Thoughts on Reading Through My Novel’s First Draft

My first draft chapters, bottom to top, colour coded by their revision needs

My first draft chapters, bottom to top, colour coded by their revision needs

It was like grading the world’s longest midterm paper.

Coming in at 402 pages and with all but the last two chapters having been written some ten years ago, I really had no idea what I was in for when, upon completing my first novel ever (technically my first trilogy, but I count it as one completed story), the time came to read through the entire first draft.

The age of the thing alone terrified me, for how well could a ten-year-old story possibly hold up?  I already knew going in that I’d have a fair amount of rewriting ahead of me, but the question was how much?

That was the whole purpose of the read-through: to see how (or if) the story hung together as a single unit.

I know little of to go about a novel-length revision.  But this was some advice that had wormed its way into my otherwise clueless brain: begin by setting the work aside for awhile to obtain some distance from it and then read it start to finish while making notes on your broad impressions of it.

I wasn’t liable to grow any more distant than an entire decade; I couldn’t even remember all that happened in the story.  So, armed with my green pen, my green nails, and my hard copy manuscript enclosed in its flexible green binder, I settled in to tell myself a story.  And had the following reflections:

1) It’s not so fantastic

I knew from the outset without needing to read a single word that that my book would be the wrong genre – fantasy where the other two books in the trilogy are historical fiction – for that’s the way I originally conceived of the story.

With this in mind, I was sure my read-through would leave me overwhelmed with make-believe details and various other trappings of the fantasy genre, but such wasn’t the case at all.

Which actually makes sense: the reason I switched genres in the first place was because my fantasy was so heavily influenced by actual medieval history, it’s fantastic elements already so sparse, it just made sense to go historical instead.

Other than eliminating references to an invented religion and the need to change made-up people and place names, revising this particular aspect of the story won’t be a difficult fix at all.

2) But it’s actually pretty good

As I was reading, I decided just marking up the pages wasn’t enough – that I also needed to subdivide this oppressive mass of paper in smaller, more manageable parts.

Inspired by a similar system I read about years ago on an author’s blog and a set of multi-coloured office accessories that were being discarded at work, after reading each chapter, I attached its pages together using one of three different colours of paperclips.

Either red, meaning the chapter needs a complete rewrite, yellow –  the chapter needs some rewriting but parts of it are okay as is, or green – only general tidying of the text is needed at this time.

I freely admit I read the first three or four chapters with my eyes practically closed.  The incredibly slow start!  The infodump of backstory!  Twice!  You know it’s bad news when you find yourself skipping pages in your own story.

But as I kept going, I was surprised at how coherent the plot was.  With every page I turned, I was certain that this was where I’d finally toppled into a plot-hole the size of Ontario, but it never happened.

I definitely have substantial rewriting to do, but the overall story is there and it makes sense.  And I still and love and believe in it after all these long years.

My reading stats:

  • Total chapters: 31
  • Red chapters:5
  • Yellow chapters:14
  • Green chapters: 12

3) Holy road map, Batman!

The story may be in there and make conceptual sense but that’s not to say the presentation is currently at its best, hence the 19 chapters of partial to complete rewriting I need to do.

Informing these rewrites will be the thorough markup I made on the manuscript.

There’s not a single page in the entire printout that does not contain at least one correction.

In most cases, there are several, including,

  • Strikeouts of entire paragraphs and pages
  • [Square brackets around passages that need updating to reflect conceptual changes I’ve made to the story]
  • Phrases marked with an underscore for historical facts I need to re-confirm
  • Bits of dialogue and narration highlighted orange to indicate they sound too modern

And, of course, the countless marginal notes I made with my trusty green pen.

In some cases, in all four margins.

With even more notes made on the computer to summarize each chapter.

4) The sound of one voice

Another big worry I had about this novel – the first in a trilogy I started in 2005 and finished this past September – was that it would read like it was written by a completely different person – one with a far less developed sense of language, sense of story structure, and understanding of the world.

On one hand, ten-years-younger me clearly never met a period she wanted anything to do with (hello run-on sentences!), so in that way, yes the prose reads differently, and thank goodness I eventually learned to write a digestible sentence.  Better late than never!

However my overall writing voice has remained surprisingly consistent over the three books and intervening years with respect to tone, word choice, level of detail, and character voice, to the point that I’d often come up with what I thought was a better way to express an idea, only to read to the end of the sentence and discover I’d already written it a decade earlier.

Which I’m presuming isn’t an indication that my ideas are ten years stagnant, but rather a function of my always having conceptualized the trilogy as one complete story instead of three separate but connected ones.

That being said…

5) First chapters make horrible last chapters

I’ve been told that first-time authors stand a better chance of being traditionally published with a standalone novel that has series potential rather than a first book that requires subsequent novels to complete its main arc and answer its main story questions.

Climax road signIt makes sense: if that first book didn’t sell well, the rest of the story likely wouldn’t be published, and would thus be left unfinished.

Having previously ended my first book on a horrible cliffhanger, to make my novel standalone, I moved the first two chapters from book 2 over to become the last two chapters of book 1.

Which made for an unbelievably jarring reading experience when, just as the story had reached its climax, the action suddenly slowed to an introductory pace while a bunch of information that had been known for the duration of the book was trotted out once more.

Hence that lone red paperclip near the end of the book where there hadn’t been any others since chapter 5.

6) No Mom, we’re not rich

I have love my mother’s newfound enthusiasm. Over the years it took me to draft the entire trilogy, she remained mildly interested at best, occasionally asking how it was going but generally leaving me to my own devices, which, in retrospect, was fairly a blessing.

But now that progress – or at the very least, a different sort of progress – is being made on the writing front, she’s become more invested – literally! – in the process.  When I told her I’d finished reading the draft and it wasn’t too bad, her response was, “We’re rich!”

To which I immediately replied, “We are not rich.  Don’t spend any money!”  For aside from the fact that very few writers get rich from writing books, there’s still a lot I have to do to this novel.

My next step is where the real work will begin: chapter by chapter rewrites in order to produce draft #2.  I won’t be blank-paging this draft as some writers do; rather I’ll make use of what I already have – the existing text, my notes, and my nagging sense of everything else that’s wrong with each chapter.

At this point, it’s looking like I won’t be starting draft #2 until after the Christmas holiday season.  Which, as much as I’d love to start tomorrow, will at least provide me with more distance from the story, not to mention a new task for a brand new year.

Do you remember the first time you read through a lengthy work you’d created?  What was that like?  Tell me about it in the comments.

(Image source #1 – J.G. Noelle, #2, and #3)

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reading Through My Novel’s First Draft

  1. This is all very exciting sounding. Plus your organization always gives me a good feeling…i love those paperclips. But what I love more is your mom. Too funny. I hope one day you have an excuse to make a character yell “We’re rich!” in homage.

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    • Being able to myself legitimately shout “We’re rich!” would be pretty sweet too, but my characters probably stand a better chance of it than I do. Still, it’s cool that my mom is excited for me. And those paperclips do look rather spiffy, don’t they? 😉

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    • Yes, liking one’s story – or at least being able to see its potential – is an important first revision step that proved easier to check off the list than I thought. Huzzah! I’m very glad my brain is still in agreement with itself from 10 years ago, for the last thing I need is to get into battle with the ghost of my past perceptions.

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      • I think it is the hardest step, because it’s the one that could derail the whole project.

        You got this one – run with it. If you take it up again after a long time, it means you really want to finish it now.

        Maybe you needed to get a little older or more experienced, or to read more. Before you were ready.

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      • You’re totally right – if you don’t even like the story, you’re in for a seriously uphill revision battle. And yes, I did need to get older and bit more knocked around by life, I think, to be able to do this story justice, as much as those lost six years sometimes still irk me.

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  2. I love this post. It’s so wonderfully honest and refreshing.

    “You know it’s bad news when you find yourself skipping pages in your own story.” – The good thing is you are seeing this and you are going to fix it and make the necessary adjustments. Don’t be too hard on yourself, that info dump set a foundation for you to build from.

    I’m not at the point where I re-read my entire book. Just re-reading some chapters is cringeworth enough lol. However, when I am ready to make my edits I’ll be back to this post to take some notes on your method, especially the colour coordinating!

    Good luck with draft #2!

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    • Well the truth, so it’s said, will set one free. Plus it was a good lesson to me that it’s not just in other people’s books where I skim and shuffle through the pages. It’ll be a good reminder to me to apply Elmore Leonard’s advise about leaving out the parts people skip. And (I think it was) Donald Maass’s advice about imagining all the backstory in your novel as a shattered glass in which each occurrence of it in the text is no bigger than a single shard.

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  3. I recall once dragging up what is now an eighteen-year-old version of my science-fantasy series and never looked at it again, that was three years ago. Twelve-year-old me had no idea what the hell she was doing. I’ve rather lost track of the rewrites I’ve done on it. Three majors that turned one story into four, that’s all I know.

    Good luck!

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    • and never looked at it again
      That’s what’s going to happen with my true first novel from about 12 years ago, when newbie-writer me didn’t know anything either. I have plans to rewrite this book as my next project but will definitely blank-page it, not the least of which because I’ll be doing a complete genre change this time, from genuine fantasy to historical.

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  4. You sound very well-organised and analytical – well done on completing such a massive project.
    And I loved your comment to your mother: ‘Don’t start spending!’ Funny how the shift from ‘mildly interested’ to ‘we’ll be rich’ happens…

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    • Thanks! I’m pretty organized and analytical by nature, so we’ll see whether that actually proves an asset or if I instead turn out like the typical protagonist who’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness!

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  5. Really interesting to read your process Janna. You clearly mean to nail it. I’m also in the edit/re-write process of novel #5 but my writing is lighter and I only strive to make it readable and reasonably entertaining rather than produce a knock-out piece of work. Crack on, looking forward to reading the final product.

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  6. You’re very organised, Janna. I look back sometimes at things I’ve written years ago and my writing is always changing and evolving. It’s great to be able to keep the same voice through so many years and so many words. You will be rich! 😀

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    • Thanks, although I’d be happy enough with just being read! In this particular case I was lucky that my voice and vision have stayed pretty much the same – somehow I doubt such will be the case for my true first novel (the unfinished, shelved one), which I want to rewrite next. o_O

      Liked by 1 person

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