The Last Draft: A Novelist's Guide To Revision by Sandra ScofieldThe Last Draft: A Novelist's Guide To Revision by Sandra Scofield

The Last Draft: A Novelist's Guide To Revision

bySandra Scofield

Paperback | December 5, 2017

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The definitive handbook for the novelist who is ready to revise
This wise and friendly guide shows writers how to turn first-draft manuscripts into the novels of their dreams. A critic, longtime teacher, and award-winning novelist, Sandra Scofield illustrates how to reread a work of fiction with a view of its subject and vision, and how to take it apart and put it back together again, stronger and deeper. Scofield builds her explanations around helpful concepts like narrative structure, character agency, and core scenes, using models from classic and contemporary writers. The detailed, step-by-step plan laid out in The Last Draft offers invaluable advice to both novice and experienced writers alike. In Scofield, they will find a seasoned, encouraging mentor to steer them through this emotional and intellectual journey.
Sandra Scofield is the author of seven novels, including Beyond Deserving, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Chance to See Egypt, winner of a Best Fiction Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. She has written a memoir, Occasions of Sin, and a book of essays about her family, Mysteries of Love and Grief: Reflections on ...
Title:The Last Draft: A Novelist's Guide To RevisionFormat:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 0.7 inPublished:December 5, 2017Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143131354

ISBN - 13:9780143131359

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Read from the Book

The Novel Continuum My students and workshop participants often refer to novels in a binary way. They think of novels as being either popular (commercial) or literary (artful). It's a false comparison that sets you up to feel defensive. And it underestimates readers. "I want to write a book that people read!" I hear. "I'm not going to sell out quality!" says someone else. "I like my genre," I hear from students, as if I'm going to say there's something wrong with fantasy, crime, or romance. (In our MFA program, we have a preponderance of fantasy and crime novelists!) But no one says, "I'm going to write schlock." No one says, "I'm writing for forty readers." Because what we all want is to write with intelligence, imagination, and compassion. We want to be read and we want to be good. We don't expect to be read by everyone, but we have a sense of the readership we would like to have. Back in the dark ages when I was in high school, lots of teachers graded on something called the "curve." The idea was that at one end of an imaginary line were the idiots who didn't study and who deserved F's. At the other end were the prissy nerds and natural geniuses who of course got A's. Everyone else was somewhere on the continuum between those ends, and the most common grade was right in the middle, the C. I think that approach has fallen off—I hope so—but it suggests something useful for our purposes, this idea of a continuum. Let's forget A and F, because on our continuum we aren't making harsh judgments; we aren't going from bad to good. We're just saying that there are fewer books at each end of the line, and more as we move to the middle, which I think of as mainstream. Where most of us want to be is in the middle of this bell curve, where more books are sold. In that hump are books that have qualities from both ends—from the likely-to-be-read and the likely-to-be-respected categories. The agent Donald Maass talks about the "breakout novel" as the one that has such a powerful story that it appeals to a mass readership, while it also is written so well that it is admired for its artistry. This may mean a genre writer with a good audience writes something that a broader audience appreciates. It might mean that a literary writer with a small admiring audience writes something that appeals to many more readers. Every season, there is almost always a writer with a backlist of good books who, for whatever reason, suddenly hits the sweet spot and earns a large audience. Hilary Mantel has been turning out terrific novels for decades, but it's Thomas Cromwell who brought her fame. And of course there are writers with large audiences of readers who don't care about the issues I'm raising—they just want a good story, and they don't care that the same writers get critical attention. Anne Tyler is a prime example, with consistent best sellers and lots of graduate papers about her writing. Consider Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses), and Ian McEwan (Atonement). That said, not everyone wants to be in the middle. Some writers have a very nice niche, where they write book after book for readers who seem to be lined up waiting. If that niche has a lot of book buyers, we call the book popular. If that niche garners awards and warm critical reviews, we call it literary. I think there's no reason at all to worry about where you are on this continuum, except to know what you do best, and do it. At the same time, I think that many fine literary writers want very much to enlarge their audience, and that it's a big day when they do. Think of the British writer Kate Atkinson melding mainstream sales and widespread critical praise with her novels Life After Life and A God in Ruins. She was already well-known and respected. Her most popular books were mysteries. Then she wrote two novels in which the whole idea of one person living one life was tossed out the window in favor of diced chronology and impossible history and a whole new way of conceiving of a person's time and fate, and suddenly she's both a literary star and a best seller on multiple continents. She came up with something new, and she wrote it with great craftsmanship. Justin Cronin came out of the gate with solid literary novels—and then he wrote a spectacularly successful vampire trilogy. Or consider Stephen King, as well-known as any writer in the world, writing horror and suspense, year after year; and suddenly I'm reading reviews about how innovative he is, how he's more than a genre writer. (I think he would say he's fine with being a genre writer. Who has had a better career?) So I'm going to chance a description of two sorts of novels, reminding you with full throat that either one is good if it's a good story, well written. And I say again that what you want is to be as good as you can be at what you do—which almost surely means drawing on both ends of the continuum. (I'll go out on a limb: I think writers of literary fiction have the most to learn from the middle, and the most to gain, but any novel is enhanced by having a resonant theme and a complex protagonist.) Think about the novels you love; I'll bet you they can be described with phrases from both categories. Which is why this common dichotomy is ultimately a false one. "Popular" novels are usually written with a comfortable, unobtrusive voice. They are well plotted and present a question that begs to be answered. The settings can be familiar, cozy, domestic (like much women's fiction), or quite exotic. The reader easily identifies with the main character. There is clear conflict and rising action. There are surprises, but there is also a sense of inexorability. The reader is engaged, maybe reading fast, but never confused. If there is mystery, it is because it is a mystery. The resolution is satisfying—it has some surprise in it, but at the same time, it's just what ought to happen. There are external forces at work, often including a powerful villain, but the most interesting complications arise because of the protagonist's choices—usually in response to heightened danger or failure—which push the plot along. Memory and psychology often explain or drive character problems, sometimes simplistically (the woman abused as a child despises men; the impoverished child grows up to be CEO of a multinational corporation), and there is usually a big scene of revelation. Structure is clear, often schematic, so that the reader can follow story complications. There is always a sympathetic protagonist, but there are often alternating or multiple points of view. Some novels have almost no interiority (think of Elmore Leonard, with his rapid-fire dialogue); others are drenched in it (Jodi Picoult), appealing to different tastes in the readership. The voice of the novel may be dispassionate, focused on the action; or the voice may be highly individual, reflecting the protagonist (especially if in first person), or reflecting the diction of the writer. Scenes take up most of the real estate of the book. Read several books by a popular author and you can probably write a blueprint for writing such a novel. (Though that doesn't mean you will necessarily have the right ideas! It takes talent to write a book that has mass appeal.) When does this kind of writing "go too far," in my estimation? When the characters are flat; they might have been lifted from somebody else's story, or from an earlier book by the same author. When the explanations for character behavior are obvious or corny or not there at all. When it's all excitement and gore, sex and burning swords, and I'm not made to care about anybody. When pop psychology is milked for explanation. When I've seen it all before. When the language is trite, dull, or, worst of all, full of errors in diction and syntax. To be fair, though, I see two exceptions to my reservations about popular writing. One is that even though genres have apparent rules, those rules can be broken. This is much more true now than it used to be, when bodice rippers had shirtless Italian male models on the cover. When someone talented and ambitious cracks the genre with a fresh interpretation and a great voice—I'm thinking of Jennifer Weiner here—it not only means success for that writer, it means a whole new genre spreads like wildfire. Likewise, when a writer writes an entertaining novel that is totally out of his expected "territory," it is fodder for publicity: Rich and Pretty is an entertaining story (a "beach read") about childhood female best friends all grown up in New York City—written by Rumaan Alam, a first-generation American son of South Asian parents. The other exception to my basic description of popular fiction is self-published books that may be riddled with glaring problems, but drenched with the kind of story there is an audience for, especially science fiction, fantasy, and romance. Hundreds of thousands of readers don't give diddly whether participles dangle or dialogue apes bad movies. They love the stories. Writers of such books seem to write spontaneously, magically, but I bet even they would be surprised at what they could do with a little more craft and reflection. Alas, they may not have time for it, or think the time worth investing. "Literary" novels spring from an artistic impulse. Story is usually driven more by character than by plot. There is a heightened attention to language, and often an innovative structure. There is a powerful theme, sometimes disturbing, about things that matter to the culture as well as the individual. There is a sense of largeness; the story connects with the "gift of second meaning," by which I mean that you find yourself rereading passages because you know there is something more there for you to understand. You are willing to read the book again so you can think about it more. You read a page several times because it's just so darned beautiful. You lend it to a friend, but you want it back. Think layers. The characters are complex. The voice is unique. Memory and psychology may provide templates or motifs, but they are used with subtlety. There is a powerful premise; the story says something about the world as it is, as it could be, as it will never be. There is a strong sense of the "created world of story"; not that it isn't plausible, but somehow it's more elegant than real life. It manages, all at once, to seem both compressed and capacious. There may be a kind of authorial presence, casting philosophical light on the story and on life in general. Vocabulary is elevated. Sentence structure is varied, playful, sophisticated, or maybe crisp and clear and spare. There's more contemplation, more musing, than in a mainstream novel. Less snap. When does this kind of novel "go too far"? When the play with language gets in the way of following a story. When the construct is too precious by far. When I get the feeling the writer didn't really care whether I could follow his thought or not. When there's so much narrator talk that I lose interest in the story, if I can find it. When it seems to be merely emulating another writer. When it's just not to my taste. Yet I could name writers who made great careers with books I found impossibly dull and arch and contrived. I have to believe that they knew what they were doing and decided early on to take what they could get, following their talents. Sure enough, they found their audience. There are so many readers, so many tastes. So many possibilities. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Set your bar high. Draw from these descriptions the characteristics you will strive for. Really, I mean it: Make a list. Don't expect to get everything right on the first pass. You can learn to write better. I suggest as a starter list: clear, fluent, modestly adorned diction—error free, without being a smarty-pants; an idea that feels new and excites you; a well-constructed story line that comes together satisfactorily but not too early and not with tricks; someone to love; something to be afraid of; something to learn; the warmth of a storyteller's voice. Build on your strengths. If one of them isn't language, then learn to be correct. That will suffice. Make time to practice sentence craft; there are many books to help you. Find models, and practice writing passages like them. Write with restraint. Stay out of your own way. And try this: Pick a novel you admire a lot and describe what you like. Is it reasonable to think you could write a book that had similar qualities? Or is it more likely that your eclectic taste includes books you would never write? If the second thing is true, question your assumption. Dig deeper into your own response. Maybe you are awed by the author's language and wit, but what really reaches you is a quality of the story that you could indeed aim for in your own writing. So you aren't Flaubert. That doesn't mean that you can't tell a story about a sad, foolish, passionate, deluded woman who somehow touches all of us who have impossible dreams, if that's the story you have in you. You aren't Cormac McCarthy. But maybe you believe that boys become men when they survive harsh adventure, and you know an adventure that would make a heck of a story. Maybe you are in love with the quotidian—you think everyday life is full of muted drama and that's what captures you emotionally. (Be patient, it takes some luck for that kind of novel to rise to the top, but it happens. How about Anne Tyler? Jane Hamilton? Meg Wolitzer? Kent Haruf? Tony Earley? Richard Russo?) Maybe you love the way an author integrates history into the story, or sets the protagonist in a sprawling family. You could do those things—about your subject, with your own sensibility. Story is the key. If plotting is hard for you, pick a fairly short novel with a straightforward chronology, and take it apart. Think like an architect. Study archetypal plots, the plots of classic novels; practice by inventing your own versions in summary form. Then look at your summaries and find a way to upend the archetype. Look around you and keep asking questions—What if? What else?—because the best stories aren't labored; they spring from basic human needs and fears made new by imagination.

Editorial Reviews

“Drawing deeply on her own teaching and writing and using a multitude of examples from classic and contemporary fiction, [Scofield] offers a meticulous guide to revising a novel... The lasting messages of this inspiring book are 'read, read, read,' 'write the best prose you can,' and 'love the process and what you learn.'"-- Publishers Weekly, starred review"This title stands out from the crowd of others on the subject. For readers who are thinking about publishing their writing."-- Library Journal, starred review“An award-winning fiction writer and teacher shares hard-won advice. Novelist and memoirist Scofield…brings her experience as a writer and teacher to a practical, encouraging manual focused on revision. … Patience and commitment, this useful guide reveals, are a writer's strongest assets.”-- Kirkus Reviews“Sandra Scofield has written a needed book: not how to begin a novel, but how to get one into shape and on point. She is insightful on the importance of scene and ingenious on the value of summary and the role of interiority. She offers exercises for describing, evaluating, energizing, and enriching a draft in ways both minute and structural. For a novelist in that perplexing stage between a messy version and a viable manuscript, The Last Draft may be a godsend.” —Janet Burroway, author of Writing Fiction