Most of the time when new writers tell me they’ve written a book, what they actually mean is that they’ve completed a first draft of a book.
And my advice is, “Don’t rush off to find a publisher for a first draft.”
So, if you’re in that boat, what would I suggest you do?
1. To start with, let it sit for a week or two while you work on something totally different, and then sit down to read you book in “editor” mode. Basically, that means pretending you’ve never seen it before, and doing an objective critique of it.
2. There are always things we don’t know. If the book is fiction, and you haven’t read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King; The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham: Revision by David Michael Kaplan; Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern; or most of the books in the Writers Digest Elements of Fiction series, I’d suggest you check out their library and then go to Writers’ Digest books, buy as many as many as you can afford, and read them. (Some libraries will have some of these books.)
If the book is non-fiction, look for On Writing Well by William Zinsser, A Writer’s Time by Kenneth Atchity; The 28 Biggest Writing Blunders (And How to Avoid Them) by William Noble, or one of the many books on specific kinds of nonfiction from Writer’s Digest or other publishers. Since each chapter of many non-fiction books may be viewed as a single entity, books on writing articles could also be helpful. Eg. Writing from the Heart by Marjorie Holmes; the Elements of Article Writing Series from Writer’s Digest.
Some of the above books are out-of-print, but are sometimes cheap at a used bookstore through Amazon, etc.
3. The next thing to do is to refine your target audience so you know exactly who you’re writing the book for. Telling an editor everyone will love your book doesn’t cut it. Every book has a smaller target audience. Find it. If only one person could ever read your book, who would you want it to be? Describe that person.
4. Now write a second draft. How you do that is up to you. Some people just start writing again from scratch. It may depend on how much needs to be changed. What I do is save everything I have as a new file and then start taking it apart and moving things around and rewriting sections, and so forth. I like to think of that first draft as the clay I needed to work with in order to create a masterpiece.
I look first for big problems or issues, and ignore most of the little things like spelling and grammar and so forth. Focus on the plot—does it work? And the characters—do they feel real? Or in non-fiction, does the manuscript accomplish your intention? Does it fit the audience? Are all the chapters needed? Do your illustrations work? Are the chapters in the right sequence? Are any key areas missing? What research still needs to be done to make sure everything is accurate?
5. And when you’ve that done, you do it all over again and again, as needed, until you’re happy with the “big picture.”
6. At some point in this process, you likely want to get a critique from an editor, another writer, or a really knowledgeable reader. You may even want to pay for a really good editor to read it and tell you where your strengths and weaknesses are, or do a thorough substantive critique. (I find that when I’ve read a manuscript and given a general critique along with a thorough edit (using track changes) of 1 or 2 chapters, most writers can take it from there.)
7. When you’re satisfied with the plot and the characters in your novel, then you look at the description, the dialogue, the accuracy of the details, and the time sequences.
In your non-fiction, check out the flow of your ideas, make sure all the relevant points are there, look at the illustrations you’ve used, refine your transitions, check that there is something for the reader to take way, and make sure every aspect is good.
8. Keep refining until you get down to the last bit—the spelling and punctuation, and so forth. My rule of thumb is that every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, every word has to be there for a reason. Don’t keep anything that just takes space.
While most writers write too much, and can afford to cut,, some people—especially newer writers—write too sparsely, leaving out elements that readers need to follow the plot or the argument. That’s why you really need an objective reader who understands how the particular genre your writing works.
I revised my first mystery, Shaded Light, which had 130,000 words,17 times. True, it’s a very complex book with multiple plot-lines and 14 points of view. My other books have been revised more like 7 or 8 times. Well, Friends Like These took maybe 10 times. My non-fiction books took probably 5 or 6 times.
The bottom-line is that you aren’t just “writing a book” in the sense that once all your thoughts on paper you’re finished. Even if you edit as you write (something I really don’t encourage!), you still need to work with the end product. What you’re actually doing is crafting and molding and shaping it so it says exactly what you want it to say and so that every single word you leave in has a function.
Yeah, I know. Sounds like work. But, actually, writing a book IS work. As the old saying goes, the idea—the “inspiration” is only a small part of the entire process. The other 90% involves “perspiration.”
Well done and helpful. Crammed with experience and wisdom.
Somehow missed your comment, Neil.
Relevant and realistic. I like how you emphasize the re-reading and re-working of drafts. That writing IS work. Not just putting words on paper as we do in our everyday communication, and which have served us well for that purpose, but the sequencing, grammar, points of view, and all the other nuances that makes writing worth paying for. Like a cook versus a chef.
Yes, good writing involves a ton of work!
This is very up-to-date info. I think I’ll share it on Twitter.