How to Write the Final Draft of a Book
A good publisher or agent can tell within a few pages (or even sentences) how much work it will take to refine your novel into a publishable state. If a novel is going to be too labor intensive to edit, it’s not going to be worth their time and your inbox will quickly collect a pile of rejection letters. It will also leave them with a poor overall impression of you if dozens of problems leap out right away. Additionally, a professional can tell within those same couple of pages whether or not your writing is going to be able to grab the reader’s attention and hook them in for the long haul.
Some obvious red flags for potential partners might include:
- Too many characters introduced too early.
- A weak grasp on point of view (PoV changes mid scene, unclear PoV, etc.)
- Boring settings and stale atmosphere.
- Tepid prologue or opening scene.
- Lack of clear direction and poor pacing.
Once you have completed a first draft of your novel, the next step is to dive head first into the revising process. You will need to shore up any of these weaknesses by polishing your plot and prose and cutting out any filler and typos. There are numerous stages or aspects to the revising process, ranging from big picture edits to your plotline, to line by line edits to improve word choice, sentence structure, and grammar.
You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression, so you are going to want to do everything in your power to make your novel scream “I will sell” before you place it in the hands of a potential agent or publisher.
Before you start the final draft, it’s good to take a short break from your manuscript, somewhere between a few weeks to a month or two, in order to reinvigorate your inner editor and approach your revisions with the freshest eyes possible (closer to those of a new reader who knows nothing yet about your story).
Creating a plan for revising your novel
The next step when you are ready to sit back down with your story is to come up with a revising plan, ensuring that your self-editing has clear, complete goals, as well as an efficient process for meeting them. Before you crystalize your strategy, it’s a good idea to take a few days to ponder some big picture questions such as:
- Does my story have any holes or weak links in the plot?
- Is the overall pacing of my novel as tight as I can make it (not slowing down or skipping ahead where it shouldn’t)?
- What might I add, cut, or compress to correct this?
- Are my characters presented as complete people (goals, personality, life history, arcs)?
- It is easy to understand where my central characters are coming from? Can I empathize with their relatable goals?
Once you have finished, it’s time to form a self-editing plan for revising your novel. Rather than attempting to fix everything at once, most authors find that it helps to break down their revising into several distinct passes or stages.
Revising in distinct stages
Arriving at a final draft of your novel is going to require a fair amount of revision. The work begins during the early stages of drafting, but even a complete draft is likely to take several rounds of mindful edits before your work is done.
One effective way to plan out your revision is to take several passes, each of which focuses on improving one specific aspect of your story. This can help provide you with greater focus and direction than trying to revise everything at once. A helpful way to begin is by crafting an outline of your overall goals for revising your novel, listing all of the elements you want to embellish, add, and improve.
For example, a six stage revision plan might look something like this:
The first stage deals with the main plot, making sure that the key events, climax, and resolution all make sense and achieve their purpose. It’s also a good place to start checking for continuity as well as that your world building is up to snuff.
The second stage focuses on tightening your various subplots, making sure that each is well-paced and resolved before your novel’s climax.
The third stage deals with characters, fleshing them out and making their presentation, goals, voices, and arcs as robust as possible. It’s also time to review your settings, ensuring that they contribute effectivly to their paired scenes.
The fourth stage begins to examine the chapter to chapter story, focusing on elements like pacing, direction, atmosphere, and tension. You will also want to check to see if you are revealing information to your audience at the appropriate pace without being too vague or explicitly telling them too much.
The fifth stage is for the paragraphs and sentences themselves, refining word choice, varying sentence structure, and looking at your dialogue and monologue. The goal is to refine your descriptions and exposition, making sure that your details are evocative, concise, and impactful.
The sixth stage if for polish, checking that your work is grammatically correct (as well as making a few final tweaks regarding word choice). This is also a great time to take in the totality of your story while ironing out any last typos or formatting issues.
Now your plan might not follow this six stage model to the letter, but you are still going to need to address each of these levels if you want to write the best story you are capable of. You might want to take each pass in order from cover to cover, or instead focus on the largest problem areas first before moving on to other sections of your text. Especially during the final stage (I do this at every stage) I advise that you read your work out loud as you go. This might take a little longer, but it also slows you down to a reader’s pace and helps you to catch issues you might otherwise miss (it also prevents you from skimming when your energy or attention span begins to waver).
At the end of this process you might want to hire a proofreader, especially if you plan to self-publish.
For each stage, you are going to want to create a list of questions or goals to go over as you read. To help keep things simple, I have consolidated these various stages into a three pass (plot pass, prose pass, and proof pass) system, which I will go over in detail in the next entry in this chapter.
With the general theory revising a novel out of the way, it’s time to dive into the minutia with the culminating exercise for this chapter and installment: Producing a complete manuscript.