Updated: May 23, 2020
This week we will be looking at what’s next after you’ve finished your first draft.
So you’ve written an entire novel? Wow! You should be proud. Sit back for a moment and revel in the glow of your achievement. Take some time to reward yourself for this toil. Whether it took one month or years to write you have done an amazing job. Perhaps a bottle of bubbly is in order.
However you want to celebrate, please ensure that you treat yourself. You have reached a milestone and that is a big deal. Is it ready to send out to agents? Probably not, but don’t let that spoil your success. You’ve done the hard work. You’ve got this!
When you are ready, read through your first draft. Have your notebook to hand and jot down the answers to the following questions; this will give you a great reference point for when you start the next tasks - rewriting, foregrounding the themes, and deciding whose story this is.
1) Who is the narrator? Whose point of view is the story told from? If more than one character then jot down all their names. Are they the right people to tell this story? Do each of them have something important to add?
2) What is the story about? Plot and theme. The plot part will help when you have to write a synopsis and or blurb. The theme part will help when you are rewriting. What are you trying to tell people? What do you want them to take away from the book?
3) Are there recurring motifs? What are they and what do they mean?
4) How well are your main characters described? Does the story bring them to life? Are they sympathetic?
5) Does the structure of the story include crisis points and build ups in tension? What do these look like and when do they occur?
6) Does the story make sense? Have you left any gaping plot holes? Do the characters behave in predictable or at least explainable ways? If they behave out of character is it possible to see why?
7) Does the overall structure of the story have a beginning a middle and an end? Is the beginning exciting? Will it ensure people want to keep turning the pages. Are there parts of the story that bore you with unnecessary details or information?
8) Where does the writing sit on the spectrum of showing vs telling? Have you managed to show your characters in action or have you simply reported on what happens without allowing readers to get under the characters’ skins?
9) If this is part of a series have you managed to provide a satisfactory ending, tying up most of the loose ends, while also providing some sort of cliff-hanger that will sell the next book in the series?
10) Does every chapter add to the story or develop a main character?
11) What is the best title for your story?
How did that feel? Do you have a better grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of your novel and which parts need more work? Are you overwhelmed at the task ahead? Don’t be. Remember the hardest part is over. You have a plot and now you’re just strengthening it.
If you feel you don’t have the skills to answer these questions or you are too close to see what’s there you have a couple of options.
1) Leave the draft to one side for a while and write something new. Come back to it a month or so later and try the exercise again when you aren’t as close to the story.
2) Ask someone else to do this for you. There are companies who will read and produce a report on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel. It is one of the services I offer.
In fact I will provide this service for free for one of the people who comment below with the title (working title is fine) of their work in progress or finished first draft and who also share this blog post for me to spread the word. Include a link to where you shared the post in your comment. I will choose the winner after my series of articles has ended so make sure you leave enough information so that I can contact you if you win.
If you don’t want to pay someone to do this for you and you are lucky enough to have skilled beta readers you are welcome to copy this list and include it with the document you send to them for their feedback.
3) Train yourself to be able to answer these questions by trying it with a book you read but didn’t write.
Once you know what the strengths and weaknesses are you can start the process of rewriting
Without knowing your answers I can only offer general guidelines. So here are some things that may or may not be relevant to you.
1) Can you reduce the number of narrators? Does that involve losing any important parts of the story? Can you amalgamate some of the characters so that each one covers more of the important elements of the story?
2) How can you foreground the themes in your story?
“Theme is the heart of the story. Sometimes the theme will be clear before the first word is written, or sometimes the writer will start with a hunch and use the novel to discover exactly what to say.”i
The best themes say something about a universal human truth: redemption, love, revenge, greed, freedom, survival, self-awareness, etc.
Leo Tolstoy is quoted as saying - “The most important thing in a work of art is that it should have a kind of focus, that is, there should be some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue.”
That focus is your theme and once you know what the theme of your novel is you can check that the plot events converge upon it or emerge from it.
Foregrounding your theme may mean cutting parts of the first draft that do not support the theme or actually go against it. Foregrounding can also be done by the use of analogies and allegory. Look at individual scenes and see how you can play with dialogue, action, setting to support your theme.
i From “Writing a Novel”, by Nigel Watts. ISBN 9780340867624
3) Recurring motifs can be present across all your work. For example I frequently use water – rain, showers, lakes as a way of showing the cleansing of sins, or washing away guilt. You may do something similar. These can be powerful if they reflect your theme, or just interesting to note from a psychological viewpoint if not. Becoming aware of these motifs can help you understand yourself and will also allow readers to glimpse behind the curtain at the author.
4) Do you provide physical descriptions of your characters? Could someone use your book to create psychological profiles of your main characters. What does each character represent in relation to the theme of your novel? Is there enough back story to allow readers to understand what motivates the character? Do the objects they own represent something about them? Are they real enough?
5) Is your story exciting? Does it trail off somewhere along the way? Are any of the chapters boring? While you are rewriting try to ensure that the story keeps the reader engaged.
6) Fill in your plot holes – how did Character X get that gun? How was Character Y injured? When did Character Z learn that his wife was cheating? Do you have a throughline? A dramatic throughline asks a question that is central to the structure of your story – Will the main character succeed, fail or give up?
7) Showing v Telling - If you find yourself writing sentences like this - “After a bowl of soup, Clarice decided it was time to leave.” Think about how you can show the action rather than simply tell it, e.g. in dialogue -
“This delicious soup has thawed me out. I feel ready to head back outside now, Robert. Thank you,” Clarice said, pushing the empty bowl a few centimetres away.
Both telling and showing are valid ways to progress a story, but the balance is important. If you are telling everything you are likely to lose your reader.
From “The Art of Fiction” by David Lodge -
“The purest form of showing is the quoted speech of characters, in which language exactly mirrors the event (because the event is linguistic). The purest form of telling is authorial summary, in which the conciseness and the abstraction of the narrator’s language effaces the particularity and individuality of the characters and their actions.”
Now it’s time to open a door
This is the point at which asking for feedback from beta readers will be of most value. You have strengthened your story, ensured your characters are as full as possible and murdered your children by ruthlessly cutting any sections that are boring or don’t progress the plot, themes or characters. Find out what your readers think. Remember that their opinions, while useful, are not gospel. A rule of thumb is that if they say X doesn’t work you should do Y instead, you should re-examine that part of the story. This is especially true if more than one reader points to the same part. However, while they are probably right about the problem they may be wrong about the solution. Instead decide for yourself the best way to solve the issue. It isn’t always easy to accept criticism, but try not to get defensive of your work. Most beta readers are generous and genuine in their feedback and they are giving you their time to help you improve your craft.
You can see that there is still some work ahead, but the work should not daunt you. We are perfecting now and this is the time you can polish your work and make it shine.
Don’t forget to leave a comment below and share this guide to novel writing for a chance to win a free report on the strengths and weaknesses of your text. The timetable for the report will be negotiated between the winner and myself to ensure that it is useful and achievable in line with other commitments.
We will be discussing editing. I will take you through the process of checking for consistency, avoiding unwanted repetition. Creating a style sheet and using it as a reference, plugging any remaining plot holes and strengthening character arcs.
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.
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