Four Tips for Turning a Draft Novel into a Manuscript

This is a guest post by Robert Winter, author of “September (Pride and Joy Book 1)“.

Robert Winter is a recovering lawyer who likes writing about hot men in love much more than drafting a legal brief. He left behind the (allegedly) glamorous world of an international law firm to sit in his home office and dream up ways to torment his characters until they realize they are perfect for each other.

Robert divides his time between Washington, DC, and Provincetown, MA. He splits his attention between Andy, his partner of fifteen years, and Ling the Adventure Cat, who likes to fly in airplanes and explore the backyard jungle as long as the temperature and humidity are just right.

Robert Winter

Author

So, you completed the first draft of your novel! Maybe you participated in November’s National Novel Writing Month. Perhaps it was a dare, or you finally listened to the voices in your head and put them down on paper. Regardless of how you got to this point, congratulations! Finishing a first draft is a major milestone, one that many people who think they have a book in them never achieve.

The first draft, unfortunately, is also just the first step. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” Now that you have a first draft, you still have a lot of work to do before you start showing that manuscript to agents or publishers. The purpose of this post is to give you some ideas for tackling this next phase: rewriting your draft into a manuscript you can start shopping.

To be clear, rewriting does not mean proofreading for typos and grammatical mistakes. That’s an important step, one that you will repeat many times before you find a publisher and then repeat again when your book goes through an editorial process. For these purposes, by “rewriting”, I mean the process of looking at your novel with fresh eyes for big picture issues that need to be addressed.

When you rewrite, you are looking for a lot of things. Chief among them is whether you achieved a consistent and appropriate tone. For example, if you are writing a moody or atmospheric suspense story, you probably don’t want to have your main characters “meet cute” in a way that accidentally generates a laugh. Do you raise the stakes for your protagonist appropriately, so s/he is challenged? Do your characters behave consistently throughout, or – if something changes – do you provide a good explanation for why that is? Does each scene have a purpose that advances the story, or is it just filler? If you are writing a mystery, are the characters solving it from the clues you provide on page or are you having them make lucky guesses or concealing clues from the reader? These are the types of story elements that you likely lost track of while getting down the first draft and won’t notice until the rewriting phase.

If you are an undiscovered savant, maybe you only do this step once, but if you are mortal like the rest of us, you will likely spend more time rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) than you did to create the first draft. I find that I can get a first draft of a 75,000-word novel down in about a month, but it takes me two to three months of revisions before I am ready to submit to my publisher.

Here are some suggestions you may want to consider to help you with the all-important rewriting process.

  1. Set it aside for a week or more. When you are too close to the first draft, you are probably unable to see it with the fresh eyes needed to spot the problems. You will know where every major story beat is supposed to happen and therefore may not notice if the way your reader gets there isn’t as smooth as it should be. Take some time away, let the draft marinate and let the details fade, then come back to it for a fresh read-through. And don’t be afraid to delete, even large portions of text (or save them in a file for reuse in your next novel).
  2. Read it aloud. You will hear jarring notes or overused words that you miss on the page or computer screen. Reading the novel out loud is a great way to pick up inauthentic dialogue, repetitious words, and hidden typos not caught by Spell Check (like “is” instead of “if”). Even better, have someone read it to you. I use the program Scrivener to prepare my drafts, and it has a surprisingly good Speech feature that reads a chapter or scene aloud for me. I usually tackle this step after I’ve already been through the novel a few times.
  3. Find a writing partner or beta reader. Ideally, you want someone whose style is compatible with your own and who likes the kinds of books you want to write. A writing partnership is great if you like frequent interaction as you are developing and revising. A beta reader is more useful when you like to get your story as good as you can before someone else reads it through. Facebook and Goodreads, in particular, are great places to find a writing partner or beta reader. Look for forums built around the genre of books you write and you will likely start to see people seeking a partner or offering to beta read.
  4. Hire a professional. If you are willing to invest the funds, hiring a professional freelance editor can be profoundly helpful. Prices vary, typically based on the level of editorial assistance you want. Most recently, I hired an editor to do developmental editing, meaning that she pointed out big picture inconsistencies, missed opportunities, reaction to key scenes, overall impact of the story … that kind of thing. I paid her about $600 for my 75,000-word manuscript, and to me, it was worth every penny. A quick Google search for “freelance development editing [your genre]” will quickly lead you to consortiums of editors and to individual editors.

With a patient eye and some honest evaluation of your writing, you can whip your draft into shape and start the process of seeking a home for your book. Best of luck!