As early as possible, after I’ve already started to write what’s looking like a novel (as opposed to a long short story) I try to force out a very rough chapter by chapter outline. What this does is force me to think ahead in terms of scenes, of plot twists. It also gives me is something to shoot for. More importantly, it convinces me that I do in fact have a novel on my hands and there’s an ending on the horizon. Naturally, in the writing process other stuff is going to crop up, new scenes, new characters, new plot twists, and that original outline will get revised along the way. I’m not locked into, it’s merely a guesstimate as to where I’m going and it helps to prevent that inevitable panic that, oh my god I’ve painted myself into a dead-end and I’m finished as a writer!
I write short, which means my first draft are pretty sketchy, bare boned as I make my way to the end. Without an end, I have nothing (I have several of those that have gone past 400 pages). That first draft only tells me that I have a novel. Then it’s the rewriting, draft after draft, where I start adding scenes, flushing out storylines, and each subsequent draft gets fatter and fatter. My “drafts” by the way, are not a mere one pass through, but several detailed edits on the computer and a printed out copy that I really rip into it), so when I have “ten drafts” I’ve gone through it about 30 times! When I do get around to that tenth draft, I focus on trimming off the fat and the excesses and tighten the writing, and the story, wherever I can. I keep doing this for a few more drafts.
For example the first draft of A Season for Fools (*now An Unexpected Gift from a Growling Fool) ,was 268 pages. Draft 11 peaked at 464 pages. By draft 14 I got down to 343! And that’s without cutting out a single scene or chapter. It’s merely shaving off words here and there, and occasionally a sentence or two, if I’m lucky. I have another novel set in the US that is up to 20 drafts, and one set in Malaysia that’s 13 drafts and waiting, (Then there are those that only went a few drafts and died out of sheer neglect while working on a new novel.
By the way, it’s all too tempting to shift your focus to a new novel idea, than to spend the time fixing one that’s full of problems and may not even be fixable! (Marriages and bad relationships are often the same way.) Yet by fixing those problems, you can take that dead-in-the-water manuscript to a whole new level. Sometime my drafts involve major rethinking of the novel, like adding on a whole new dimension, whether it’s an under¬current or an additional layer to the storyline, or changing it from third person to first person, past tense to present tense.
Some writers (and I think this is a great idea that I’m itching to try) will take a draft and focus just on those pesky verbs, turning a weak, passive verb laden with adverbs into a strong active verb. Otherwise, this verb correction process can get lost in the overall editing, and a lot of weak verbs and adverbs and needless adjectives can slip by unnoticed just because it’s grammatically correct and sounds good.
While editing, a good place to start is looking at those verbs and also those pronouns! Initially they were good, with a clear antecedent, but after some revising and adding in new stuff, the pronoun is either left hanging or it’s ambiguous. Every other draft should be a back to the basics, so basically good writing gets through each time!
***Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.