TLDR: Ignore word choice and sentence structure, in order to focus your first revision on the big picture.
If you write by the seat of your pants like I do, a finished first draft looks more like a ball of yarn the cat has been playing with than a tightly wound knot securing the sails of a ship.
In order to fix this, your first revision pass over a story should concern itself with over-arching story issues, not specific words, lines, paragraphs, or even chapters.
This is difficult. It’s tempting to get drawn in to endless tweaking because specific words are less daunting to fix than broad story issues. Be strong. Admit when the big picture is flawed. Big changes will be required.
(Next week I’ll talk about the Snowflake Method, which may finally make a planner out of me. This method seeks to circumvent this difficult revision process by doing more planning up front.)
[SPOILERS: for Fight Club upcoming.]
Consider the following description of a first draft of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk:
A fed up office worker gets drawn into the increasingly destructive world of a charismatic anarchist. The anarchist turns out to be the office worker’s alter ego. The office worker tries to commit suicide to stop the anarchist, fails to kill himself, but succeeds at ending his alter ego.
Not bad. There are a lot of shocking and interesting ideas here, but compare it to the following description of Fight Club after a major revision.
A tired office drone seeks meaning through consumerism, then pretending to be ill to go to support groups. When another faker joins the support groups, the protagonist is back to insomnia and misery. A charismatic anarchist appears to show the protagonist another way: self-destruction in an attempt to hit rock bottom and become truly free. The protagonist gets drawn into the increasingly destructive world of the anarchist, but when one of his support group friends gets killed in the cross fire, he decides to put an end to the mayhem. He discovers that the anarchist is his own alter ego, but events are out of control. Project Mayhem has taken on a life of its own and even the creator is expendable. Pursued by the cult he himself created, obstructed every time he falls asleep by his alter ego (who knows all his thoughts), the protagonist realizes the only solution is to kill himself. But his failed attempt at suicide is a successful hitting of rock bottom. His alter ego is destroyed because it has fulfilled its purpose. He is finally free of himself.
After the first major revision there is a lot more action-consequence-reaction, for example, the narrator’s support group friend dying causes the narrator to fight back against Project Mayhem.
There are a lot more answers to the question Why?
The narrator, and main character has a lot more agency, motivation, personal stakes, and connection to the antagonist.
In general, the first revision pass should be used to make sure that actions are motivated and make logical sense, and that stakes are high.
I had fun “revising” my own weak summary of Fight Club so I did it again with a tale that has been told and retold many times.
First Draft: The people are oppressed by Prince John and his henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Expert archer and hero, Robin Hood, starts a band of thieves to steal from the rich and give to the poor. In the end, Robin Hood defeats the Sheriff and sends Prince John into exile. King Richard returns from the crusades and takes his seat on the throne to be a righteous and just ruler.
That’s the basic story, but where are the motives, the personal stakes, the inciting incidents?
After first revision: In an assault on the holy city of Jerusalem, under the wise leadership of King Richard, expert archer and loyal soldier to the crown, Robin Hood, is captured by the Saracens. After a year of imprisonment Robin is ransomed back to England by his wealthy uncle who tells him that the situation in England is dire. Robin races home to find the people over-taxed and over worked by the greedy and arrogant Prince John. The Prince personally invites noble-born Robin to a celebration upon his return to England, only to use the story of Robin’s capture to belittle his older brother, King Richard’s, piety and military acumen. Robin, already ashamed of his capture, tries to defend Richard’s honor but is laughed out of the room. Outside, an argument with a supporter of John ends in an impromptu robbery. Robin gives the money he has stolen to a beggar. Robin plans on fleeing England. He is ashamed and believes he must return to the holy land to redeem his honor, but a poor peasant named Little John, who saw Robin give his money to the beggar, confronts Robin. Little John convinces Robin to fight against Prince John. Together they create the rebellious Merry Men. They begin systematically robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The prince retaliates by sending the Sheriff of Nottingham to execute Robin’s Uncle and seize his lands. Robin once again wishes to give up, having brought pain and suffering upon his loved ones. But the beggar, who Robin helped earlier, attempts to convince Robin otherwise and happens to use the same words that wise Richard had once used to comfort Robin. His hope restored, Robin leads a final assault on Prince John and his henchmen. Robin avenges his uncle by defeating the Sheriff in single combat and Prince John shows himself to be a coward by fleeing England. Robin rules England justly in Richard’s stead and peacefully abdicates the throne upon his return.
Revising is a lot easier when it’s someone else’s story that has already been written. Now the question is, how can you revise your story to make it the best version of your story that it can possibly be?
3 thoughts on “The First Revision”