Ideas are seductive, especially when you’re writing fiction. They can be dangerous too, during your first draft. If you revise while writing your first draft you might get into such a tangle that you never complete your novel.
A couple of weeks back, an author asked: “is it essential to write my first draft straight through? I’ve got a couple of changes I want to make to my characters. Can I go back and make them now?”
It’s usually best to complete a first draft, then revise and edit. But what if you get compelling ideas and want to incorporate them immediately?
Perhaps you’re writing a mystery. Halfway through the novel you decide that your killer is now the housemaid, rather than the butler. Instead of continuing with the first draft, you decide that you’ll go back and rewrite from the beginning.
When you’re writing fiction, be flexible
Every novel and every short story is a new adventure for fiction writers. You make hundreds of choices in every writing session and must trust your intuition. It’s all you have.
It’s best to be flexible. Let’s look at your options.
1. Go back to the beginning and revise
What do your instincts tell you? If you’ve been writing fiction for five years or more, your instincts will help.
As a rule of thumb, when I want to incorporate fresh ideas and I’ve written fewer than 10,000 words of a novel, I’ll do a complete revision to incorporate all new ideas before continuing with the draft.
Should you choose this option:
- No general fiddling and tinkering: write fast, because you’re still in first draft mode. Add the scenes you need;
- Avoid deleting scenes. If you’re using Scrivener, take a Snapshot of documents before you revise them;
- (To repeat) write FAST. Make notes right in the manuscript itself. Sketch out the new ideas, then continue with your draft.
2. Create a “changes” document and proceed with your draft
A lot depends on genre. Let’s say you’re writing a contemporary romance. With just two main characters and various sidekicks and secondary characters, it’s possible to complete your first draft easily, without going back to revise.
Create a “changes” document, right in the manuscript. Write about all the changes you’ll make in revision. Proceed with your first draft as if you’ve already made the changes.
3. Do both: revise while continuing your first draft
When you decide on this option, you’ll write fresh scenes to incorporate your new ideas and changes, but you’ll keep writing forward too.
Use this option if your brilliant new ideas are simple to implement.
Perhaps you have an idea for:
- A new character;
- A change to a current character. Perhaps you want to give your main character a quirky sense of humor, so you slot in a new scene, and make minimal changes to three or four scenes;
- Changes to a setting for reasons of plot.
Whatever you decide, have fun with it. You can’t be creative if you aren’t having FUN. 🙂
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Updated: May 26, 2021
Photo of mountains by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.