find fault with the work – employing an impartial professional is essential.
Every manuscript is different – every writer is different. By the end of the first chapter I have appreciated the style and have a good sense of the author’s voice. That voice is critical – any suggested changes must retain it. Also, I will make a note of any quirky styles – just to ensure that the author’s voice is consistent. It’s surprising how often an author will change a character’s personality. If I don’t hear the character saying those words or acting that way, I flag it up and explain my query.
What is the difference between editing and proofreading?
Editing will ultimately ensure a manuscript is structured and rounded, that it has no plot bumps or inconsistencies. It should ensure that the reader isn’t suddenly caught unawares by an unconvincing scene. Inexperienced authors will sometimes force something on to a character to suit a scene or a plot twist. That short-changes a reader’s experience. Characters have to be fully-formed and whilst you shouldn’t reveal everything on the first page, you do need to create a credible cast. We all, in real life, occasionally act out of character. But there’s a reason, an external influence. The skill of the author will create exactly that, and the editor will ensure it all has the mark of credibility, even in incredible scenarios.
Proofreading will correct typos – spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. However, if I’m asked to proofread a manuscript and it’s clear it hasn’t been edited, I will include the relevant information in my report.
Editing and proofreading will involve a certain amount of fact-checking. Whilst I don’t have access to an author’s research, I do check as many details as possible. It’s always better to query something than assume it’s correct – especially with non-fiction.
What are the most common mistakes you see in manuscripts?
Very often there will be inconsistencies – both with the style and the content. But I actually find mistakes in the front matter – where the author has added their own details. It’s the same with websites; the ‘About Us’ pages are usually peppered with errors. We know our own story so we barely read the text. That information is standard – it’s possibly been copied from blog, to website, to Twitter profile, to Amazon, etc. If the original version has an error it’s carried through to all platforms.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Some of my clients are established and have a number of traditionally published books to their names. Others are new to writing and as thrilling as it all is – and should be – they do need help. It’s extremely satisfying to work on a project for several months and help an author fulfil their potential and be able to publish a polished book.
If you could give just one piece of advice to independent authors when it comes to editing/proofreading, what would it be?
I always think it’s a terrible shame that some authors do not allow time in their self-publishing schedule for editing and proofreading. Setting a date for their book’s launch seems more important than having an error-free product. In five years’ time, postponing the launch by a month would be irrelevant. Bad reviews on Amazon (because of errors) will be there forever. Successful authors are those who take their time. They’re not procrastinating, tweaking the same sentence a hundred times, they’re sitting back and allowing the book to settle. My top tip would be: create a timetable that allows you to self-publish the best book you possibly can. Don’t compromise just because you have a date ringed on the calendar.
You can find Helen at http://www.helenbaggott.co.uk/