So you’re ready to start the journey from first draft to finished novel – congratulations! That also means you’ve ticked the first box in Robert Heinlein’s famous advice to writers, namely:
Of course, you’ll only get the full benefit of your editor’s skills if you’ve whipped your manuscript into the best possible shape before you approach them.
So here’s my take on how to bridge the gap between your first draft and a novel that, even if not fully finished, is ready to send to an editor.
What have you got when you’ve got a first draft?
If you’re like most writers, you probably won’t be very happy with your first draft.
There’s no need to take your unhappiness too seriously, though: the only real requirement for a first draft is that it should exist. Beyond this, it needn’t have merit.
Some writers – such as Ernest Hemingway and Anne Lamott – have even argued that you can only free your imagination fully if you aim for a ‘shitty first draft‘. As a recovering perfectionist, this appeals to me.
- So don’t worry if your first draft is way too long: you have plenty of material to choose from.
- Don’t panic if it’s ridiculously short: you can always make systematic additions later on.
- And don’t fret if you’ve only managed a chapter or so and can’t go any further: many writers work by revising in fragments.
First, set your draft aside for a while
This isn’t just advice from me, but also from the likes of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.
The journey from first draft to finished novel can only begin when you’ve gained enough objectivity. And there’s nothing better at fostering objectivity than time away from your magnum opus.
But don’t look upon this intermission as down time. Instead, if you haven’t already, you can get stuck into the business of developing your novel’s premise.
Next, redraft. Work from the big picture to the fine detail
Winston Churchill famously redrafted his manuscripts twice; once for readability and once for beauty.
I usually need many more iterations than two – you might not. But however many passes you make, it’s a good idea to have a particular purpose for each. Having a purpose focuses your attention (and it’s an approach which helped Churchill bag the Nobel Prize for literature).
Granted, some writers redraft pretty much as they write and cover multiple bases at once. But this all-in-one approach tends to work better for experienced novelists.
Be prepared to make necessary changes
At this stage of the journey from first draft to finished novel, you can’t afford to be too attached to your work as it stands. Instead, imagine you’re a reader, and a critical one at that.
Bearing your book’s premise in mind, try to make an unbiased evaluation of how well your draft works in terms of:
- Plot and structure – are you using the three-act structure, or the hero’s journey?
- Your story world.
- Character – does your story have enough conflict?
- Point of view.
- Narrative – should you stick to a linear narrative, or would it be more compelling to play with time?
If something isn’t working for you as a reader, it needs to be fixed. That’s why you can expect to make some big changes at this stage.
Next comes the part I really look forward to, because I can spend an infinite amount of time making minute adjustments to words and sentences. I allow myself to do that near the end of the process, as a reward.
But don’t get too obsessed with wordcraft too soon. What you really need to ask yourself is how your book performs at each of these levels:
- Act or section.
- Sentence (especially dialogue).
Again, referring back to the gold standard of your premise will help you tighten things up at the act, chapter and scene level. To find out how well your sentences and paragraphs function, you could try reading them aloud. This is especially effective for dialogue.
From first draft to finished novel – getting proper feedback
When you’ve done as much work as you can and are confident your story hangs together well enough, it’s time to ask for feedback. But it’s still too soon to approach a book editor. I’d argue that the first people to read your manuscript should be beta readers.
At best, beta readers are a microcosm of your target market. At the very least they’ll point out your embarrassing typos and spelling mistakes. Some writers even conduct several rounds of beta reading with different purposes in mind.
There’s no space here for me to explain more about working with beta readers, but the Liminal Pages guide to self-editing your novel contains some excellent pointers. If you also want to discover how to improve tension and pacing, create a brilliant ending, seamlessly segue into the next book in your series, and more (gasp for breath), it’s a resource you can’t afford to be without.