You finished your first draft.
If you can, take a break from it. Put it to the side for a few days. A few weeks would be even better. Work on another project. See a play or a movie. Read a book. If you need to meet a deadline, take as much time away from it as you can afford. Watch a few episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Go ice-skating.
Now you’re ready. Sit down in a quiet place and read your draft from start to finish.
What do you think? Not bad, right? Some of it’s actually good. Some of it probably makes your cringe, too. First drafts are for getting all of your ideas down. They’re long and bumpy and incomprehensible at times. They can also delight you in unexpected ways.
So where do you start your rewrite, at the beginning? Or do you tackle it from the end and work backwards?
I say neither.
Start with a point of view. Identify the best of what you’ve written and decide that you can write the rest up to that level.
Make sure the stakes are high. If the stakes feel low, think about how to raise them. One of my favorite lines in storytelling comes from the film The Princess Bride:
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
Stories about love, death, family, history, and power are high stakes stories. Inigo delivers on every single one of those five stakes in his signature line. And he’s a supporting character!
Trace the arc of your protagonist’s relationships. As your story unfolds your characters change. How do these changes affect the relationships between characters?
Look for stray lines. When I ask a student about a line that comes out of nowhere or makes no sense, their first instinct is to cut it. Then I ask them to explain it to me. Often they remember what they were trying to articulate and rather than cut it they end up clarifying and expanding upon it. Remember, your psyche plays a big role when you write your first draft. Trust it. If you find a line you don’t understand explore it before you cut it.
Look for conflict. Most protagonists don’t suffer enough in the first draft. Do you give your characters enough opportunities to make choices that reveal their interior life? What about choices that alter their life? Do we know what they’re willing to sacrifice to get what they want?
Look for heavy exposition. Nobody likes to hear a list of facts. How can you break up big chunks of exposition and make them part of the action?
When you consider your rewriting schedule, think small. You don’t need to set aside five hours each day to push your next draft forward. Got a half hour? Work on half a scene. Two hours? Tackle a whole scene. Take bite sized pieces of time to accomplish your rewrite. And give yourself a deadline to finish your second draft. Three months? Six months? I’d say no more than six.
List what you want to accomplish. I list all the changes on a Microsoft Word doc and cross them off as I make them. Rather than delete each change from the list, I keep it on there. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.
My second drafts are better than my first drafts but not as good as my third drafts. That’s my process. Your process has its own quirks. But each time I start a new rewrite—whether it’s the third or the thirteenth-- I consider the whole piece and what I want to accomplish.
You finished your first draft.