You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What? – Part One

You did it! You stayed focused, sat down at your laptop or computer, and finished the manuscript of your novel.  This is an exhilarating moment. From Chapter One to The End, you have written a complete story that you’re proud of, and you know readers will love.  

I know from experience that once you get to the end of the manuscript, you can feel a sense of relief. You’re done. It’s over. Now you can go and binge-watch Pawn Stars.  But, this is not the end of your manuscript’s journey. Far from it.  So, let’s explore how best to proceed when getting ready for your manuscript’s adventure.

[Writer’s Note: When saving your manuscript files, always put the title and the revision date as the filename (Example: TheField_06102018). This will help when you start rewrites, and you can keep track of various drafts.]

1.         Take a Month Off!

Now, you can binge-watch those shows you’ve been putting off. You’ve earned it for all your hard work. But there’s a reason behind this month: to give you distance from your material. It’s hard to be objective right out of the gate when you’ve worked so hard and for so long on something as massive as a novel manuscript. During this time, don’t open the file, and don’t retrieve it from a drawer if you’ve printed it out. 

Leave. It. Alone.

This doesn’t mean you can’t THINK about the novel, and this is when your brain will start to work in mysterious ways. You’ll be on a walk, or watching TV, or reading, or in bed at 3AM, and all of a sudden, a new section of dialogue that links two sequences will pop into your head. A better sequencing of events, a better description of a character or location, even the idea that a chapter can be cut will all flow through your mind.

If you think of something during the time away, write it down. Have a legal pad, the notepad app on your phone, or a separate file on your computer available to write down any and all ideas, edits, additions, etc. that come to mind during this month away. You’re still creating, still working on the manuscript, but in a periphery way that allows you to think clearly about changes you might consider once you return to the manuscript.

Like it or not, that great draft you just wrote has a lot of problems, and your brain knows it and during this time will slowly begin to tell you what the issues are and ways to fix the problems. I know this from experience, and it’s 100% true that this phenomenon happens. “What if…” “Maybe I should…” “If I have them go right instead of left…” 

If you think of it, write it down. Even if you look back at it later and go, “That was a dumb idea!” at least you won’t be mad at yourself for not writing it down.

Now that it’s been about a month…

2.         Welcome Back! 

You have your new set of ideas and notes. You have written down notes on revised chapters, character moments, and description. Now is the time to start fleshing those out – again separately from the manuscript – indicating at the top of each new section where it goes in the story (Example: [Dialogue right before the campfire scene]).

Write it all out in any way you feel is best. Then, once you have all the new content written, rearrange the sections in the order they will be added to the manuscript.  Take a day or two away from these, see if anything else pops into your head (inevitably, it will), and then make any revisions you need to these new sections.

3.         Time to Return to Your Manuscript 

It’s been a while. You haven’t seen each other for a long time, but the feelings are still there. You’re a bit nervous – butterflies are fluttering in your stomach – as you begin to read the first chapter…and it’s not as good as you remember.  

Don’t panic.

The good news is that you A) recognize that there’s an issue, and B) you can resolve the problem at this early stage of the editing/rewriting.

As you read, if you find section you don’t like and want to rewrite them, highlight them in BOLD, and keep reading. That way, when you come back to start the rewrite process, you know what areas to focus on. If you are reading a printed version, use a highlighter to indicate where issues are. 

I recommend doing this initial read over a series of days. If your manuscript is 300 pages, read through 30 to 40 pages a day. This is your opportunity to dig deeper into your story and see opportunities to fix issues.  Read too much in one sitting, and you begin to gloss over things, and this exercise requires your full attention. 

While you’re reading, you can now drop the new material into the areas of the story where it belongs, or you can indicate with brackets, ALL CAPS, and in bold where these new sections will go: [ADD NEW CAR CHASE ENDING HERE].  Sometimes, when I’ve noticed a chapter hits a dead end, I’ve added [MORE HERE] to indicate there’s an issue.

Now, you’ve read the whole manuscript. Let it sit for a week, then come back to it again.

4.         Time for a Deep Dive

Only you know your story. What you want to say. How you want to tell the story. Who your characters are. It’s all in your head. And now is the time to really start focusing on these things and making sure the story you want to tell ends up on the page.

This can be a lengthy process but a rewarding one. As you begin the rewriting process, you are wearing two hats: WRITER and READER. Your story should be something you enjoy reading as much as you enjoyed writing it.

During this phase, take your time. Read each chapter closely. Does it convey information about the characters and story? Does the chapter move the story forward? At the end of the chapter, do I feel the need to keep reading?  These are good indicators that your story is working, and it’s essential to take the time to make sure that every piece of the puzzle fits how you want it to.

Make sure to add in the new stuff you wrote during your month off if you still like it. Some you may decide you don’t need, or what you wrote doesn’t work with the new direction you’re taking the chapter. That’s fine. Your goal here is to do what’s best for the story.

As you rewrite, you will feel compelled to rewrite entire sections, revise dialogue, and maybe even cut sections or chapters entirely. Maybe there’s a character who’s just there with no purpose. Time for them to go. 

These are all positive things for your story and your manuscript. You are taking steps to make your story better, have more clarity, and flow smoother.  All good things.

Again, take the time to work things through. This could take a month, three months, six months. Whatever is needed to get the story to be exactly how you want it to be.

If you finish and want to take another pass, take a week off and start again.

5.         Remember, Writing a Novel is a Marathon, Editing is an Exploratory Nature Hike 

Outlines. First Drafts. Second through Sixth Drafts. You’re confident that you’ve got a solid story. That’s great. Now, the real fun begins. 

Editing!

This is the technical part of the process. Yes, you would think that your writing software catches grammar and spelling mistakes 100% of the time, but it doesn’t. It also doesn’t catch when you’ve used the wrong word, put the wrong character name, or left a line in from one draft that now makes no sense in the context of the latest one.

I have two pieces of advice as you begin this process: Pace Yourself, and Avoid Skimming.

Pace Yourself

Take your time to explore and read each chapter thoroughly to catch as many errors as possible. Break the novel down into manageable chunks so you can go into each section with a clear head and focused mind. Find it and fix it. And, trust me, you’ll find stuff.

Avoid Skimming

An easy thing to do, especially if you know your story and novel, but skimming could mean a missed extra word, the wrong tense, incorrect word usage, or other issue goes unfixed. Read. Every. Word. 

During this process, if you do feel something is missing and should be added, do so. Since you are reading the story so closely now, you may find that there’s a story problem or a set-up missing a pay-off that you missed. Fix it now.

I have also started to use the program Grammarly to assist with editing my manuscripts and writing. It’s been a great resource and help, but even it has missed one or two things.  The trick is to implement as many tools as possible to weed out as many errors as possible.

Next week, we’ll delve into the world of Continuity.  See you then!

Writing Tip #6: Editing for Story Economy

The majority of films that come out on Blu-ray or DVD include deleted scenes that obviously were cut out of the final film.  Most of the time when you watch these scenes, you immediately can see why they were left out. Maybe they offered up redundant information.  Maybe they didn’t move the story forward.  Maybe the tone of the scene didn’t fit with the rest of the film’s narrative structure. 

When it comes to writing a novel, a screenplay, or any other narrative, story economy is a key part of the editing process.  To me, story economy is essentially cutting out any chapters, sequences, or moments that don’t a) move the story forward, b) tell the reader something of value they need to know for later, c) tie directly into the main narrative, or d) throw off the story’s pacing.

It’s important as a writer to put everything out on the page during your rough drafts and even multiple drafts after that.  But then really start to dig deeper into the story you have created and what you have presented on the page.  Is everything you wrote important and vital to telling this particular story? 

Probably not.

Look, I understand 100% that your novel, your script, or your play are like a delicate flower to you. You want to nourish it, help it grow, make it into something that is loved and cherished by you and others.  But in order for that flower to grow, the weeds around it have got to go!

I went through this process when writing my novel, The Field.  In fact, I cut a lot of weeds out when I got into hardcore editing for the sake of the story.  It didn’t matter if I loved the chapter, if I felt the chapter was well-written or creatively compelling.  If it didn’t do one of the four criteria I mentioned above, it was gone.

Story economy helps keep readers engaged by ensuring the pacing of the main story keeps building momentum.  It’s okay to break away from the main plot, as long as the secondary story – or B-story – ties in with the main narrative in some way over the course of the narrative. The last thing you need is for a reader to start asking “Is there a point to this storyline?” as they are reading your book or script.

So, as you begin to read through and fine tune your manuscript, ask yourself:

  • Does this chapter or scene move the story forward?
  • Does this chapter or scene tell the reader something of value they need to know for later?
  • Does this chapter or scene tie directly into the main narrative?
  • Does this chapter or scene throw off the story’s pacing?

By doing this you can help tighten your story and bring the main conflict and key elements into focus for both yourself and your readers.