I had surgery yesterday.
Great word, surgery. It conjures images of operating rooms, nurses and doctors, scalpels, and knocked out patients. Not in this case, I only had a grape-size mass removed from my back. A local, some slice-slice, a few stitches and done. Quick, easy, no problem.
Then the local wore off 4 hours later.
It doesn’t hurt exactly, it just feels… wrong.
The back (and spine) is the junction of your body. If it’s a little out of whack, you know it and everything pulls. (“Don’t lift anything heavy.” “OK,” I said, forgetting I have a 20-pound puppy.)
The first-round edit is just like that. The “back” of the story is what it’s about. That’s a very powerful concept, “what it’s about.” It sums up your story, and better, it help you edit.
You’ve just finished your first draft. Congratulations! If you’re like me, the third act comes in a rush, so once you’ve typed “The End” (metaphorically or literally), your job is to get it out of your head. Go mow the lawn, pull some weeds, paint the house, bathe the dog. And celebrate!
Maybe start researching your next book. Maybe read some other people’s books. Try to forget the book you just finished. Then a month or so later, read it through.
Use a highlighter, add a few notes, but mostly just read it quickly. What you’re looking for is what feels wrong.
Consider: A great run of scenes where Atticus Finch finds true love. They date, they dream, they fall head over heals. Knowing the back of To Kill a Mockingbird, these scenes should feel wrong. They aren’t about what Mockingbird is about. Every scene should relate to what the story is about. Identifying such scenes is actually easy. Ask yourself, “If I remove this scene, does it matter?” If the answer is “no” remove it.
This can feel difficult. A wrong scene can be written beautifully. It still has to go. A wrong scene is like a gratuitous scene in a movie where you’re hoping they get back to the story soon…
Also look for what’s missing. Are the steps to the conclusion clear? Are any stones absent? Does anything need to be clarified?
Remember, at this stage you’re reading, not rewriting. Take notes, mark any obvious typos (don’t slow down to look for typos), if you print it out, use colored pencils (not pens! You may need to change something later), online, highlight or comment (PDF is nice for this).
Remember, you’re looking for things that feel wrong. The ideal back condition is to be totally unaware of it, and so it is with your story. Wrong pulls us out of the story. Scenes that fail to tie into the back of the story need to marked and revisited. Is it extraneous? Cut it. Is it out of place? Move it. Is it missing? Add it in (or write a note about what should be in the scene). Could it work? Is there a genuine way to add purpose to the scene?
Do you have a long string of scenes that don’t fit? Can you turn them into a sub-plot that does tie into the back? If not, save them for another book.
That first read-through is get a handle on what goes, what needs to be added, and finding the right order.
Next is the rewrite following your notes. Then you can dig into language and pacing in your next edit.