The End... For Now – how to proceed beyond your novel's first draft

Antique typewriter – The Darling Axe Editing Services and Novel Development – First draft advice blog post


By Michelle Barker


So—you’ve finished the first draft of your novel. You’ve experienced the euphoria of writing The End. You’ve even gone back and cut and pasted, added scenes, rewritten whole chapters.

It’s ready for a professional edit, isn’t it?

Well. At this stage it’s usually more like The End . . . For Now.

There are two things you can (and should) do before you send your work to a professional editor—two of the most beneficial revision strategies I know of.

Do Nothing

That’s right. For three months, don’t touch it. Start a new writing project, plant a garden, reread the classics—but don’t look at your manuscript.

This sounds easy. It isn’t. You will be tempted to peek. Just the first chapters, you’ll tell yourself. Just to see if they’re any good. Resist that temptation if you can.

Why three months? It seems to be the optimum amount of time: long enough to sever those emotional ties you have to your work. Long enough for you to almost forget you wrote the thing.

When you come back to your manuscript, I guarantee you’ll be surprised. First of all, it will be better than you thought. But second, and more importantly, there will be things wrong with it—and you will see what they are, immediately. That manuscript you thought was ready for prime-time viewing: it still needs work and you know exactly what to do.

The character of John you adored three months ago? Now you see he doesn’t really serve a purpose. You cut him. It doesn’t hurt.

That long description of the hillsides you were so in love with? You have no trouble admitting that it neither advances the story nor develops character. You cut it down to two sentences. You don’t miss the rest. The story flows better without it.

Another thing that happens when you come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes: you spot things like thematic connections and symbols you had no idea were there. Most of this is stuff you did without even realizing it (yes, you are that smart). The trick now is to tease out these connections with a light touch, plant the seeds that need planting—and then walk away and trust your reader to get it.

Sometimes you read through the entire manuscript and by the end of it you have that sinking feeling you need to start again. It has happened to me more than once. I’m not going to lie: that does hurt. But I have never regretted doing it. And, PS, I don’t know many authors who haven’t had to start a novel over. John Green says he deletes as much as 90% of his first drafts. So if this happens to you, you’re in good company.

Once you’ve worked through the manuscript after this three-month hiatus and have done all the revision you can, there is still one more thing you can do that will be incredibly beneficial.

Read It Out Loud

Yes, the whole novel. Yes, out loud.

I read mine to my cat. She thinks I’m insane. I don’t care.

I was skeptical when my first professional editor made me do this, but I now do it with every novel I write—because it works. What the eye glosses over, the ear will pick up like nails across a blackboard. Awkward dialogue, pet phrases you repeat without realizing it, illogical plot leaps, things that just don’t make sense—all of it will come to light when you read your work out loud.

Both of these processes might seem time-consuming, but your manuscript will be much stronger for having done them.

Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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