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How to get your book to a better first draft

The first draft of your book is not something you are going to want to show anyone. Sorry! As much as you have sweated and toiled over it… it is most likely a crude assembly of scenes with a bit of a mishmash plot at best. Totally normal. The good news is you have done most of the legwork.

You absolutely have to put your entire story through a rewrite to get to a 'vaguely passable first draft'. This requires you to step out of writer mode and think like an editor. You need to find structure, pace and plot. Out of the trenches and start to see your book as a construction. Now how do you make it better.....


Here’s my basic definition of what a passable first draft has:

  • The genre is clear, tight and you have stuck to the conventions of genre

  • Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end which escalates the plot

  • The story has a beginning, middle, and end

  • There is rising action and progression in the story

  • The story has a single lead character whose story goal is apparent and compelling

You are going to print and read your entire draft and work through my checklist below. No touching your book until you have gone through all the checks.

1. Make a fast scene list

Can you list all your scenes? Make a numbered list and note down what happens and how it progresses the plot. Don't get complicated here, just use a pen and an A4 exam pad to list your scenes, note whose view point each scene is in and write about 2-3 lines for each scene that answer the question …what happens in this scene?

2. Check... does your story actually have a story arc?

Take a bird’s eye view of the scene list to see the skeleton of your plot. Is there a plot? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? It should have a beginning to hook the reader and set up your story (25%), a middle story build (50%) and a dramatic ending (25%). Try and do a word count to see if your ratios are on target. If your middle build is 80% of your entire word count your pace will be too slow and you need to relook at your plot structure. Make the necessary changes in your scene list to swing this around and get your ratios and story arc right.

3. Make a list of missing scenes

Again a clear scene list should reveal this in overview. Note any weak moments, or places where you need more plot, more exposition or more explanation. Are there genre-critical scenes you are missing? Are there more dramatic ways of telling this story arc? Check that you have very clear turning point scenes… if you character is not making big changes you need to include new scenes that show this.

4. Check your use of dialogue

Are you using lots of dialogue? Are there scenes where you need to write another character into the scene to shift from interior thought (boring) to dialogue (conflict + action)?

5. Write your next draft fast

Remember you are not writing a new book here. The key to a better second draft is that you are being strategic. You are working out missing scenes, providing more conflict, higher stakes and more plot excitement. Think like an editor now go in and fix the plot up.

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