Revising Novels: Cleaning Up My Garbage Draft



I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last November and actually reached the 50,000 word goal. I was very proud of myself for “winning” NaNo, but I was well aware that what I had written was a giant piece of trash-hole. I’m fine with that and actually count it as part of my process. My very first draft of anything, whether it be a script or a manuscript or an e-mail, is my .5 draft, or (more affectionately) my Garbage Draft. This draft does not see the light of day. I don’t show it to anyone for notes. I don’t even like to talk about it while it’s in this stage. I use my Garbage Draft as a way to write all the bad ideas out of my head and start to form a path to the right ones.

My NaNo manuscript was a Garbage Draft. I just wrote all the way through without getting hung up on consistency in plot or character and without backtracking to revise. I just vomited it out. I had an outline, but it only took me so far. I let the story take me the rest of the way, which is something I enjoy about writing a novel as opposed to a script — there is a lot more flexibility.

If you are someone who has never written a manuscript of over 100 pages (like myself), the idea of revising something so long and dense is incredibly overwhelming. But luckily for me, I found YA author Susan Dennard’s blog and clicked with her revision method. She really breaks it down into small manageable steps that actually make you excited to get started! The only thing is that it will be of better use to me after I rewrite my Garbage Draft and am officially on my First Draft. But her ideas are amazing, so I have been using a hybrid of her method and my own while working on my Garbage Draft.


My Garbage Draft and color coding supplies are ready!

So what did I do first? I printed out my manuscript and read through the entire thing, highlighting problem areas and color-coding them according to their particular problem: plot, character, setting, other. I then number these sections and write details about what I think is wrong on another piece of paper. A lot of writers do this in a notebook, but I liked using a binder because I can keep everything better organized that way.

The next thing I do is really think about the book I want to write. A lot is going to change during this part of the process. Because this is my garbage draft, I’m going to be cutting at least 70% of what I wrote. In this particular case I cut 90% of what I wrote and completely changed my setting to one I have a better grasp on. I also decided to make huge changes to all of my characters, and made significant adjustments to the plot. So almost nothing I originally wrote will work in this new plan for my perfect book. But there are some sections that I love and will find a new home in my new draft. If I get any new ideas for my perfect book while I’m reading through my Garbage Draft, I write them down on the appropriate sheet of paper. For example, if I have a great new idea for the plot I will write it down on my plot problems page in my binder with a little star next to it. I don’t want to lose any ideas in this process, so I write everything down.

The next step would be to write a new outline. Susan calls this planning your perfect book, which I already started doing as I read through the Garbage Draft. I write a new outline as best I can based on what I already have in my Garbage Draft and the new ideas I jotted down under stars on my problem sheets. This new outline will probably end up changing a lot in the future, but it is best to have at least a little bit of a road map as you move forward.

After the new outline is done I will make notecards for each scene in my Garbage Draft. Like in Dennard’s method, I write the page numbers at the top, a quick summary of the scene, and mark the protagonist, antagonist, goal, and conflict with color-coding. I do this for every scene and pin them on my board (a leftover habit from screenwriting) or lay them out on my floor so I can see everything clearly. Then I remove all the scenes that won’t work anymore according to my new outline and write new cards for new scenes that I want to add. Some existing scenes might need to be moved around a bit, but once you have all the cards arranged in the order you want, you’ll be able to see any gaps. I save all my discarded scene cards in case I need them again later. Waste not, want not or whatever.

My scene notecards, color coded and ready to be thrown out

My scene notecards, color-coded and ready to be thrown out

After all of this, I go through with my problems sheets and write color-coded sticky notes for each scene card that survived the great purge with all the problems in that scene and how to fix them so the scene fits in with the new plot/characters/setting. Then I take the scene cards and do the work! This is one of the biggest differences from Dennard’s process. I don’t work from my printed off manuscript or on my Garbage Draft document on my computer. I start a new document and write it like it’s a totally different novel, which sometimes it is. If I run into a scene that survived from the Garbage Draft, I’ll copy and paste it from the Garbage Draft manuscript and then adjust it according to my sticky notes. After I rewrite the entire manuscript and finally have a version of the story I want to tell, I might go back and do specific line edits for grammar, spelling, and pesky typos. I might not though, because I’ll still be changing scenes and plot points a ton in my next revision.

When doing this with a Garbage Draft, doing the actual rewriting is the hardest part. I have to cut entire scenes, rewrite plots and characters, and create something solid out of swiss cheese. But once I’m done and my Garbage Draft is turned into a First Draft, I’m really fucking happy. Now I can get more specific and nit-picky. I could show my draft to people, and it will make sense! I still have to write many more drafts before even thinking about querying it, but at least I’m now on the right road. I’m not flailing in the dark anymore.

I just finished my First Draft of my NaNo project, and I’m currently letting it sit for a few months while I focus on the ‘great evil’ (or the GRE, to most). I’m probably going to be wrapped up in grad-school themed things throughout the summer, so it will be a good opportunity to take a break from my story. As everyone knows, I love my breaks. Once my break is over, I’ll probably re-read my First Draft and do the entire process over. I don’t really like showing people my work too quickly anymore. I used to show people my first drafts, but I’ve learned my lesson. Now I’m much more guarded. Maybe my second draft will see the light of day, maybe not.

Writing  is mostly rewriting, and if you’re lucky you’ll enjoy the revision process. I happen to love it, especially after the Garbage Draft. It’s like your excavating your story, one draft at a time. If you’re new to revising, I highly recommend checking out Dennard’s tips, but taking a revision course isn’t a bad idea either. There are several out there at varying price ranges. I’ve heard good things about Holly Lisle’s program, if you’re willing to pay for it. Just make sure you do your research!

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