Editing the first draft, scene by scene

I’m currently editing the first novel for which I’ve managed to complete a first draft. Sadly it’s not the first novel I’ve written – I’ve got 20 years of half finished manuscripts littering my wake.

The novel is set during and just after the First World War and has the working title of When the Guns Stop. The first draft came in at about 110,000 words – nicely in the middle of the 80-120k you’re supposed to aim for – but, as firsts drafts always are, it’s pretty rubbish.

The novel has nothing to do with the Bengal Lancers, but I love this postcard from my Great Grandmother's collection

This is the first complete rewrite I’ve attempted and I’m finding out just how much hard work it is. Keeping all the different strands together is a real juggling act. If you take a few days off editing you forget what’s going on and start reinventing the wheel or making little inconsistent changes.

There are some really fundamental changes to be made. I have to think long and hard about the themes and core plot, which means mercilessly cutting parts that might be good, but don’t further either of those. Then writing new sections that do. There’s a lot more historical research to be done. However much you read, you always have the feeling you’re just scratching the surface.

After a whole summer at it, I’m only on chapter 4 (page 22) and even those are by no means complete.

Novels break down into scenes. A scene is a discreet section set in one time and place, from one person’s view point. You will often have several scenes in a chapter, e.g. I have 7 in my first chapter, although 2 of those are very short linking scenes.

I’ve been thinking about the scenes in my novel and today decided to start listing them all in order to help me structure the novel and make sure every word (and scene) is doing its job, i.e. furthering plot, character development or theme.

I created the following table and started filling it in.

Chapter Where What happens Who’s in it Purpose
1.1 Dugout and front line trench, before dawn Mills wakes Kirkwood. They begin rounds, waking men before stand-to Kirkwood and Sgt Mills Introduce Kirkwood, set scene of life in trenches. Put Kirkwood in right place for bomb to go off

It’s the last column that has proved particularly telling. I’m realising that many of my scenes are just not pulling their weight. I think this listing is really going to help with the rewrites.

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