It’s exciting to finish a novel, but it’s common that people don’t really know what to do next. Do they submit it to publishers? Do they post the whole thing on reddit or Wattpad? Do they print off a dozen copies and hand them to random people on the street?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be walking through what to do once your novel is done. Like with writing itself, there are nearly as many different methods as there are authors. But the advice I’m giving here is what I’ve seen work for the most people, and if you stick with it, is the most likely to give a satisfactory result.
(Note: Portions of this have previously been adapted into the FAQ on /r/writing.)
During the past week (or more), you’ve hopefully taken a break from writing and even from reading and watching things in your genre. But I know, breaks can be hard.
Especially when you’ve gotten into the habit of writing every day, it’s easy to decide that you’ll just glance over your manuscript. Or maybe there’s a scene that you suddenly realize you have a great idea for. Hopefully, you resisted, because that will make the next step a lot easier.
Notice that I’m not talking about editing here. (We’ll get to that.) Rewriting is much deeper. You’re not polishing; you’re tearing down and rebuilding. If your story were a house, you’d be tearing down the garage and adding a new bedroom, not just painting the siding.
First, you need to go through your manuscript and read the whole thing, start to finish. Depending on how you have it saved, this may be harder than it sounds. Ideally, you have a Word document, so you can either read from there or save it as a .pdf file to read from another device. (Amazon’s Kindles can open a .pdf.) Alternatively, you can just print the whole thing out, but that’s going to be a lot of loose paper.
The important thing is to read the story. This should be fun. You’ve taken a week off and haven’t read or watched anything in the genre. You should have totally fresh eyes (unless you cheated.)
Have a notepad next to you where you can mark down continuity errors, plot holes, and scenes that don’t make sense. Even if you’ve printed out your manuscript, it’s a good idea to have these notes in a separate place so you can quickly reference them as you go. What you’re looking for are things that changed as you wrote the story. Maybe when you sat down, the hero was an orphan, but by the end, he’s talking about lunch with his father the week before. Or maybe a character was supposed to be the surprise villain, but you turned him into a hero. If you were writing in order, the beginning of your book probably looks a lot different than the end.
On top of those things, think about the story as a whole. Does every scene add to the story? Are there any that you don’t need anymore or can combine? Are there events you describe through dialogue that should just be their own scene?
In your notes, you’re focusing on the big picture things. You don’t need to write down “on page 231, Bob’s eyes are listed as ‘bule.’ That should be ‘blue.’” In fact, don’t use any numbers at all that don’t appear in the text. If you need even a chapter number in the note, it’s probably too small for this pass.
You should also check your length. Are you writing an epic fantasy that finished in fifty thousand words? Then you’re going to be adding a lot of text. (In fact, the minimum is probably another fifty thousand.) Does your romance novel go on for a thousand pages? Then you’ll need to significantly cut it. The best length will depend on your genre, writing style, etc. At this stage, you need to at least know what direction you’re heading.
If you need to shorten the book, be ruthless. Look for characters
that aren’t really adding to the story or subplots that don’t go anywhere. This
is where the oft-repeated phrase “Kill Your Darlings” comes into play. If
something isn’t making the book better, cut it out, even if you love it. You
may still find things that you need to add, but you’ll have to be very stingy
On the flip-side, if you need to lengthen the book, pay close attention to your transitions. Often, a book that’s too short will abruptly jump from one important event to the next, leaving out how the characters got there or even why they are doing things. Think about other complications that might come up. In a romance novel, there might be a new guy at work that the main character likes. In a high fantasy, the unicorns could rebel against the evil overlord. Don’t add fluff, but make sure you’re doing a good job describing why things happen and what’s going on. Again, you may have to cut things as well, but be aware of what length you’re aiming for.
Once you’ve done that, go through and do it again. With the ending fresh in your mind, read through the beginning and look again for major changes that need to be made. As a rule of thumb, somewhere between fifty and seventy-five percent of problems are in the first quarter of the book, and you’ll almost always find seventy-five percent in the first half. The way you set up the beginning determines whether the ending makes sense.
Next, you rewrite. Go through the whole text and change it so that it’s consistent. Depending on how long it took to write, you may even need to adjust the writing style in places. Go through scene by scene and make sure that the story is coherent.
This will probably involve writing additional scenes to remove unnecessary plot devices or tropes, explain events, and put everything in the correct order. It could include removing scenes that seemed like a great idea at the time, characters that you loved, and subplots that you debated making the main plot. It will probably be as much work as actually writing the book in the first place, and you’ll be trying to reference all the different parts of the book to tie it together.
Remember, though, to focus on the story. For this rewrite, you are doing major changes. Also, don’t just delete scenes. Cut and paste them into a “deleted scenes” file that you can reference if you need to. You’ll be extremely frustrated if it turns out you deleted a scene, but you want a section of dialogue from it or it had an important piece of backstory.
How long this process takes will depend on your story. If you stuck strictly to an outline and wrote quickly, this may only take a couple of weeks. On the other hand, if you’re working only thirty minutes a day on a manuscript you’ve been writing for six years, it may take months. That’s fine. What’s important is that you rewrite, so that the story shines through.
After you’ve finished rewriting, the next step is to, well, rewrite again. This time, however, you’ll do it with a little more feeling.