Congratulations, NaNoWriMo winners. And even congratulations to everyone who tried, even if your novel isn’t done yet! Keep plugging away at it. My first two years, I didn’t actually finish my story until December 6th.
I’ll never forget finishing my first NaNoWriMo, and after the elation of having actually done it faded, asking myself, “Now what?”
Which was code for “ok, now how do I get my masterpiece out into the world?”
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be yet another primer on self-publishing, or how to get an agent or any of the rest of that. Instead, this is about the process of going from first draft to final draft.
A caveat: This is what works for me. This is largely what I recommend to my clients. But as with everything in writing, there are many roads from here to there.
First: time and distance.
The very first thing you need from your manuscript is space. When you finally type “the end,” after blasting the whole story out of your brain, it’s all too jumbled up for you to truly assess it properly. So save your manuscript, back it up somewhere (because you never know!) and ignore it for a while.
How long? Give it two to three months. I know that sounds like forever, but seriously. That’s about how long I’ve found is necessary to forget how the story goes just enough to come back to it fresh later. If you try to move on before your brain has had a rest, you’ll end up telling yourself beautiful lies about what’s in the story, rather than seeing what’s actually there.
In the meantime, start your next book.
Second: revise, revise, revise.
Re-read the whole manuscript. Make a lot of notes for yourself about what you messed up, what you need to fix, pet-words you need to cull out, scene transitions that didn’t work very well, redundant scenes that could be skipped entirely, et cetera. Then dive in and do the work. You wrote the novel the first time, so you should be well equipped for this part.
Third: seek external feedback
You could do this second, but I suggest doing a revision pass before seeking external feedback. The idea here is to make the manuscript the best work you are capable of producing before you start asking others to tell you how they feel about it. Otherwise, you’re likely to get little more than people telling you to fix stuff you already know needs fixing, and what’s the point of that?
If you are in a writing group with writers whose opinions you trust, obviously ask them to help you out. If not, find a good developmental editor (a.k.a. book doctor), who can give you serious feedback about the story structure, character development, and writing craft. A developmental editor will know what to tell you, but if you’re using a writing group, make sure to specifically ask for comments on story structure, characters, and writing. Otherwise, you’re more likely than not to get commentary that isn’t specific enough for you to take action on.
Fourth: revise, revise, revise.
Ideally, step three will generate a bunch of great feedback for you with specific things to address. Again, you know what to do here. The only thing I’ll say is not to take every piece of feedback you get as the gospel truth, indicating something you absolutely must fix. Be open minded, surely. Don’t dismiss the feedback out of hand. Consider it carefully, and evaluate what it would mean to the story as a whole to either do or not-do those things. But at the end of the day, it’s your story. You’re the only one who knows what you’re truly trying to do with it, so you’re the only one who can decide what is and isn’t right for it. So treat the feedback seriously, but if there’s some piece of feedback that doesn’t feel right to you, trust your heart on that.
Fifth. Get professional help.
No, not that kind of professional help. Sure, your characters may talk to you in the shower, but that doesn’t mean you’re crazy.
The professional help you need is in the form of a good line editor and copy editor. Doesn’t matter whether you’re going for traditional publishing or are intending to self-publish, you need these people.
Here’s the thing. Anymore, agents (and increasingly, publishers) are looking for near-flawless manuscripts. There are so many manuscripts out there, they can afford to be choosy. They can afford to wait for the rare, perfect diamonds to pop up in the slushpile. A good agent should (and will) do steps 3 and 4 with you again, so be prepared for that. But increasingly, table-stakes for getting that agent in the first place are a manuscript that doesn’t poke them in the eyes. With clumsy phrasing and silly mechanical errors.
For the self-publishers, the situation is somewhat scarier. You’re going straight to your audience, which can be wonderful and liberating, but they’re not going to cut you any breaks because you self-published. They’re not going see six typos in every chapter and say to themselves, “oh, well, that’s alright. I know this guy didn’t have the support of a professional publishing house behind him.” No. Your readers deserve—and they have every right to expect—that you’re selling them a product of the same professional quality as something that came through the traditional publishing route. It’s your reputation on the line.
Sixth: Now go read all those self-publishing and traditional-publishing primers
Now, finally, you should be possessed of a professional-quality manuscript. Your developmental editor helped you find all the structural issues so you could fix them. Your line editor helped make your prose flow as smooth as 30 year-old single malt. Your copy editor made sure your manuscript was mechanically spotless.
Now you’re ready to unleash your story upon the world.