I finished my first draft, now what?
You’ve slaved away over it. Bled and cried words on to the blank page. Finally, after months, years, weeks, you’ve typed those glorious words ‘The End.’ Now what? There’s a lot of conflicting advice on what to do once you’ve completed your manuscript. Some of it is common sense. Some depend on the writer and their personality. Some are rubbish.
This week, I’ve compiled a list of the things I do after I finish my first draft.
Congratulations! You’ve completed one of the hardest parts of writing. Many stories never make it past the first few chapters. You’ve entered into a new realm of possibilities. Take a few minutes to pat yourself on the back, share your milestone, and take a quick breather. The hardest part of the writing journey is about to begin.
2. Use grammar software.
Yes, you may be a grammar guru, but even grammar nazis miss things. This step is important and leads to the next step. When you get feedback on your story, you don’t want your workshoppers tripping over misspelled words, missing punctuation, and bad grammar. You want them to focus on the story and characters. So do yourself a favor and grammar check your manuscript.
3. Get feedback.
What? You mean I can’t just publish this beautiful masterpiece?
No. Well, you can, but don’t expect others to love it as much as you do. Join a writers group. Find some trusted readers. Workshop your manuscript. Other eyes on the project will find those holes you didn’t even know were there. They will point out the inconsistencies in characters and story. They will hunt down the world building that doesn’t make sense. If you have a fantastic group of workshoppers, they will brainstorm with you to find solutions to all of the problems.
4. Get some space.
Some writers need months. Some a few days. But, everyone needs a little time to absorb whatever feedback they’ve gotten. Time and space from the project let you think of ways to apply that feedback you got.
Does this mean you shouldn’t write anything? No. In fact, I find it helpful to work on several projects at once. They are in different stages of the process which allows me to keep my writing mo-jo while I mull over how to apply that feedback.
Take that feedback and apply it. Rewrite the scenes that need work. Cut the filler that doesn’t add anything. Don’t be afraid to strip your manuscript down to the bare bones. Gut that thing and rebuild it. They are just words. They don’t feel pain. They aren’t going to scream and bleed when you remove them.
6. Listen to your work.
I can’t emphasize this one enough. No matter what stage your work is in, run it through text-to-speech software or have someone read it out loud to you. Don’t read it to yourself. You will automatically fill in missing words or auto-correct the intention when you read out loud. Text-to-speech software reads what is on the screen. So it’s easy to hear those missing words, the clunky sentences, and the cheesy dialogue.
7. Read through the manuscript multiple times without making tweaks.
This is a hard one. Get to know your story. Make lots of notes. This is where having a printed copy comes in handy. Reading it without changing it can show you how the story flows. Where the story is slow. Where it turns into a break neck race. It gives you a feel for what the reader will experience when they pick the book up. Then, you can take your notes back to the scene level and fix or adjust those pacing issues.
8. Repeat steps 2 through 7 until you are ready to scream.
Not really. Well, sort of. There comes a point where the feedback you are getting is more nit-picky and less about story and more about style and individual reader preference. It can take some time as a new writer to discern the difference. But, it looks something like this:
1st draft big picture feedback: Character A is so wishy-washy. All of their development up to point x has shown them to be courageous to the point of stupidity. But at point x, they suddenly developed a brain and started strategizing. It’s inconsistent and feels unearned. What gives?
A little snarky, but it certainly points out a flaw that needs fixing. Character A changed mid-story without any lead-up or development. It’s an issue that would need to be addressed for the story to be believable.
Later draft feedback: I love Character A. You’re doing a great job of showing them being pulled between two opposing factions. I wish you spend more time in their point of view.
These are overly simplified, but the idea is that 1st draft feedback will look very different from later draft feedback. This is important to understand. I could take the advice from the later draft feedback and spend more time in Character A’s point of view, but at that stage, I’ve already honed the story into what I want it to be. Spending more time in that character’s POV might not be the best choice, and is really a reader preference, not a story/character flaw.
This is a step that you shouldn’t overlook no matter your publishing preference. Beta reads are crucial for getting a feel for how readers perceive your story as a whole. A good beta reader will give you gestalt feedback on your story in large chunks instead of chapter by chapter as happens in most workshop environments. This type of feedback gives you a good idea of how to market your story, what the potential reader reactions will be, and who your target audience is. Did you write what you thought was an adult romance, but your beta readers felt it was geared more toward young adults and was more urban fantasy than romance? This stage is one that can also be repeated if the beta feedback you get sends you in a new direction with your manuscript.
10. Final polish.
This is the most tedious of stages. This is the point where you go through the manuscript line by line, word by word, and polish. Look for missing words. Look for repetition that doesn’t belong (not all repetition is bad). Look for formatting inconsistencies. This is where having a grammar reference book like The Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk’s Elements of Style comes in handy. Go through your manuscript with a fine tooth comb.
If you are self-publishing, this is the point where you hire an editor or proofreader if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, this is the point where you spend many, many hours wading through your manuscript until your eyes cross and bleed looking for all the stuff you missed in previous passes.
If you plan to query an agent or publisher, then this is the stage that you make your manuscript as clean as possible. The cleaner, the better.
11. Query or Publish.
At this point, you either send out the queries to agents/publishers, or you start formatting to publish. This is when you are ready to boot your manuscript out the door and focus on your next project. Good job! You’ve made it, and now your manuscript is ready to sprout wings and fly.