In Anne Lamott‘s words, your crappy first draft is done, pretty much what you’ve verbally vomited onto paper/screen/napkin, whatever. So what’s next?
The next thing you do is pat yourself on the back. Well done! You’ve written an entire novel. WOOHOO! Now comes the hard part. Just kidding, but not really. I say that it’s hard because self-editing is tough for most and getting criticism from your beta-readers can be even more so. Take a deep breath … your novel will be better for it even if it’s worse than pounding nails into your skull. Ok, it’s not that bad … more like thumb tacks.
Keep in mind that these are MY steps and what works for me. Other authors and experts on writing may have other ideas.
Step One: Self Editing. This step is important because you’ll go back through your draft with a fine-toothed comb, looking for punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors. It’s a two-fold step because you’re also looking for any structural inconsistencies like unresolved plot points or loose ends, or even thin character development that you may need to fix in the next round. I like to keep a notebook handy to jot these down. If you are new to the phenomenon of self-editing, I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Step Two: Self Editing, part 2. This is the next time you will read your novel from beginning to end with your incorporated changes from Step One, part 1. This time, with an extra fine-toothed comb to see if you missed anything the first time around. You are also reading for flow and pacing as well as keeping an eye on structure/plot, etc. If you find yourself being jarred, then fix. The experience to the reader should be uninterrupted and smooth. If a sentence doesn’t work, eliminate. Remember, less can be more.
Step Three: Critique Group. If you have a critique group, terrific. If not, a great place to find one is your local SCBWI chapter. You can also ask any trusted friends or family to be your first readers but keep in mind that they are usually biased because they love you (which is TOTALLY fine but you may want some more objective advice). My mom is one of my beta readers but she is also a linguist and literature professor. If you have trusted colleagues who are writers, you can also ask them if they are willing. Keep in mind that they could be busy with their projects/deadlines so make sure it’s someone you know well.
Step Four: Feedback. Hopefully you’ve asked a couple people to read your manuscript and they’ve all come back to you with some feedback. Remember, you ASKED them to do this, so keep an open mind. They are there to help you get your novel into great shape. If there is something you disagree with, discuss it with them. See where they are coming from. Don’t get mad and blow a relationship into oblivion. This is no time to be sensitive. Unless they are secretly someone who wants you to fail (totally possible), then they want to help. Take their suggestions on board. If a similar change comes up from multiple people, chances are, they are right and you need to edit your work. But if you’re on the fence about one thing from one person, go with your gut. It’s YOUR book and opinions are subjective.
Step Five: Editing. Now you need to combine all of the feedback and edit any changes that make sense into your novel. The good thing is another set of eyes will also pick up any grammatical things you may have missed on your own go-around, so fix those. For the larger structural things, go down your notebook list and see what makes sense for YOU and YOUR book.
The next couple steps are dependent on the amount of changes you made. If you had large structural changes based on a discussion with your critique partners, then you need to have them re-read based on your edits to make sure you achieved your goal. If the changes were minor, then read your manuscript one last time, and start working on your QUERY LETTER!