You've told people you are a writer. You've gone to conferences and ordered a subscription to Writers Digest. Your bookshelf is heavy with books on writing and little by little, you type enough words to create a story with a beginning, middle and end and you write "The End" on the last page.
First draft done! You print the behemoth out via a slow ink jet and crack open a bottle of wine to sip the first taste of victory. You did it! You completed your first draft.
Pour the rest of the glass back in the bottle and get back to work. Drunk and famous writers aside. Now the real work starts.
What's your story about? Is it an LGBTQ, Steam Punk, Coming of Age, Grail Quest with a slice of steamy romance or a balls to the wall adventure story with a Navy seal turned flower arranger trying to recover Einsteins brain that's been plundered by aliens. (if any of these story lines call to you - have at it.)
Chances are, if you've finished your first draft of your first novel, you may not know what it's about. Your first job is to find it.
A mentor of mine http://www.jackremick.com/ gave me sage advice when I came to him with a stunned look and a first draft. "Now what?" I asked.
Jack said, "Write a four page synopsis of your first draft. Add all the convoluted subplots and story threads and character arcs." He watched as I dutifully wrote that task in my notebook. He continued. "then write a two page synopsis of the same story. Your subplots will drop because you won't have the space to write them. Don't worry, you don't have to remove them, you just won't have the space to describe them." And then he said, "Write a one page synopsis. Same rules apply. Finish with a one paragraph, back-of-the-jacket blurb synopsis."
And I did exactly that.
As you boil down of your story, a few things become clear.
1) Your four page effort will highlight in a blinding flash of the obvious, any big plot holes or threads you've dropped. Fix them in four pages and they will be ready for your first edit.
2) A two page synopsis focuses the main struggle of the key characters. The subplots, love stories, smaller quests etc of the intermediate characters become invisible so you can discover what's driving the story (or what should be driving the story)
3) the one paragraph is what the story is about. If you aren't sure how to write them, stand in front of bestsellers at your local bookstore and read the back covers. You will get the idea.
As you revise the four page, two page, and the final blurb, your story will emerge. You may have to go back an forth a bit but the design will appear.
Now the final step before you open your first draft and save it under Version II. Take your four page synopsis and send it out to your writer friends, or even a Facebook group to get some validation you are going in the right direction. See if your friends have questions on the main struggle, the characters motivations or the theme. If you start fixing sentences before you get the structure right, it's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Won't do much good.
A builder validates the plans before he drives a single nail. From experience, I can tell you, it's hard to edit your own work. Save yourself a lot of time and enlist the help of others. Four pages is an easy read. Most writers will offer their time as they've gone through the same rite of passage and will be happy to do it.
But make sure you ask.
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