Congratulations! So What Are Your Next Steps?
By Editor John David Kudrick
If you’ve finished writing a novel, then you know the great feeling that comes with typing THE END, making sure the file is saved (and hopefully backed up at least a couple other places), and pushing back from your desk with a smile.
You did the work and you finished it, so I hope you took a moment to celebrate with those closest to you. But then what? What should you do next with your story?
Whether you hope to publish traditionally or to self-publish (or somewhere in between), here are some ideas to keep in mind once you’ve completed a novel:
1. Let your finished story sit for about four to six weeks without looking at it, and go to work on your next novel (or something else). Then open up the completed novel file and read through it to make big-picture revisions on screen. This is the time to really get into your story and finally see the forest for the trees. You can of course make editorial corrections, but look especially for big stuff that doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t fit together in continuity, or sounds like a giant plot hole. Think through any sticky issues and get to work on revisions.
2. Now it’s time to read it all again on your computer screen, this time with an eye for the smaller stuff (although if you catch some bigger stuff, don’t let it slide):
— First off, watch for grammar issues and typos.
— Keep track of character and place names, along with little details such as the clothing someone is wearing or what kind of weapon a character is carrying.
— Pay close attention to dialogue: Make sure the dialogue mechanics work well, and eliminate unnecessary dialogue attributions and all those “performance-enhanced” dialogue attribution verbs (anything other than the basics: said, asked, shouted, etc.).
— Get rid of every adverb you can. Do a document search for ly and see what you can find and exterminate, but also watch for adverbial phrases that don’t have an ly word (for example: “I’m so happy!” Jim said with a smile).
— Search for fro, and change it to for, unless it really should be fro.
— Search for form, and change it to from if needed.
— Search for very and see how many of those you can delete.
— Search for There was and There were, and see if you can rewrite the sentence to make it stronger.
— Watch for words or variations of a word (or phrase) repeated close together, whether it’s in the same sentence or even within a page or two of each other if it’s an uncommon word. This can interrupt the flow for readers.
— Once you’re all done with this suggested list (which is by no means exhaustive), then run the grammar/spell check and take care of anything legitimate your word-processing program flags for you.
3. So you’re done reading it on screen (twice) and catching everything you could. Now what? Print off the entire story and read it OUT LOUD with a colored pen in hand. Trust me, you will be amazed at how many little things you notice while reading it aloud to yourself. Plus, you may even catch some bigger issues, especially with the dialogue, since you’re getting the chance to hear how it will sound in your reader’s mind. When finished with this, make all your changes in the electronic file.
4. Now it’s time to let your test readers see what you’ve done. These readers, though, should mostly just be looking for the big stuff in terms of the story’s strengths and weaknesses, but they may point out some little stuff, too. So get their feedback (maybe using a feedback form you create for them) and then make your changes. Perhaps you can also get a small-scale editorial review from a writer friend, or a relative who teaches English, or a coworker who is a closet grammar policeman. No, they won’t catch everything, but it certainly won’t hurt to get more feedback.
5. Finally (and I say this as a fellow novelist), find a professional editor to review it for you. You simply can’t substitute test readers or friends and family for years of experience of reviewing and editing fiction. If you have enough budget to retain an editor to do a big-picture review first and then later on also handle the more detailed work of line editing, so much the better. If your budget can’t handle that, or if you are 100% happy with the big picture of the story, then hire an editor to take care of the line editing, which should include at least two stages of editing, because no one can catch everything in one pass. And, when you’re vetting editors, make sure the editor provides a sample edit and a detailed proposal for his or her services. Last but not least, make sure you feel comfortable with the editor you choose, because you want the right person watching your back.
6. After that, it’s on to submitting to agents and/or traditional publishers, or to self-publishing!
Is this the only formula for what to do once you’ve finished a novel? By no means. But it’s a great place to start if you’re wondering what to do next, or if you’re finding yourself still fiddling with your novel months (dare I say years) after you’ve finished a novel. And you’ll eventually find a rhythm in your process as you adapt it to fit your own personality and writing style. So make a commitment to see your novel through from start to finish—and then get to it!
John David Kudrick is a book editor who can help you with organizing and revising your story to take care of style, structure, content, plotting, character, story flow, and point-of-view issues.