You might be like me, especially if you got here from one of my links to the post. You’re a writer, working on the draft of something, and potentially doing NaNoWriMo. If you’re on track, you’ve got at least thirty-thousand words already, and the big 50K is in sight. You have friends who want to read what you’re working on, and you’re seeing people already discussing their publishing plans.
They’re going to sell their book all over the place, and if you don’t act fast, YOUR novel is going to be lost in the rush so YOU BETTER FINISH AND SEND IT RIGHT NOW SO YOU CAN SELL A BILLION BOOKS
NOT SO FAST, FELLOW WRITER!
I’m not an agent, and I don’t work in publishing. I’m not published either, and if I were perfectly honest, don’t think I’ve got a draft novel that’s yet in a publishable state. The question is, do you? Before you send off your finished novel to agents or self-publishing printing presses, there’s some things that need to be done.
For the NaNo crowd: If you hit 50K and you’re not finished, don’t even think about giving it to anybody. Keep writing until you have a complete first draft.
Alright, first draft. Yes. Awesome. Now we publish!
Really? You haven’t worked out how this works yet?
There are a few ways we can do this, and the choice is yours. The rest of this is just my own take on an approach, and it won’t work for everybody. Mightn’t even work for me! The main thing is read, rewrite, revise, repeat as necessary. No first draft should be published. Ever. Not Ever.
You need to give yourself time before you can judge it. You’ll most likely be in one of two frame of minds – everything you wrote is brilliant, or everything you wrote is terrible. The truth is unlikely to be either of those, and while it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to completely distance yourself from your writing (it’s all personal, after all), the more you forget about what you wrote, the easier it will be to gauge the flow.
You need to read your own story. You may have written it, but reading it is a different beast. You need one read-through that is simply that, a read. Then a second read. The second one is a more detailed read, and this is where the editing really begins. You will spot typos and grammatical errors at this stage, there will be weak sentences or things that just don’t make sense. The real thing to look out for at this stage, is structure and consistency (which go together like cheese and crackers).
Structural editing is where you look at the overall events that occur, with an eye to making the events as powerful as they can be, increasing the effectiveness of the writing, and ensuring that the various elements work together. It might be better for a complication in the story, something that goes wrong for the protagonist, to happen earlier in the story’s timeline. That might require their actions to change, or to have alternate motivations. This is where questions over whether a scene adds to the story should be raised. Some suggest that anything that doesn’t add to the plot should be stripped from a draft, though it’s really a matter of whether or not they fit. A scene you like may not add to the immediate plot, but be an important part of characterisation for an antagonist, reflect the themes of your story, or add imagery or tone to the setting. Hair colour doesn’t always add to plot. Favourite foods, nope. The random details in the crowd, no. These add to the feel of the story, the environment and the characters – these are the details that encourage a reader to suspend disbelief.
It’s important that there is consistency in the story. If you have unalterable rules that can’t be broken, yet that are halfway through chapter twelve, you have a plot hole. If a supporting character was searching for a lost object, then suddenly abandons the search for no apparent reason, that’s not going to work. You’ll also find these more if you do move scenes around. You might have originally had a character fly to London after a death in the family, but then found it better to have them start the story there. If the flight itself is important, things need to change. Did your protagonist get arrested before she stole the car because you wanted her bail-out scene with an ex to be earlier? It’s an inconsistency.
Once you’ve worked out where things are supposed to go, and what the ‘true’ sequence of events should be (as opposed to the parallel universe versions of the story that you began with), you read through again. Pinpoint what needs to be rewritten, all the way through. You could rewrite as you do that, but it’s probably quicker on the whole to rewrite once you know everything that needs to be rewritten, and it’s more likely to lead to a productive flow of words and brilliance if it’s a prolonged habit, rather than handled piecemeal.
Read it again!
As you’ve gone about this, you’ll have probably fixed some lines here and there, typos and whatever you’ve noticed. You haven’t got them all. Time for a line-by-line edit, where you’re not so concerned with reading it, as you are looking for problems. Print it out, as doing this on paper sometimes gets us out of the writer mindset (no offense, but it’s the same one that wrote the problems to begin with – you need to wear another hat).
If you’re thinking that a spell-check is all you need before you’re good to publish, please tell me who you are in the comments so I never buy your books. A spell check does exactly that. It doesn’t look for plot holes or poor writing or cliches or terrible twists. It might look at grammar, but that doesn’t fix things.
Once you’ve gone through, you know what? READ IT AGAIN. You’ll probably end up reading this more than anyone that would even buy your book would. If you can get through with thinking “I should change that” only a handful of times, then you’re ready to show other people. That’s not a greenlight to publish, but to merely show others. You want people that will read it and tell you what they like, what they didn’t, what didn’t make sense, what was predictable, what surprised them, who they liked and more. You need more than “Great stuff!” or “Not Bad”. Take their feedback, and tell them they’re stupid and illiterate whenever they say anything bad.
No wait, let’s not. Try to see where they’re coming from, and think about if those are true or not. They very well might be. If you see the need for changes, revise, rewrite and re-read until you’re satisfied. Strongly consider using a professional editor, and go through the process again. You don’t need to act on all of their advice, but don’t shrug it off – everything they say is intended to help you to make sure your novel is the best possible form of itself as it can be.
Maybe then, once you’ve got that best, you can think about submitting it.