Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲


You've finished your novel. Well done! Now it's time to get to work.

Work? you protest. OK, you say, maybe a bit of tinkering, but the work is over. Sorry, chum. Unless you're a genius, you're mistaken. Your manuscript in its first draft is merely the raw material for the final book. Your first draft is a shapeless lump of inspiration and creation, poured hot from the fires of your mind and heart. Now it is cooling and, like iron, must be beaten into its final state before the heat goes out of it, that is, before it can be called a novel.

Some people begin to rewrite straight away. Some put it away, coming back to it when their eye has become more objective. If you lose interest in your story when you put it away after the first draft, then begin to rewrite at once. There will come a stage later when you know it has to spend time in the deep freeze before you can see anything new.

Let's concentrate on that raw first draft. What should you do?

First, read the whole thing through, jotting notes to yourself as you go, not attempting to tinker with specific problems right now. What you are looking for in this first read-through is faults in consistency, pacing, connections, and drama. Faults in these areas have to be solved first before you tinker with the language.


Consistency covers many things. Are the details constant, or does somebody's hair change colour halfway through the story? Is the flow of time clear? Do people speak in the same way throughout? You might have an inner-city gang member suddenly forget to speak in slang. Are motivations consistent? Is each character's journey through the story an intelligible arc, or does one of them have an unaccounted-for change in personality or motivation? Are there characters wandering through the story doing a little of this, a little of that, for no consistent reason?


This leads to pacing. Beginning writers tend to panic about making their story long enough, so they stuff the story full of Styrofoam to bulk it out, that is, they wedge filler between the action. Styrofoam does not nourish the reader. It's boring. As you read through your draft, mark the passages where you became impatient or bored. Your story should be a climb from that first moment when your protagonist is impelled to act to the final resolution of his initial reason for acting. Anything that fails to push the narrative to the next stage slows the pace. If there are long, slow sections that could be removed without injuring the flow of action, make a note to remove them. Better still, take the red pen of death and slash through them immediately. [See this related article: Pacing Anxiety]


Have you built connections in? What are the connections between characters? Why are they falling in love, or why don't they get along, or why are they uneasy friends? Do you need to put in, or emphasise, connections with a place (what is it between Charles Ryder and and Brideshead Castle)? Connections between your background events and your foreground story, such as having background historical events mirror or counterpoint your protagonist's action (e.g. the shooting of JFK occurring as your hero loses his political innocence in Vietnam). Foreshadowing is also a connection, tying together early and later actions. If you see places where you can insert or strengthen connections to the enrichment of the story, jot them down as you read.


If you have set something up earlier in the story, it needs a "pay-off" later. This could be as small as a character, who has bought a guitar for the son of the woman he's dating, shown at the end of the story listening to the boy playing it. The pay-off is not just closing this loop, but what you can do with it: the man finds himself proud of the boy's dedication to learning a skill; the boy has become his son. Delivery is important in small things, but crucial in big things. If your story is of a woman who is being stalked, and you make a point of mentioning that she was an archery champion when she was in high school, you can't leave this hanging: you have to show her using this skill to defend herself. It's called Chekhov's Gun. Why else did you put it in? You might not have been sure why in Draft One, but it is in the re-writing that you can find out why your sub-conscious was planting that there for you.

Foreshadowing is one kind of delivery: the archery skills carefully placed earlier needs the pay-off, but there are grace notes that can lift a story, small things that make the reader nod or go "ah" in satisfaction. If your story is about a man who leaves a difficult marriage for a new relationship, and the narrative concerns that second relationship and the ways he learns, through new love, to forgive, understand and appreciate his first wife as a person, then you might have a tiny scene very early on where he remembers never thanking her for her special iced cupcake on his birthday. Several years later, as the story ends, when he has made peace in his life, he buys a fancy cupcake and sends it to her with a thank you note. These little touches come in the re-writing; they are the delicate brush-strokes that bring your canvas to precise art.

Other forms of delivery are the "promises" you need to keep. If you are writing a thriller, the pace has to get quicker and quicker, the tension has to rise, until the reader is reading breathless, unable to put your book down. That's what readers buy thrillers for: to be thrilled. If you find your thriller pacing along as stately as a dowager duchess, you aren't delivering. In the same way, a slow and gentle journey of growing wisdom in a young man learning from his second marriage should not rush to its finale, although it does need to swell to a moment of enlightenment, an epiphany.

In the initial rush to complete your first draft, you may have put in a lot of things that have the potential to become one of these delivered loops. In the rewriting, as you get the feel and pulse of the story, you decide which ones to keep, which ones to discard. Perhaps your protagonist was good at a number of sports; you drop the archery set-up as too exotic and leave in baseball because, later, it works better to have her throw something hard and fast.

Make it worth reading

Drama is what a story is all about. If it doesn't entertain, it doesn't deserve to live. Is there conflict of some sort in every scene of your first draft? Do you care about the people you should care about? Or did you go off the rails somewhere? A story that has slipped its leash and gone on a frolic of its own tends to have no dramatic structure. It's becomes one darn thing after another. The difference between a story and a tale is that the story is crafted, and the tale "jest growed." A story is sustainedly gripping by design, a tale, if at all, by accident.

Having read through your first draft with these four aspects in mind, you can now begin rewriting. Start at the first page and do all the changes you pointed out to yourself, checking always that you aren't introducing new consistencies or filler as you alter details. Print out the revised version and go through it again. And again. Start honing the language, removing the deadwood (such as unnecessary qualifiers, descriptions, and interior monologue) and trying to make every sentence both fresh and concise. If you haven't yet put the manuscript away for a rest, do so after four or five rewrites. Your eye and inner ear will need the break, and you will be more ruthless when you return to it.

When everything is fixed as much as you can fix it, look again at the first five or ten pages of the first chapter, especially the first five paragraphs. Are they as enticing and gripping as you can possibly make them? Do they pull the reader into the story? Your opening scene is your only chance of capturing a reader, so it has to be right.

And then you're done. How many re-writes do you need to do? Some people do three or four, others a dozen. Always do one more than you think you can bear to do. Then send it out. Once an editor accepts it, you'll begin rewriting all over again!