Reading my first draft…So many questions, so few answers

Unsolicited Opinions / Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

After about 14 months, I finally finished the first three books in my fantasy trilogy. Towards the end there, the process started to drag. By the last chapter, a reader could be forgiven for thinking I was being paid by the word. (Ha! I wasn’t being paid at all AND I have no readers, so there.) I was just s t a a l l l l l i n g g g .

Because now comes the hardest part. I gotta read this shit.

I have to avoid little edits, ignore sentences that aren’t pretty, and avoid stressing out over awkward metaphors. I have to look at my books for their overall merit.

Here are the major questions I’m asking myself, in hopes that the answers will form the blueprint to my future rewrites.

Are my characters realistic? Is my novel character-rich?

By now, I know my characters. But when I first started, they were still relative strangers. So I need to read through and see what’s changed: would she say that? Would he do that, really?

When I think of the elaborately charactered fantasy landscapes of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, I realize that my world seems sparse in comparison. To me, rich worlds have diverse characters. Every protagonist is influenced by a huge web of other humans: who are those people? Where do they fit into my world? I need to go through my books with an eye for auxiliary characters; who could I add to the book to make the world seem richer and deeper, without watering down the impact of the characters I do have?

Are my characters growing?

Speaking of character…Everyone in M&J is undergoing massive changes to their existence; it’s a high-stakes fantasy. People are dying and the status quo is disintegrating. I’d classify my books as “new adult,” which means the characters should be developing into adulthood. This is a rough and scaaaary process even under normal circumstances.  I think in my first draft, I let my characters adapt too easily to new challenges. They overcame adversity too easily, and made noble, selfless decisions far more frequently than than they ought. These are changes that need to be earned. There’s a three-book arc for the two protagonists, and I need to make every use of that time to help the characters grow and change. Do they seem like kings and queens and strategists? Because they’re not. Do they seem like Harry Potter characters? Because they’re not. They’re not Harry Potter, who’s always brave, noble, and true. They’re mostly just 20-somethings. They’re gonna have to struggle to find themselves.

Are my characters winning too easily?

Deveopment is spurred by adversity. Are my characters escaping bad situations too easily? I need to make it harder. Does the argument resolves amiably the first time? I can’t let it till the second. This shouldn’t be done, by the way, in the spirit of malevolence; it’s awful reading a book where the characters never win. My characters do suffer, but not because I dislike them. In fact, because I love them so much, I definitely made the mistake of letting my characters win and succeed too easily. This truncates their growth as characters and also prevents the books from ramping up enough tension, which brings me to my next point…

Does the story have enough tension and adequate build-up?

God, I am truly awful at this. I didn’t plot my books; I just wrote 800 words a day for 14 months in a wild gamble that some sense would develop. This results in a tension-less first draft where the reader finds out what’s going on at about the same time that I do. Key information, information that should have been teased out, drawn out, stretched out, is just plopped out on the table in front of you like a ladle of lunch lady chili. It’s good, but it’s pretty, pretty bad. I think a thorough read-through will help me get the chili back in the pot. When should the reader find out that so and so died? When should the characters encounter clues? When I see those major reveals happen in the books, I can take notes on where or when to drop clues or add foreshadowing. And when to withhold information till later.

Do I even HAVE a plot?

Okay, so that whole 800-words-a-day with zero plotting thing? Definitely has some drawbacks re: plot. There are rambles. Digressions. Characters with no purpose except I thought they talked cute. Meandering chapters full of quiet self-reflection that lead nowhere. Plot holes so big you can ladle chili through them. Let’s just say I’m going to keep all of my laughably convoluted, pointless, and random scenes (of which, dear God, there are many) somewhere in an archive as a testament to the difficulties inherent in unplotted work, but when I actually start writing the second draft, I am going to make sure that every scene and situation goes to further some vital aspect of characterization, theme, or plot.

Have I developed any interesting sub-plots?

In my books, there’s an overarching obsession with the Big Plot. Which like, okay, the Big Plot involves the future of mankind so in that context, it makes sense to be a little over-attentive. But I think that books benefit incredibly from sub-plotting. I should strengthen my romances. Work on generating and resolving minor conflicts to strengthen character and develop the world. Add comedic value and depth to minor characters’ interactions with protagonists. Start a little extra trouble. Is there enough going on to strengthen the main plot while simultaneously enriching the world and/or characters? If Buffy taught us anything (we’re joking, it taught us everything) it’s that you need to have a Little Naughty pop up alongside your Big Bad.

Um, narrative structure?

I can’t even. It’s so bad. Maybe that’s a second-read-through kind of thing.

Does my world have internal logic?

Of course, there are gonna be some logical inconsistencies in my fantasy world. Like, if Magic made logical sense there would be magic. It doesn’t, so there isn’t. But that doesn’t mean my Magical world shouldn’t make sense unto itself. What kind of spells are doable? What kind of spells aren’t? Is it easy to breathe underwater? Is it easy to fly? Teleport? Transfigure one item into another? How much energy does it take to do one spell? Can you kill yourself by using too much? In many ways, I might do well to complete this aspect of editing outside the main story, create a chart or a spreadsheet or separate document that lays out the rules of Magical behavior. Similarly, the functions of Magical creatures are important to understand fully: who are elves and what do they do? Fairies? Griffins? I need to believe in the world of M&J so everyone else will.

Am I info-dumping exposition?

Speaking of world-building: where does it all go? Even after reading through just a few chapters, I’m afraid the answer is: RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF EVERYTHING, AWKWARDLY. This needs to change. I need to think of creative ways to weave in backstory and world-building naturally without giving my readers super boring info-dumps. How am I supposed to do that, you ask? Alas, this is a blog post for questions, not answers.

Are the settings strong?

Think for a moment about how your favorite place in your favorite book makes you feel. For me, because I’m basically trapped in childhood, one of those places would be the Shire or The Three Broomsticks. These places are indelibly real in my mind: I close my eyes, and I’m there. My goal with M&J is to make my readers feel like they’re there, with my characters. I need to know in great detail how it feels, smells, and sounds in every important place in the novels. Do I feel like I could describe each room with my eyes closed? Do I know which trees are on the corner of which streets? Can I visualize the plants in the garden? If I can’t, then my readers won’t either.

Are my themes clear?

This is the last big one I’ll be looking for. Of course, in my cheesy little heart, the ultimate originator of themed writing, I know what I’m writing about: exploitation of animals and the earth; mankind vs. nature; unhealthy, volatile relationships (think Twilight but opposite); sentience and volition and the casualness of creation; sistership and friendship surviving through conflict. But are these themes being conveyed? Do they come across as poignant or preachy? Poignant or cheesy?

Well, there you go. And I only had to reference Harry Potter like 12 times and chili twice.

Yes, it’s a lot to think about. Yes, there’s a lot to do. I can’t help but think of all three of my books right now as future chili (we’re up to thrice. Thrice referenced chili). Like, I’ve gathered most of the ingredients and put a pot of water on the stove. But I haven’t started chopping the veggies, and I haven’t even thought of spices. I’m just about to really start cooking.


5 Replies to “Reading my first draft…So many questions, so few answers”

  1. I’m about to start this process too and I’m trying to find ways to make it efficient. I’ll definitely be asking myself these questions as I read through!

    1. Congratulations! If you’re at this point, that means you’ve already put a ton of work in and you should be proud! My best advice about reading your first draft for the first time is to recognize that anything you don’t like is totally changeable. Good luck and happy editing!

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