First Draft Finished – What Now?
Last month I finished the first draft of my first novel. I had a beer and took a holiday. I’m back and the manuscript keeps looking at me. I try to ignore it. It laughs, says “I thought so,” and then stops looking at me in a way that makes it really clear it is still looking at me. So what do I do with it now?
Obviously, I’m not going to let anyone read the first draft. There’s a long process of editing to get through before I even think about trying publishers or agents. But how do you turn a first draft into a final draft?
I have planned out roughly six phases.
Phase 1: First read through and restructuring (estimated time: 3 weeks).
The first thing to do is sit down and read the book. I have printed it out doubled spaced on single sides and put it into two large ringbinders (the first draft is a great deal longer than I originally planned).
I don’t really care too much about spelling and grammar. Those things are important. But the first readthrough is all about the story. Is there a clear arc? Does it make sense? Is it coherent? Fun? Scary? God forbid, boring?
I have started producing a planning document to annotate alongside the readthrough. This helps me to see the novel as a whole, showing who does what when, the key objectives of the characters and how each scene contributes to the ongoing story. It will incorporate the notes for future changes I made as I was writing the first draft, as well as new notes I take during the readthrough.
One of the largest challenges I face is that my first draft more than 163,000 words long – around 650 pages in standard print. That is a long, even for a fantasy novel, and especially for a first time author. Long books cost more to print and are therefore a riskier proposition for a publisher. It probably suggests a lot of unnecessary gumf that can be cut. So part of phase 1 is looking out for sections that are unnecessary for the story, so that I can cut the document down in size (ideally to something like 125,000 words or 500 pages – that’s in the “big but reasonable for fantasy” range).
Phase 2: New writing (4 weeks) and initial polish (1 weeks)
In this phase I will redraft each chapter in turn, using the notes from the first readthrough and adding new scenes as required. It is very hard to say how long new writing will take before I know how much new writing I will need! 4 weeks seems like as good a stab in the dark as any.
Once I have the story cleaned up and all new writing written, I will go through the whole book again for the first polish. Now I start caring about spelling and grammar. I should try to get the book into a state where I might actually let someone read it. But I’m not going to let anybody read it yet.
Phase 3: Put it in a drawer (1 month)
When you have been working on something for a long time, you stop seeing what is actually on the page and can only read what is in your head. To combat this, I like scheduling into my editing process some time when I put it in a metaphorical drawer and don’t look at it at all.
This is common advice in many parts of the industry, from screenwriter Michael Hauge to novelist Stephen King. Alternatively, you may be like Russel T Davies and do everything two weeks after the deadline before emailing it in at 0400 in the morning fresh off your word-processor (The Writer’s Tale is an excellent read and highly recommended). But I have to say, even if you are as sublimely talented as Davies, scheduling in some “drawer time” is a great deal less stressful!
I’ve seen advice ranging anywhere from a week to three months as being ideal duration. In the end, your deadlines will dictate. I’d like to have this book sent to publishers and bringing me a healthy stream of rejection letters by the end of the year, so that gives me a month drawer time.
Phase 4: Re-edit with “fresh eyes” (2 weeks)
Hopefully, when I pick it up out of the drawer (which is to say, I print it off out of my dropbox), it will be as if I’m reading it for the first time. Fresh eyes will help me see if the story works on paper, and not just in my head.
This will be the first edit where I really start caring about things like grammar, spelling and sentence construction. That isn’t to say I don’t normally care. But in the earlier stages of writing and editing large scale structural changes are common. You can easily waste a lot of time drafting a perfect sentence that you subsequently cut.
If I’m lucky, editing for spelling and grammar will be all that is required. If I’m unlucky, I’ll spot major flaws and have to do some major surgery. If I’m really unlucky, I’ll fail to spot major flaws and the next step will go horribly. Truth be told, “unlucky” she be labelled “most probably outcome” and to fit this phase in two weeks will require so elbow grease.
Phase 5: Give it to reader(s) (3 months)
Ah, the all important first readthroughs. Terrifying for several reasons. If I’m giving the book to people to read some time around September, I will have been working on it for 29 months. I stopped work to write this (erm, and bring up a baby, but an important part of fatherhood is to ensure your children understand they are a secondary objective). This little (ok, big) stack of paper is the realisation of the lifelong dream. When the first person turns round as says “erm, it was ok, I suppose” I’m going to feel like I’ve been stabbed repeatedly in the chest with a butter knife.
That’s ok, and its part of the process. But who do I get to do the first readthroughs? And what is it reasonable to ask of them? In the ideal world, I’d love to get a manuscript back covered in notes, with an accompanying questionnaire completed and all sorts of ideas about continuity, plot structure and themes contained within. But even if that were a reasonable request, how long is a reasonable time to ask someone to finish a readthrough, bearing in mind a) they have lives, jobs and families, and b) I want to be finished by the end of the year)?
I have estimated 3 months as a reasonable turnaround. That may actually be giving people far too long (ie. long enough that they put it in a drawer and forget about it) – but I figure this is more a case of having a three month window in which anyone lovely enough to agree to give it a read can find the space they need to do so.
While this is going on I’m going to start writing another book. I figure I’ll keep on writing them until I write a good one. Then I’ll write some more!
Phase 6: Edit in line with reader comments (1 month)
Like the first edits, the first reader readthroughs are not really about grammar and spelling. Ideally, you’ll get an idea of which bits they liked, where they got bored/started skipping ahead, and which bits confused them/actually made no sense. Feedback like “but didn’t she fire the last round on page 200” and “I had no idea what was going on here, who are the people on the horses?”, or “why the hell is she marrying Ron Weasley when he’s so obviously beneath her?” is all good stuff.
Now is the time to start killing your babies (so to speak). If everyone comes back saying that the carefully drafted romance between the farmboy and the assassin is dull and doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, it’s probably time to cut it. No point in having readers if you don’t listen to them. I do expect that this will be difficult. But, if I can’t get the story to the point where a bunch of people who like me enough to be prepared to read my stupid unpublished novel will say that they like it, then it isn’t good enough to be published.
Note that I’ve given myself one month to deal with reader comments. I’m assuming there will be problems! I also expect that, after three months of not looking at the draft, new issues will arise that I hadn’t thought of before. Finally, this is the draft that has to be perfect. No spelling mistakes, no dodgy sentences, no fewers that ought to be less.
Ok, then what?
If my wild stab in the dark estimates are correct, I’ll have a read-by-other-people and fully editing novel around Christmas time. At this point I’ll start sending the pitch to agents and publishers, while I continue saving up for self-publishing should the miracle not occur. I don’t know if self-publishing is a good idea or not. File firmly as a problem for future Keith – at the moment the most important thing is writing the best book I possibly can. On to phase 1! Wish me luck!