In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
During the reading [of the first draft], the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns. Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What’s it all about, Stevie, in other words, and what I can do to make those underlying concerns even clearer.
Yesterday I wrote about the great thrill it is to read through the first draft of your novel in one sitting, long after you’ve let the manuscript sit for four weeks or longer.
I made it clear that for the most part you’re not taking hundreds of little notes along the way. You’re reading the novel to read it. To experience the book like a reader. To see so clearly what’s working and what’s not.
Yes, you should be jotting down notes here and there if you notice something and don’t want to forget about it later. But for the most part, you’re reading for the experience itself.
While reading your first draft, pay attention to story problems, to confused character motivations.
There are two parts to reading through your first draft, and this initial step is important for sure, an important aspect that can’t be ignored.
When a character is acting one way in chapter five and then a different way in chapter six for no apparent reason, make a note of that. If there’s a huge story inconsistency at the middle of the book, write down what it is. If there’s a plot hole you find at the end, by all means take a minute and jot it on a pad.
If you finish your first draft on a Friday and then start reading through it the following Monday, many of these problems and inconsistencies you won’t even notice. You’re still too close to your story, your characters. You can’t see the forest from the trees.
Something might be so obvious and glaring you don’t even need to write it down, but if you think you might forget it, then yes, take a few notes, but remember to keep reading and not stop every third paragraph to write something down.
If it’s taking you all night to get through a chapter, there’s a problem. You’re focusing on too much minutia. You should focus on story, on character, on the top elements of a writer’s toolbox.
And you should also be focused on the Big Questions of your novel, most especially theme.
The second part of reading through your first draft is moving beyond concerns of story and character and focusing on the bigger picture. Focusing on theme. What your book is really about. What lies at its heart and what you want the reader to take away when he or she closes the final page.
Theme is so important to a great novel. In some ways theme is the reason for writing the book in the first place. It’s where the characters and setting and story often stem from.
Revision of a novel is helpful in so many areas, but one area it’s extremely helpful in is highlighting and enhancing the theme of your story. It’s taking elements that are already there in your first draft and bringing them out even more and making them clearer to your reader.
Now keep this in mind that you don’t want to beat your reader over the head with your themes and larger issues. If the reader gets distracted from the story because you’re shoving the theme in his or her face, that’s a mistake. You want to enhance the theme considerably when you revise, but not to the extent that it become too obvious. There’s a balance you want to find.
Ultimately your read of the first draft will make your novel better in the long run.
The last five novels I’ve written going back to 2015 are better than anything else I’ve written for a few reasons. One, I was attending an MFA in Creative Writing program that helped me considerably in my writing skills. Two, I reached out to more beta readers during that time, signed with a literary agent during that time, and have been able to strengthen my novels through lots of feedback from others.
And three? I took the necessary time to let each first draft rest for awhile, preferably six weeks or longer, then I took each novel out of the drawer and read through the entire manuscript in one single sitting. Before I even started the second draft, I was able in that sitting to catch so much of what was working thus far and what problems were so entirely obvious.
Those problems don’t always come to light when you revise a chapter a day. But they do make themselves clear when you read it all through at once.
So take the time to read your first drafts quickly and carefully — in one sitting if at all possible. Look at story and character problems that might arise, but also take the time to ask yourself the Big Questions too, especially when it comes to theme. Your novel will be all the better for it!