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From First Draft To Final Draft: The Complete Guide To Writing A Novel

Jeremy Collier

Jeremy Collier

Founder, Steam Powered Dreams

Authorpreneur, Editor, and Publisher


Nov, 2018

It’s a bold statement to say that we have a complete guide to writing a novel, and the truth is there is no such thing. However, what we have created here is pretty close.

We’ve put together a ton of information to help both new and veteran writers begin and grow their career. However, we know that no two writers have the same experience and the publishing industry is ever-changing. This is why we plan to continue to improve and expand the Full Draft series in the future.

When I first had the idea of the Full Draft series, I knew it had to be made up of three parts, just like any high-quality story. And this makes sense since the journey of a manuscript really is broken up into a beginning, middle, and end.

The parts of the Full Draft series are:

  • The First Draft, which covers everything from coming up with ideas to writing “the end” on your first draft.
  • The Second Draft that takes a look at the editing and formatting process.
  • The Final Draft that delves into publishing and beyond.

First Draft: Actually Writing A Novel

My standard answer is ‘I don’t know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk.’ If I’m not there, they go away again, so you’ve got to sit and think.” ~Philip Pullman

Want to know how to get started writing a novel? Well, it’s simple! It all starts with an idea.

What this means is it’s not enough to just want to write a novel, but you have to be dedicated to it. In fact, there’s something almost spiritual or supernatural about the process. If you’ve never experienced the heightened state of writing a novel, it’s very similar to what athletes experience when they are in their sport of choice. Sometimes called The Zone, Runners High, or many other names, us writers experience something very similar.

Once you have your idea, it’s time to get those first words on the page!

Or is it?

Many authors are strong advocates for outlining before starting, but that’s not the only way to approach writing. The first two novels I ever wrote were not planned out. They were pulled out of nowhere by doing what is known as “Pantsing.” This is when you just get started without thinking about who the character(s) are, where they’re going, or why they are trying to get there.

The other popular method is to outline your novel. This works great for those writers who need all their ducks in a row before they start. They plan out each major event and how it affects the characters and world around them. Some authors even plan out the minute details!

But neither methods are right for everyone. After all, there is no one way to write a novel! For me, the closest thing to a perfect mix of pantsing and outlining is something I call the Story Pulse method. It combines the benefits of outlining with the freedom of pantsing and has led me to my most powerful writing to date!

The first draft series also covers some of the more popular questions that many writers who are starting out wonders, such as how long a novel should be, or a chapter, a scene, or even just a paragraph. While these are all important questions with a simple answer, that is there is no specific length, they are still important nonetheless. The faster you understand this, the faster you’ll be able to get that first draft done.

But writing a novel isn’t just about knowing the basics. It’s also about consistency. This is why it’s so important to find time to write every day, or at least on more days of the week than not. Plan out your desk time, use the time while waiting for the bus, or during your lunch to get a little bit done.

The last three articles of the First Draft series cover some of the more subtle, yet no less important, aspects of writing. This includes worldbuilding, character development, and what topics you should avoid writing about (Hint: no subject is off limits).

However, it’s important to keep in mind that even if you follow all of the advice in our First Draft series, it still isn’t easy. There are many pitfalls you’ll face along the journey that you must overcome, but it’ll all be worth it in the end. Just 250 words a day can lead to writing a novel in less than a year!

Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.” ~Salman Rushdie

Second Draft: Getting Your Manuscript Ready For Publishing

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…” ~Michael Crichton

You’ve finished your rough draft and celebrated the amazing feeling of writing a novel. You know what comes next, but there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to acknowledge that you have accomplished something that only an elite few have. 

Even if you haven’t made it this far in your writing journey, you should consider starting the research and learning the process of what you’ll be doing that first draft is done.

You may be asking yourself why this is important. Why a writer needs to worry about editing, publishing, and marketing. There was a time in the past when a writer did only one thing, write. However, those days are over and I for one am glad.

With the exceptions of the biggest names in writing, every author will need to be at least partly in charge of the editing, publishing, and marketing process. The Second Draft articles deal with that middle ground, editing and polishing your novel until it’s as good as it can get.

Most first time authors are surprised at how much it takes to write your novel and get it ready for submission or publication. This process may take anywhere between 6 months to many years, depending on the route you’re taking. The hours upon hours of reading feedback, sorting it out, making changes, and repeating the whole process can seem mind-numbing. To many, this is the dreaded part of the process, but if you have a plan going in, you can take much of the pain away.

I want to make sure something is clear here. The editing process can make or break a book. Whether you’re trying to do it all yourself or you have a publishers help, it’s your book and you need to make sure you understand what’s going on at all times. This means asking your editor, agent, and/or publisher questions when they come up!

The first step and one that should never be skipped is self-editing. This shouldn’t necessarily be done as soon as you finish your first draft. Many writers let their manuscript sit for a week, month, or longer before picking it back up. This allows the story to breathe and sink into your brain, rather than your heart. However, before anyone else reads it, you need to give it a once-over. You’re not looking to make it perfect. In fact, I suggest skipping the syntax, grammar, and formatting issues altogether. Instead, look for blatant mistakes in character development, worldbuilding, plot holes, and any other big-picture issues you notice.

Once that’s done, you may consider alpha readers. These are readers who generally know the genre you’re writing in and understand the writing process. They may or may not be writers themselves, but what’s important is that they know they’re looking at the story and characters. Some alpha readers give detailed feedback, while others may just tell you the big picture likes or dislikes. Either way, use that information to better your story and move to the next phase, either developmental editing or beta readers.

The reason I say “or” here is because not everyone needs (or can afford) a developmental editor, but that doesn’t make them any less important. They are editors who know the genre in and out and also know the publishing industry. They can tell you if your story is marketable on a large scale or fit in a niche, if your characters are well rounded or fell flat, and if that scene in chapter 12 really is what your characters would do after everything they’ve been through.

Developmental editors look at the same things mentioned above and give you feedback based on their personal experience, but with a professional eye. This is why it is so important to pick one that really does understand the genre. Make sure to do some research on their past books to be sure!

Once you’ve gotten their feedback, read it over, asked clarifying questions, and are ready to move on, it’s time for your rewrite. This can take the form of a full page-by-page overhaul or simply a touchup, depending on the feedback you decide to incorporate. Some authors write amazingly clean first drafts while others need 5, 10, even 20 drafts before the novel is done, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Whether or not you opted for a developmental editor, the next step is beta readers. I always suggest finding three readers. The process is very similar to working with a developmental editor, but keep in mind that you’re probably not paying these readers and they are most likely not professionals, so their feedback is less professional advice and more reader preference. This doesn’t make it any less important, it just means that personal likes and dislikes come into play.

Beta readers don’t have to be avid readers of your genre, but they do need to be readers. Having your aunt who has only read 3 books in her life read your novel because she wants to support you is great, but her feedback won’t mean a whole lot. In fact, I’d avoid family and close friends altogether, unless you know you’ll get valid, unbiased feedback. You can also consider multiple rounds of beta readers if you can manage it.

After you’ve taken care of these final edits and you feel the book is as good as it can get, it’s time to hire a copyeditor to finish the manuscript up. Even if you think the manuscript truly is as good as it can get, don’t skip this step. They’ll find things that you didn’t and you’ll be thankful once the reviews start coming in! They’ll look at the smaller picture items, such as paragraph/sentence structure, grammar, and syntax. All of these things have the potential to throw the readers experience off and that’s the last thing you want to do!

When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” ~Stephen King

Final Draft: Publishing and Beyond

Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.” ~Margaret Atwood

Well, here it is. You’ve finally reached the end, right?

Actually, it’s more of a beginning.

Writing a novel and getting it ready to publish is kind of like the prologue of a story. It sets the scene, gives some important backstory, and puts the reader where they need to be, but its true purpose is to set up what is to come.

No matter if you’re seeking a traditional publisher or putting it out there on your own, the process is both emotional and stressful. Notice I said that it is emotional and stressful, not that it “might be.” Even authors who have published multiple books still go through a process that some equate to the stages of grief.

This is compounded with the decision on which path to take, which is not an easy one. It’s a personal choice for each author. And, even after you’ve made the decision, it’s still not as simple as clicking a send button and forgetting about it.

If you decide to go traditional, make sure to understand the different types of publishers that are out there and why you’ll want to avoid most of the Vanity publishing companies. It’s also important to understand what a literary agent is and why you may or may not want one.

On the other side of the industry, you have self or indie publishing. Publishing as an indie comes with its own trials and tribulations. You’ll be in charge of everything at every stage, from the major decisions to the smallest details. You’ll have to concentrate on getting the word out, building an audience, maintaining your online branding, and much more.

The final article in this series ends with a question that is still highly debated and I’ve been asked on many occasions, whether or not you should pay someone to publish your book. However, unlike the articles on length, this one has no easy answer.

What’s Next?

While the Full Draft series is over, that doesn’t mean we’re done. Starting next week, we’ll be looking at some ways to build your brand online through social media and your own website. You can also get a lot of great information about the writing and publishing process on our podcast, The Authorpreneur Mindset. And finally, make sure to bookmark the Full Draft page here so you can come back when we update and add new content in the near future!

If you find this content valuable the best way you can help the writers and Steam Powered Dreams is by sharing this or any of our articles online and subscribing to our mailing list below. This content is provided for free as part of our mission to provide top quality information to writers, but a lot goes into putting it all together.

I want to end this article with a few words about the writers who helped make the Full Draft series possible. Thank you so much for the amazing content provided by Marie Elrich, Andrew Scott, and Chrissy Mitchell. They were dedicated to making this series what it is. It simply would not have been possible without them.


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