We’ve come a long way together, friends! Today is our last post for Novel Writing 101, my blog series on how to pre-plan and write the first draft of your novel. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably not actually done your first draft yet (or, ahem, even close…), but I wanted to wrap up our series with a final post on what to do once you do reach that wonderful finish line.
So, imagine you’ve just finished your masterpiece, typed the last sentence, written “The End.” Now what?
Congratulations, writer – you rock! You’ve just accomplished what many people struggle to attain but never do. So many writers start project after project, but give up before they ever finish a single first draft. So savor this feeling of accomplishment, and treat yourself to something special as a reward. Don’t skip this step, because there is still plenty of work to come, and you need to embrace each victory along the way.
Let It Simmer
Feels pretty good, doesn’t it? Until you realize you’ve only got a first draft, which is more or less like a splotchy, rough diamond still half-buried in rock. The hard truth is that to get that draft polished up into the gorgeous gemstone you imagined is going to take a lot of work. Maybe even a complete rewrite.
But, you’re not ready for that quite yet. Trust me. You need to give that hot little manuscript a chance to cool off before you’ll be ready to tackle it with a clear head. You’ve been wearing your “writer” hat for weeks, months, or even years now, but you’ll need to swap it out for your “reader” and “editor” hats. And you can’t just do that overnight. Give that manuscript at least a week, but preferably even longer. The longer you wait to reread your draft, the more distance and better perspective you’ll gain.
You don’t have to waste this time, of course. Use it to start pre-planning another project, or write some short stories, or catch up on reading (or chores, or your family, or whatever else you neglected while getting the draft done).
Did you wait at least a week? Good. Now grab a pen, a notepad, and a hot cup of something. Find a cozy reading spot and read through your draft as a reader would, from start to finish. You don’t want to start making major changes or edits yet on the actual manuscript, but you can jot down ideas on a separate paper as they come to you.
The important part here is to get an overall feel for the story and what you like and don’t like about it. If you had just picked this up in the bookstore, what would you think about it?
Now it’s time to dig in a little deeper assessing what you’ve got. We all know first drafts can be quite bad, but there’s always good stuff in there too. You don’t want to lose the good stuff while fixing the bad, so the next task is to honestly evaluate what you have. And remember, no matter how bad it seems right now, you CAN fix it.
As a little side note, we need to consider the difference between editing and revising. Editing involves looking at spelling, grammar, sentence structure, word usage, etc. It’s more of a line-by-line, or even scene-by-scene, type of analysis. Revising, on the other hand, involves looking at the story as a whole–character arcs, plot and structure, theme–and deciding what works and what needs to go. For our evaluation, we always start with revision. Editing comes later.
Keep your notebook handy to jot down answers to the following questions as you read through your draft again.
Questions to start with:
- Think through your original vision for this story. How does this first draft match that vision? Where does it fall short? How could you change it to make the actual story better match the vision?
- Assess your main character(s). What do you like about them? What do you despise? What changes could you make to improve them? What about secondary characters? Are they pulling their own weight without taking over the story?
- What about the plot and subplots? Make short summaries of each, and check to see if you’ve hit your key plot points at the right times. Does the plot flow in a logical manner, with increasing tension and stakes as the story progresses? Are there gaping holes in the story?
- Now take a look at your individual scenes. Do you actually have scenes? Or are there random bits of story that aren’t accomplishing anything? Each scene should have a hook, one change, and a strong ending that leaves the reader wanting more.
- Make a list of parts of the story that you love, and another list of parts that have to go. Then brainstorm ways to replace the ones you’ll need to toss.
Of course, these are only a beginning. Plenty of more experienced writers and editors than me have created entire courses on revising a novel. If you want that level of help, I’d recommend Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel. I haven’t taken it myself, but I’ve always found her shorter courses and worksheets to be incredibly helpful.
Pre-Write Your Changes
Unless you just hate writing by hand, I recommend printing out a copy of your first draft at this point. If you’re planning on adding several new scenes or reshaping the story, you might want to backtrack to the outlining stage, creating a new set of scene cards (or other type of outline) for your second draft.
Then go through your paper copy, crossing out scenes that will be erased, making notes to scenes that need changes, and marking where new scenes will be inserted. Like the stack of scene cards, doing it all on paper allows you to see the entire story laid out in front of you, rather than trying to go page by page through a Word document.
Write Your Second Draft
Hopefully, this draft will do the trick. Using your scene cards and notes from your first draft, make all those changes you’ve spent time thinking about. Once this draft is done, you’ll let it simmer, read through it as a reader, and then evaluate it again. If you’re pretty happy with it, then you can move on. If it still needs work, you’ll go on to a third draft, revising the story or characters until you’re satisfied.
Finally You Can Edit
Once you’re happy with the plot, structure, characters, etc., it’s finally time to edit. Now you can go back through it, line by line, polishing up your writing until it shines. Are you telling instead of showing? Using too many adverbs instead of strong verbs? Are there spelling and grammatical errors? What about discrepancies in descriptions or timing of events? Search out all those minor details and make your writing the best it possibly can be.
Find Some Beta Readers
I know, after all this work, you just want to send your baby out into the world. But don’t do it yet!! Even with all the revising and editing you’ve done, I can guarantee there are still things you’ve missed or failed to consider entirely. That’s where a beta reader, or a paid editor if you’re so inclined, comes in. Use your writing connections to find at least one or two other writers (preferably in the same genre) who can read your work. Do NOT rely on your family members. They’ll either subjectively think your work is the greatest thing since Dostoevsky’s or they’ll be too afraid of hurting your feelings to give you an honest opinion.
Find someone who knows about writing, who knows what works in your genre, and who is willing to give you good feedback. They should tell you both the strengths and the weaknesses of your work. And while it can be painful to hear about the stuff that still needs work, remember that another person’s honest feedback is gold. While you might decide in the end that you don’t agree, or don’t want to change what they didn’t like, it still helps to hear it.
After all, would you rather have your baby judged first by a couple of fellow writers, or by a host of agents, publishers, and readers?
Put It Out There
Unless you’re only writing for yourself, once you’ve got your work as polished as possible, it’s time to get it out into the world. That may mean independently publishing it yourself, or it could mean going the traditional route by querying agents or pitching at writing conferences. In either case, do your research ahead of time and figure out what your goals are, and how to best reach those goals through the available options.
Whew, what a lot of information! I could create an entire blog series about each of those types of publishing, let alone most of the topics we’ve just blazed through in this post. But, now you at least have a general idea of what needs to happen next once your first draft is done.
The more I write, the more convinced I am that the keys to success are continuing to learn and grow as a writer, and, perhaps even more importantly, perseverance. Don’t give up, even if it seems overwhelming. You CAN do it.
Best of luck, and feel free to leave a comment sharing about where you are on the journey!
Images courtesy of pexels.com. CC0 license.