The elation that comes from finishing a novel is unlike anything else. At my house we usually order a pizza (or five–I do have three teenage boys), and the whole family celebrates my return to the land of the living.
But the exhilaration of finishing a novel has never packed the same punch as the first time. Sure, I still whoop and holler, but I’ve been around the block enough to know that the finished first draft is only the beginning. If you’re in the early stages of the writing journey, maybe nearing the completion of that first novel, I hope you’re not as naive as I was. That 120,000 word novel was re-written more times than I care to count, and many of those rewrites could have been avoided if I’d known just a little more.
While this is pretty much rotten for me, it’s great news for you. I’m all about never wasting an experience if sharing it can help someone else. So count yourself blessed. I’m going to describe what I did as a first time novelist, and what I’d do now as a more seasoned writer to make revisions of a first novel easier. YOU get to learn from my mistakes. (This post is not intended for the published novelist. If that’s who you are, you might want to skip to the post below mine and read about Kathy Kovach’s experience with content edits.)
So, where did I blow it, where was I right on, and what would I do differently after finishing the first draft of my first novel?
- Celebrate. (No blowing it here!) It’s true that a first draft is just the beginning of a manuscript’s journey, but I’m a firm believer in taking time to embrace hard-earned moments of glory. A finished first draft deserves a happy dance, a pizza, or a week in the Bahamas. (Haven’t done that last one yet, but hey, a girl can dream.)
- Waiting to invest in a conference until I had a “book to sell.” (Bad choice!) If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t wait. There were basics I didn’t know that cost me many hours in rewrites (and several red-faced moments in front of editors). For example, I didn’t understand a basic principle: show don’t tell. My second revision was all about that. It was like I’d done a pencil sketch with my first draft and painted in the colors with my second. These days I still find places that need color in a second draft, but I’ve learned enough that I don’t have to devote a whole rewrite to this concept. Another basic writing principle I didn’ t understand was the present day approach to point of view. Another long rewrite of my 120,000 words was done just to put the story in the hands of the appropriate point of view characters. My advice? Spend your money now. Register for that conference you’ve heard about (CCWC is coming up soon) so you can at least begin to understand how much you don’t know. You’ll save yourself hours of rewrite frustration. (And the a fore mentioned concepts are just the tip of the iceberg. If you already know them you still have stuff to learn. I promise.)
- Read Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. This was something I didn’t do and wish I had. When I finished that first draft I had a basic grasp of writing, some raw talent, and a great story. What I didn’t have was good craft. A wise woman (at a conference!) saw that and directed me to this fabulous book. It became the catalyst for the single biggest leap in the development of my craft. It took me from looking like a complete newbie to getting requests for my manuscript. If I was start over as a novelist today, I’d probably read this book before even beginning a book, or at the very least before showing my work to anyone who knows anything about writing. Like all those editors in conference appointments who patiently explained I wasn’t “quite ready” for publication.
- Writing solo. That was the modus operandi with that first book, and I’d still make that choice today. Here’s why: If you show your work too soon it is easy to let others take over your story. You’re still developing your voice, your story idea, and your confidence. Invite too much feedback and soon your novel is being reshaped into something never intended. God called YOU to write YOUR book. Be sure you’re steady on your own feet before letting others into your process.
- Join a good critique group. I would have done this sooner! It may sound like a contradiction to the point above, but being a part of a good critique group is helpful even at those early stages. Just don’t submit your work at first! Why attend if you’re not submitting? Because you learn how to revise (and write!) as you critique and listen to the critiques of others. Eventually you’ll be ready to submit your work to the group, and when you do you’ll have mastered a lot of things you’ve heard discussed. That means less revision. These days I’m more confident in my writing self, and I run my new work by my crit group as often as I can. I’m usually rewriting previous chapters after they’re critiqued as I’m plowing ahead with the story. I can handle the feedback, apply constructive criticism, and still hold onto the “me” elements of my story.
- Network with other writers and join professional writing groups. I still laugh at myself and how long I put off my good friend Kathy Kovach. She tried for months (years?) to get me to join a professional organization called American Christian Romance Writers. Of course that organization is now my beloved ACFW where I’ve learned a ton, made a bazillion friends, and even somehow gotten roped into serving as president of a local chapter. You may think it strange that I talk about this in a post on revision, but trust me. One day you’re going to be in the middle of a nasty re-write, and you’re going to need someone who understands. This friend might be smart enough to help you fix the flaws in your story. But more than that he will email you great words about how talented you are and how you absolutely CAN rewrite that book. And if she lives nearby and you’re still not doing well, she will come to your house, pick you up, and take you to the nearest ice cream shop.
A writer, speaker, and homeschooling mother of four, Paula Moldenhauer is passionate about God’s grace and intimacy with Jesus. Her website, Soul Scents, offers a free weekly devotional, and you can visit her blog at GraceReign. Paula serves as president of HIS Writers, the north Denver ACFW chapter. A devoted Pride and Prejudice fan, she loves good conversation, peppermint ice cream, and walking barefoot. Her greatest desire is to be close enough to Jesus to live His fragrance.