You have all heard the phrase “We all have 20/20 hindsight,” right? Well, today I want to tell you that when it comes to editing your work, that’s a very good thing.
I don’t know about you, but my experience with a first draft is a lot like stumbling through a forest at night with only a flashlight and a hand-drawn map. Lots of flailing about in the dark, tripping over protruding roots and falling face first into ant hills. By the time I get to the end of the draft, I feel like I had a boxing match with an angry bear.
I mean, unless you outline every single scene in your story and never deviate from the plan, you will always get some good and some rather nasty surprises along the way.
Like I know that I need to get my protagonist from point A to point B but I have no clue what would even make her want to go to B, because B is a rather horrible place. So I come up with some lukewarm conflict or justification that doesn’t really work (and I know it doesn’t work), but at least has the merit of getting my character where I want her to go. I plot it on the page like a big brown smear and move on. Because I need to keep the story going and it will come to a grinding halt if I start agonizing over that turd I created for too long.
Or when your plot suddenly makes a twist and takes you into uncharted territory, and you wave your little flashlight around, but all you see are trees, and you think, “Well f^%k, now what?”
Or when you can’t get the character’s motivation just right no matter how hard you try…
You have to learn to look past all those bumps on the road and press towards the end because otherwise you will never finish your story. And that’s okay. Put that half-baked plot point in there and keep on going, because once you are done with your first draft and are ready to edit the monster, you’ll benefit from the famous 20/20 hindsight.
Now that you see the big picture and you know how your story ends, you can go back and determine which parts don’t work towards that goal. And I can assure you, that they will stick out like a sore thumb now that they are part of something bigger and you’ve gained some perspective.
Looking at your character’s arc, you will suddenly have the revelation you needed about what really made him move from that point A to that point B. And it’s not the lukewarm justification you had concocted in your first draft, but something so visceral that your character runs to that point B screaming, terrified that he won’t get there in time.
Let me share with you something that happened to me this weekend. I was editing Chapter 12 of my novel Of Broken Things, notably a pivotal conversation between two of my protagonists. Protagonist 1 needs to persuade protagonist 2 that she needs to master her paranormal ability, but she’s always been reluctant to do so, because she is afraid of the power it gives her over other people and considers it evil. In the first draft, I came up with the justification that since they were locked in a research facility, their life was valuable only as long as they showed promising results. It worked, but it never felt quite right.
When I came back to that scene Saturday, armed with my 20/20 hindsight, I found a much better argument that fits into the way Protagonist 1 thinks perfectly. It was never about the lab and the experiments, because they had already decided to escape and were working on a plan. But Protagonist 2 ability turned out to be essential to the success of that plan and would help them avoid recapture afterwards. Something I didn’t know when I first wrote that scene, but that I know now. It’s a small shift in focus, but it makes her subsequent success and failures seem more critical to the reader, because the stakes are much higher.
So I think that 20/20 hindsight is a super power that we writers have and we should never hesitate to use it. After all, what other profession can say, “Wait, that didn’t work out exactly like planned. Let’s go back and redo it.” We can. Every time we edit our draft, we go back in time and change the past. We are like superheroes!
Anyway, I guess what I wanted to say with this post is don’t be scared to make mistakes when you write, as long as you apply your super powers to fix them later. The first draft of anything is shit, but we have the power to transform it into a masterpiece. All it takes is hard work and perseverance.