Monday, March 7, 2016

Running for the Finish Line: Revising a Novel's First Draft

I'm thick in the middle of rewrites and revisions for my Young Adult sports novel Swim Season and coming up for air to share a little of my progress. I truly enjoy this part of the writing process. It stretches my mental muscles and brings me deep into the cellular level of the story. Here's where I fine-tune tension, clarify ambiguities, and make the book the best it can be. It's a long process, made even longer and more taxing by my repetitive strain injuries, which rear their ugly head often and demand attention. I take lots of breaks.

Turning a 156,889-word first draft into a polished novel requires many steps. The first is a full read of the manuscript. I've been working on this book for years and lost track of its beginning pages long before I wrote "The End" on the last page. It's been months since I've read most of it, and I've forgotten parts of it.

My strategy for writing this book was to keep writing, to move forward without looking back. I didn't want to get bogged down in details that would get in the way of completing it. If I ran into a problem, had a question, or didn't know where I was going, I skipped over that part and kept writing. Past projects had taught me that rewriting as I write and double checking facts and details during the writing process slow me down, and ensure I'll never finish. I end up cutting out too much, wasting my words and work. Not good since I'm living with RSIs. Every word has to count. I don't write for the trash can.

I found it's easier and less painful to avoid the computer and do as much work on paper as possible. I print out a copy of the manuscript and run through it a few times the old-fashioned way, with red pens, sharp pencils, and a big pink eraser. During my first read through I made note of typos and grammar issues, errors and inconsistencies, and clarified plot points, character traits, etc. On my second read, I analyzed all the swim meets, assigned team names, and created meet sheets and scores. It was time-consuming but necessary. In the end, I may eliminate much of that data but it was info I needed to understand my team and tell the story. On the third pass, I clarified some of the open-ended areas, such as the color of a character eyes, the whereabouts of my heroine's mother, and the coach's role in the story. That often required research, which enriches the story and gives it more depth.

The bulk of my process involves fine-tuning the manuscript. For this, I rely on Bobbie Christmas' Find and Refine Method as described in her excellent writer's manual Write in Style. I followed this method for my novel Blue Hydrangeas. It's easy to use and understand and transforms my writing into tight, concise prose. But the process is slow, especially for a 156,889-word manuscript.

For example, Christmas suggests eliminating as many adverbs as possible. Her method: use the Find function in Word to locate all words ending in ly, the telltale sign of the dreaded adverb, and evaluate each one to determine if it can be eliminated or replaced with a stronger word or words. I discovered 1,800+ occurrences, not all of them adverbs because the search includes family (71), Emily (40), and only (117) and other acceptable ly words. I examined each one and whittled the number down to 614. It took hours but makes a better book.

The process continues with strategies to eliminate passive writing, ambiguous pronouns, and other sloppy or lazy writing techniques that slip into a first draft. I've eliminated 5,000+ words and have only just begun. I already see an improvement. I find the process exciting and invigorating even though it aggravates my RSIs and threatens to throw me into a tailspin of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and bursitis pain that not only affects my writing but every other aspect of my life. It's a slippery slope, but with pain management strategies and adequate rest periods, I plod on. I decided long ago that I will finish and publish this book no matter how long it takes. I started it in 2011, and almost five years later see the finish line.


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