On Writing. Once the first draft of a novel is finished – what then?

I was asked an interesting question this week by a lovely ex-student who teaches creative writing. Here it is:

What is your process after you have completed a first draft? How do you get to a final piece?

 I love questions like this. It’s good to think about our practice from time to time and refine out thoughts and ideas.

I sent him a video with my answer, but I thought I’d write down a few suggestions. I hope they are helpful.

First of all, no-one is an island. Writers are very lucky to have editors, and none of us would write the novels we do without such fantastic people who are more distanced from the piece and can read it through the eyes of a reading audience. My first point is about collaboration – the final draft is so greatly enhanced by other people, whether it is a friend, a beta reader, a writing group or an editor. But trust is a real component – you need people who are on your side, invested in your work, who understand you and think like you. A team is always the best writer.

You should be sure about your audience. If you’re writing for yourself, then that’s fine, but from page one to the end of the final draft, the reader is uppermost in your mind. It’s for them that you write.

Next, read the whole thing out aloud. Listen to what you’ve written.

As Maya Angelou and Stephen King both said, edit rigorously and brutally. Rip out anything that doesn’t work. I do it as I go, every chapter, sometimes every paragraph, every line. Single words. If you’re not sure, your instincts are telling you that it’s not right, so look again and change it. The editing before the editor sees it is a really big job.

Repeat the process. Read it aloud. Look out for repetition, (I do this all the time. All the time!! All…😊) Look out for clunky sentences, things that don’t make sense, mistakes of place, time and person. All the mistakes.

Read it aloud again. Look at the style. Be concise. Does every word you write work hard for the piece? If not, why is it there? (And yes, this is tough.)

Walk away. You need time away from your work to get perspective. The best plan is to go and have some fun. Forget the work completely.

Then come back. Repeat the process. Read it aloud. Check that it’s concise, strong, pithy. Check character, location, style, emotion, mood, everything. Ask yourself if something you’ve written needs explaining more.

Show don’t tell – it’s so easy to slip out of doing this, but showing your reader works so much better.

Could you have used better words and phrases? (What are your bad habits? We all have recurring ones, I guess – I do…) Check for them…

Finally, check punctuation, full stops, capitals, etc.

Listen to your instinct. There will be a time when you’ve done all you can. Learn when to stop.

It’s at this point that the work is passed to an editor to check, someone with perspective, someone who’s tough and experienced, but ‘gets’ what you’re doing and is there to make the writing the best it can be.

Then when the edit comes back, grin, don’t groan. You’re only human. You will have missed a lot of stuff.  All those things you’ve done that need changing are because it’s part of the refining process, and this is the beginning of preparing the novel or the written piece to be the very best you can make it.Some of your mistakes will probably make you laugh. (I recently called two children Freddie and Rosie. Oops…) And learn.

And finally, believe in your work. Your confidence will get rattled at times. Not everyone will like it. That’s fine. Not everyone likes every rock band, every TV programme, etc, etc. It’s not important, as long as your readers do.

Then it’s time to think about the next idea and start the whole process again.

Smile. You will enjoy it, I promise!


6 thoughts on “On Writing. Once the first draft of a novel is finished – what then?

    1. I have enough to do, Peter. (She laughed…) But you’re right, once a teacher, always and for ever. An ex-student of mine asked me the question, so I was glad to help and so it seemed wise to blog it as well. As you do…:)


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