I can only speak for myself. And for those of you whose first draft is like a skeleton or like an outline except with complete sentences so rewriting consists of fleshing things out, I can offer little, if any advice. But for those who finish a story, listen. Please don’t cut and slash. I simply don’t believe or buy into the thinking that all first drafts are automatically trash.
You have worked hard. Your muse and subconscious as well as your characters have guided and directed you all along the way. You have every right to feel good about your accomplishment and no reason to feel it is trash. Think of it as the first grapes of the season. Sometimes that makes the best wine. Your only job at this point is to turn those grapes into wine, and while the form may change a bit, everything is already there in the juice. That much does not have to be substantially changed.
The first thing I do is set the work aside for a “time.” Usually, that is about two or more weeks. Then I change the font from my writing font (Times New Roman) to my final font (Courier New) to get a fresh perspective. Some people like to print it out, but I find that unnecessarily expensive. The reason editors like courier so much is because it is equally spaced and therefore easy to edit. For me, the change in font makes the whole work appear fresh.
The second thing I do is go scene by scene which is not necessarily the same thing as chapter by chapter. A scene, like a movie scene, covers one location and the events that take place there. It may develop over several chapters. There may be several scenes in the same chapter. But I go scene by scene and ask a few simple questions:
What is the purpose of this scene, and did I succeed?
In what way does this move the story forward?
Are the characters true to form in action and dialogue?
Is there foreshadowing?
Are the sub-plot (s) properly accounted for?
Yes, sometimes a whole scene might be deleted as unnecessary. Also, at times, a paragraph or more may need to be added or things within the scene shuffled a bit…but then I move on.
Third, chapter by chapter I ask less questions.
Does the chapter begin with a hook that keeps the reader interested?
Does it end with a hook that keeps the reader reading?
Is the tension building?
Fourth, I edit. Now is when I go through and look at HOW I say things and ask if it could be said better – if the prose could be tighter. With my eye on the scenes and chapters, a lot of the editing has already happened. Some even edit during the first draft, and I confess that is hard to avoid, though I am careful not to let it impede my progress.
Editing is precisely what an editor would do – more than mere proofreading. Sometimes you want just the right word, but I do not recommend writing by thesaurus. Keep it simple and accessible to your reader. Watch out for repeated phrases and words. Watch out for was-ing constructions. Watch your adverbs and adjectives. Etc. etc. All that writerly stuff you have heard.
The editing process can take time. That’s okay. Take your time because once you are done, YOU ARE DONE. Please, O please stop. Write your synopsis, your query, your cover letter if you will, but then put it on the market and go write your next one. Please don’t fall into the trap of tweaking – rewriting the work every time you get a no thank you. It may be that this one will never sell, but I have a rule. I don’t look at a work deemed “finished” for a minimum of five years, no matter how many no thank yous I get. I keep too busy working on the next one and the one after that!
Besides, after five years (or 10), hopefully I will have learned a bit. Then I may be able to see the flaws and get it in shape, or if not, I may be able to understand why it never sold. I never understood such things when I was determined to tweak it every couple of months. Tweaking just kept me frustrated and discouraged. Now, I follow Yul Brenner’s line in the Ten Commandments. “So let it be written. So let it be done.”