David Louis Edelman January 21st, 2008
So you decided to write a novel, you committed yourself to the task, and you agonized your way through your first draft — as described in How to Write a Novel (Part 1). Now one of two things will happen:
1) You’ll print that sucker out and add a title page. You’ll type up a page dedicating the book to your sister Chloë in Venice, whose steadfast support and witty observations helped you get through the tough parts, and who served as the inspiration for the character of Empress Fögelschmëer (the Younger). You’ll add a cover letter, mail the whole package off to Random House, and watch the royalty checks flow in. Or,
2) You’ll look at what you’ve written and realize it ain’t publishable.
Most writers — even the successful ones — fall into that second camp. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Months or even years will have passed since you started, and the world’s not the same place. You’re not the same person. So it’s only natural that the story has wandered onto unforeseen paths. It’s only natural you look back at those early chapters and shake your head and think, How naive that guy was who wrote this stuff.
Don’t despair. Here’s a path (my path) of getting from first draft to final draft. As before, keep in mind that your mileage may vary.
Step 8: Send the book off to your first readers. You need a small number of people who will agree to read your book and give you the unvarnished truth about it. This might be a writing group or a local book group or (most likely) a few select friends and family members. Try to choose people who are representative of your target audience, and who you trust not to just butter you up with useless flattery.
Tell your first readers you don’t need to know that you misspelled the word “pernicious” on pages 36 and 129; you need to know the answers to the broad questions. Does the book work? Are the characters sympathetic (or not sympathetic, as the case may be)? Is the book interesting, boring, confusing, amusing, intriguing? Assure them that you want The Truth and that you won’t take it personally if they don’t care for the book — as long as they tell you why.
Step 9: Read the book yourself from start to finish, and identify the problems. This is where your critical faculties as a reader come into play. Print the book out and pretend you’ve never heard of Empress Fögelschmëer (the Younger) or the Quest for the Glittering Orb of Mint Jelly. In fact, pretend that you’ve just picked this book up at random in the bookstore and you’re skeptical about the whole thing. Read the book over, and start taking notes.
Chances are, you’ll discover many of the flaws right away. Pacing is often the biggest culprit in first drafts: things happen too quickly, or not quickly enough, or in the wrong order. Characters do the things they do, and you won’t quite buy their motivations for doing them. Parts of the book might hang together just fine, but they don’t feel satisfying.
Step 10: Get your first readers’ feedback, and listen to it. This is the difficult part: you need to listen to your first readers. Really, really listen. You cannot argue with them. At all. They’re going to try to sugar-coat their criticisms, because they don’t want to make you angry or disappointed. And they’re going to be biased anyway, because they’re your friends and they probably share your worldview to a certain extent. So you need to very patiently coax the truth out of them, and let them do most of the talking.
If you did step 9 correctly, you’ll probably anticipate most of their criticisms. So you’re looking for two things: (1) validation of your conclusions from Step 9, and (2) consensus on things you missed in Step 9. Of course, not every criticism you get is worth following up on. But if three of your trusted first readers all tell you independently that it just doesn’t feel right for Aslan the King of Narnia to be a toad, it might be time to reevaluate some of your choices.
Step 11: Start writing your second draft from the beginning. This time around, don’t skip willy-nilly to whatever section suits your fancy at the moment. Start with a blank screen and a big “Chapter 1” at the top, and proceed in order (as much as you can) until you hit “The End.” I usually have both the first draft and the second draft open, and I Alt+Tab between them as I write. I read a few sentences from draft 1, contemplate for a moment, Alt+Tab, and then type draft 2. Sometimes the sentences will be the same, sometimes they’ll be radically different, sometimes I’ll drift off and add whole new paragraphs.
Why start from the beginning this time and write in order? Because this time, you want to get into the flow of the novel. You want to be mindful of the transitions. You want to keep things like pacing and foreshadowing foremost on your mind. This time you know where the story’s going, and you know where it needs to go this chapter in order for the next chapter to work.
Step 12: Be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to make major changes. If you’re going to make any major changes to the novel, this is the time. Restructure things, change POVs, combine characters or get rid of them altogether. When in doubt, try hitting the Delete key. Don’t be afraid that the Muse will be so offended at your edits that she’ll pack up and abandon you entirely. (Besides which, who says you can’t recycle those excised passages in a later chapter, or a later book?)
One of the hardest things you’ll need to learn how to do is to let go of the troublesome parts of your book. All of your first readers will agree that it would be better if Frodo and Sam headed into Mordor without Clumsy Cousin Mungo, but even though you know they’re right, you absolutely love Clumsy Cousin Mungo, and you refuse to cut him out. I’m sorry, but sometimes you just have to give Clumsy Cousin Mungo the guillotine. Who said writing a novel was easy?
Step 13: Get serious about outlining as you go. By the time I’m well into my second draft, I’ve started constructing a very serious outline. For each chapter, I list the date that the action takes place, and then a two or three sentence synopsis of what happens in that chapter. And then I change the color of the text for each different point of view character. In MultiReal, I used black text for Natch, blue text for Jara, red text for Magan Kai Lee, and green text for any other points of view (such as a tertiary character or an omniscient POV).
Why do I go to all that trouble? It’s a good way to get a bird’s-eye view of the action. The color coding helps substantially, because I can glance through the outline and see that there’s a long spell in the middle of the book where character A disappears, or there’s too much of character B at one particular junction. Having the dates written down can be a lifesaver if you’ve got the type of book that’s time-sensitive. (It can also help you figure out what kind of weather to sprinkle into the background of the story.)
Step 14: Make decisions, and stick to them. Just like you have to commit to writing your novel, you need to get serious about making tough decisions in the writing of it. Can’t decide if your characters should act a certain way, or if you should use a certain point-of-view, or if you should include a particular scene? You’ll need to make these tough decisions at some point, and you’ll need to stick to them. You can’t keep vacillating the gender of your main character the whole way through, and you don’t want to dig through the book at the last minute to tease out all the inconsistencies. Decide.
When confronting tough decisions, it helps if you stop thinking of your choices as a shell game, where the “right” answer lies under one of your decisions. Every writing choice is the right choice, as long as you make it the right choice. There’s no Big English Professor in the Sky passing judgment on your work. Commit to a choice and make it work, and you’ll never go wrong.
Step 15: Go back to your first readers when the second draft is done. If you’ve listened carefully and done the hard work, you’ll hear comments like, “It’s like a completely different book!” And if you actually took some of the suggestions your readers gave you the first time around, they’re more likely to be forthcoming about their criticisms this time. Make sure you let your readers know that you’re heading into the home stretch. Tell them it’s too late to make any big alterations in the book at this point — because you made your commitments in step 14. Now you’re looking for inconsistencies, false notes, individual chapters that don’t work.
You might also want to expand your circle of readers at this point. Consider handing the book to people outside your immediate circle of trust. If you’re almost done, it should almost be ready for their consumption anyway, right?
Step 16: Print out your second draft and edit on paper from here on out. Most writers will tell you the same thing: compose your novel however you feel comfortable composing it, but you need to read the whole thing through on the printed page at some point. It’s hard to say why. The human brain seems to have different gears for typing and writing longhand, and you need to switch gears at this point.
Use a colored pen. Read carefully. Mark that puppy up, and don’t worry that you’re going to overdo it. The photograph you see here is a sample page from the fourth draft of my novel MultiReal. You don’t necessarily need to get that meticulous, of course, but if you feel the book still needs work, there’s nothing stopping you.
Step 17: Continue fine tuning until you reach the point of diminishing returns. There’s a common myth that writers don’t complete books, they just abandon them. But the reality is that you do reach that point of diminishing returns. You’ll never write an absolutely perfect book — there’s always one more comma to add, one more metaphor to tweak — but you will get to the point where you recognize that your obsessive tweaking isn’t improving the book.
How do you know when your book is done? That’s easy: when you can read it, start to finish, and be satisfied with every single paragraph. If you come across a chapter or a sentence you don’t like, rewrite it. If you still don’t like it, rewrite it again. Some chapters will only take two or three passes, but some chapters might require five or ten or even twenty rewrites.
Step 18: Finish when you finish. When do you type those magical words, “THE END”? When can you stop saying “I’m writing a novel” and start saying “I’ve written a novel”? Only you can know. You’re going to have to resist calls from well-meaning friends and relatives to “just send it in already” because “it’s good enough.” Guess what? It’s your book. You’re the only one who really knows when it’s good enough.
Congratulations, you’ve finished your novel. Now the real fun begins. The wonderful world of publishers, agents, editors, proofreaders, typesetters, book buyers, and Amazon reviewers awaits…