So I Have a Novel Draft. Now What?

Now I have a novel draft. What do I do?

November is over and some of us feel a sense of let-down; like the intensity is gone and we don’t know what to do next. If this is you, you’re not alone. So what do you do, now that you have this baby novel manuscript? What do you DO with it?

Here are a few thoughts about life after NaNo:

You’ve developed a habit of writing. Keep it going. Just because NaNo is over, keep the discipline alive by working on a new idea. Whether your goal, like Hemingway’s, is to write 500 words a day, or Julia Cameron’s 1,000 words a day, keep working on something and use that discipline to change your life for the better.

Some people joke that December is for editing. Others really mean it and dive head-first into their NaNo novel, only to emerge shell-shocked. How can things be this disconnected? This frenzied? This chaotic?

Be gentle. If this is your first time writing a complete rough draft, you need to remember what an accomplishment that is. No one writes the great American novel on the first pass. Even the pros edit. So as you’re looking at this nascent novel, let’s take a step back and have a cup of soothing tea.

First, look at your draft with gentleness. Don’t start cutting and burning large swaths of this savanna. For one thing, years from now, it will matter to you what your first draft looked like. Of course your final product will look different than the rough draft. But just as there’s only ever one first kiss, there’s only ever one first draft. Safeguard it and save it with a new title, something like “Novel title, First draft.” Put that somewhere safe.

It should go without saying, BACKUP YOUR FILES.

No, really. If you haven’t done a backup in the last seven days, stop reading and go do that now. You can come back to read after you’ve finished.

Next, set your manuscript aside for a couple weeks. Experts recommend going away from a piece and coming back to it later, after it’s had a chance to breathe a bit. You’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes.

Consider rewriting from scratch, not just tweaking the existing piece. Author and instructor Josip Novakovich advocates exactly this technique in his book, Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Retell the story, from scratch, and see how much differently it comes off the keyboard or pen the second time around. Now you know the shape of the story, the twists and turns of your plot, and how to get to the ending.

A word of caution. Some writers assume that they need another pair of eyes on their work pretty much right after they write it. Some authors even recommend that. “Have another person read and critique your work,” they say. “It’ll make you a better writer.” That’s hogwash.  Practice is what makes you a better writer. Learning good techniques makes you a better writer. Not all critique groups will teach you those two things – good skills and how to edit – so view critique groups with caution. Do the people you’re sharing your work with know how to handle a first draft? Do they read and like your genre? Are they interested in helping you get, and stay, on the page; or is it a thinly veiled arena for competition and one-ups-manship? Use caution when sharing your work with other people. Even well-meaning friends can derail us, and strangers have no investment in our future. Don’t assume that just because someone offers to critique your work, that they are qualified to do so.

That said, it’s worth finding some trusted beta readers and critique partners (sometimes called in the community betas and CPs). You can poke around online at some of the online writing communities, look around the boards, and check out Meetup for some in-person groups in your area. My suggestion is, however, don’t submit your work immediately. Go to the group a few times, listen to how the critiques are done, before you give your baby manuscript to them for review. If you sense something is off, trust that sense and don’t assume “writers should just take it with a grain of salt.” That’s not true. We are sensitive creatures, and that sensitivity is what makes us effective writers. We must respect that sensitivity and not allow others to trample us in the name of literary excellence. Many a newbie writer has been silenced this way. Don’t let it happen to you.

If you haven’t read No Plot, No Problem, by NaNoWriMo’s founder Chris Baty, now is the time. Now that you’ve had a taste of NaNo and the madness of writing for 30 days and nights of literary abandon, go to the horse’s mouth to see what – and how – it all began.

Above all, realize that you’ve done something few people ever accomplish: you have in your hot little hands the first draft of a novel. This is the beginning of great things!


A. Catherine Noon, co-ML for Chicago Region 2014; 6 events, 4 wins
National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo | ChiWriMo | Blog | Facebook | Twitter

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”  - E.E. Cummings

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