Your First Draft is a Baby Step

When is your manuscript ready for publication?

Oh, how I hope I did not just hear someone say as soon as you finish your first draft.

That’s the first teensiest step on the way to publication.  Once you complete your first draft, the real fun begins.  And it continues for a while… because you wouldn’t want it to be over too soon, would you?

No, after the first draft you need to put your new baby to bed and let it rest for a while.  If you’re a cook, you can think of this as time for your story to marinate.  Print it out if you must, but hide it away in the back of a drawer for at least a couple of weeks.  Even better, for a month.  Don’t peek.  Don’t play with it.  Ignore it completely.  (And what will you do while your shiny, new manuscript is resting?  You’ll be working on your next manuscript, of course.)

Okay, the day has finally come.  Your infant manuscript has been out of sight and out of mind for long enough that you don’t have that immediate gushy, “isn’t it the most wonderful thing ever written” feeling about it any longer.  Now you can come back to it with a reasonably clear mind and heart.  You’re ready for baby step two.

Take your manuscript out of the drawer and read it straight through.  No stopping to make notes, no corrections in the margins or between the lines.  Just read it.  Once you are done gagging over how awful you think it is, it’s time to read it again.

This time through, begin making notes on what works and what doesn’t.  Forget about all but the most egregious grammar and punctuation errors for now.  Just look for problems with structure, continuity, action, pacing… the things that knit your story together.

At this step you have to be able to separate yourself from how much you love your story and think like a reader who’s never seen this story or heard the synopsis before.

Now what do you think about your manuscript?  Do you still like the concept?  How about the premise?  (Yes, these are two different aspects of your story.)  Does the plot make sense?  Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end?  Congratulations.  You’re cooking on high heat now.  It’s time to bring this project to a boil.

Once you’ve finished this read, make the major changes you’ve noted.  Then put it away for a week.  After that time has passed, take another look at the manuscript, again staying alert for the areas that don’t work.  You may find you have to move or delete entire sections.  Maybe you have to write a scene or two to fill in gaps.  Do that now.

Back into the drawer for at least a few days.  And then make another pass at what you’ve done, reading the manuscript to see if those changes work.  If they do, now might be a good time to get your beta readers involved.

While your beta readers are busy working their way through your manuscript stop making changes to it. You want to wait to see how they view the work you’ve created.  If you’re writing away, adding characters and changing scenes, the comments you get from your beta readers will make no sense when you try to apply them to the manuscript you’re now holding.  Let go and let them do their work.  Take a break.  Or work on your new manuscript.  The one you started while your baby manuscript was undergoing its first marinating period.  Remember that one?

By the time you’ve vetted your work several times, invited your beta readers to share their feelings and comments about your story, and made all the changes you’ve decided upon, you should have a polished story.  Your manuscript is ready for the next step… finding an agent, or deciding on a self-publishing tool.  (You knew that one was coming, didn’t you?)

No matter where you are in the editing and rewriting process, keep in mind that the long-term goal is to present your readers with the best possible version of your story.  When you get a stack of glowing reviews, you’ll know it really was worth the time and effort you gave your manuscript in the rewriting process.

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