My problem, as anyone who has every played trivia games with me will attest, is that I have a great memory. It can take months for me to forget enough of the details for drawer-time to be helpful. Fortunately the remarkable length of time editors take to reject stories can help with this. After three or nine months in someone else’s drawer, it’s easy to forget you even wrote the story in question.
Fortunately, what is a curse is also a blessing, especially when I’m working on a novel. I do a lot of my editing and re-writing as I write. As I ‘discover’ something new about a character or make an adjustment in the plot, it isn’t hard for me to remember exactly where I dealt with that issue before and go back and fix it. To reinforce that process, when I have the time, the first thing I do every day is read what I wrote the day before or, for multiple point of view novels, what I wrote the last time I was in that character’s head. It also gives me a chance to clean up some of the barbarisms as I go along – fix grammar, eliminate clichés and make better word choices. So my second recommendation would be to re-work your material, or at least re-read it, as you go along. It not only improves your draft, it also improves your craft. If you keep finding the same problems in your writing you can set yourself some exercises that will fix it over time.
For those who don’t have as good a memory, there are things you can do that work the same way. Keeping file cards or, for the technically sophisticated among you, internal document notes that describe each character’s physical description, basic or detailed history and major (and minor) personality traits is a good idea. These aide-memoires can be modified and updated as you write. You can also keep track of each place in the manuscript where you accessed the information, making re-writes on the fly easier to do. It also helps you keep voices consistent. You can do similar things with your plot outline, tracking back the inevitable changes in the story and making the needed changes while they are fresh rather than weeks or months later when it becomes truly onerous. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I don’t think you should be too rigid in your plotting. But you should have an outline that maps out the major landmarks on your journey from beginning to end. I also recommend spending a fare amount of time developing character background – I use a set of questions that establish a lot of details about the back story of each character, with a special focus on how they got to where they are at the start of the novel and what key values motivate their behaviour. I also write a brief bio in their own voice so I can get used to their rhythms of speech.
Once the first draft is done, which for me is quite polished, I do a quick edit to catch as many typos, grammatical blunders, weak word choices or awkward passages as I can. Then it’s off to my first readers. I try to get a real mix of people to read my book – other writers, editors, SF fans and non-SF fans alike. I’m very lucky to have a circle of friends who will take on the task and be tough on me while doing it. Right now about ten people are reading the first draft of Stealing Home. In a few weeks I’ll get back a bunch of marked up copies and many pages of comments and critiques. I’ve reached that stage in my writing life where I am generally unfazed by criticism and so can benefit from it. I know not everyone is going to like what I write or at least not all of it. I also know that I make mistakes (yes, you heard it here first) or go astray with plot and character. At the same time, I do not lack confidence. Critiques are not blessed with special wisdom and sometimes what they have to say is just a matter of opinion.
So what good are they? At a trivial level, First Readers are great for picking up the writing errors and flaws that I missed in my first two go-rounds. They are also fabulous fact-checkers and point me to sources so I can get it right. More substantively, some observations and ideas are so immediately obvious in their brilliance that I wonder why I didn’t think of them myself. Then there is the power of collective wisdom. While I may and often do reject the criticism of a single reader, if two or five or all of them point to the same scene and chapter and say something is wrong here – even if they differ somewhat as to what – I know I have to address that section in the re-writes.
In summary, re-writing or editing requires time away from the text, honing your craft, attention to details, and the ability to accept and learn from criticism. Once you get all that down, you’re on your way to being a writer. For me, it’s still a work in progress.