After I finish writing my book, what should be my next step? I’m very new to the process, so an in-depth answer would be very helpful.
There is something really special about writing a first draft of a book. Especially your first book. It shifts something in your psyche. You know you can do it, now, and nothing can ever take that away from you.
That’s a feeling I want for every writer who has ever dreamed of writing a book.
But once you’ve finished that first draft — there’s still work to do.
Let it rest.
This part can be the most difficult. You’re riding high on excitement over finishing that first draft and you want to get to work on it. I get it. But letting your manuscript rest so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes is important.
My rule of thumb is to wait at least four weeks to start revising. Longer is better. My ideal is 90 days. But I really try not to start a revision at all for at least four weeks.
In the meantime, I harness my excitement and cleanse my palate by plotting my next book.
Read it all the way through, once.
After your manuscript has rested and you can come back to it with some distance and objectivity, set aside some time to read it all the way through. If you can read it in one day, that’s best. Really try to be able to get through the whole book in three days.
That might mean that you need to schedule in a couple of work days in the future when you write ‘the end.’ This read-through is an important part of the process. Don’t try to squeeze it into the spaces around everything else.
Read your book with a notebook beside you. Don’t fix anything right now (except maybe very minor typos or grammar mistakes.) You aren’t editing yet. You’re figuring out the big story things.
Are there gaps in your story? Are there major changes that you need to make? Are there plot holes? Have you left a subplot unresolved? Is there some way that you can see to make the story better, now that you’ve given your book some space?
Make notes on all those things in your notebook.
Revise. Revise. Revise.
This is the fun part for me. I love revision so much. Taking this thing that I’ve made and making it better is exciting.
The first revision pass involves making all the changes in our notebook. When you’ve done that, you’ll have a second draft.
When I was first learning how to write a book, someone recommended Renni Browne and Dave King’s amazing book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to me. It changed my life. If you’ve just finished writing your first draft, I highly recommend buying a copy. Read it while your book rests.
And then go through the book chapter by chapter and do the work on your manuscript. Eventually you won’t have to make so many revision passes. I can do all of the work at once now for a couple of reasons.
Reason one is that doing that revision on so many books has made me a better first-draft writer. I just don’t have to do the same amount of revision as I did on my first novel. I usually get my dialogue tags relatively right in the first go around these days, for instance.
Depending on your experience and how new you are to writing, you might be able to get all of your revision done in one more pass through. A third draft. That’s what getting to a publishable book takes for me now, after a dozen or so novels.
My first novel needed about a dozen drafts, because I literally went through each chapter of Browne and King’s book and did the work on the whole manuscript.
What you’re looking for is a draft where the story is the way you want it and the mechanics — the grammar and spelling and dialogue tags and show vs. tell, etc. — are under control. You want a professionally-written draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be as close as you can make it.
Read it through again — out loud.
Set aside another chunk of time and read your entire novel one more time. This time? Read it out loud. Your ear will pick up problems that your eyes have missed over and over again.
Keep your notebook next to you again and write any notes for final edits that need to be made.
Make any final revisions.
If your final read-through brought up any new revisions, make those. They should be relatively minor. If they’re not, you probably went to that read through to quickly and you’re still in the revision part.
If you find that you have a lot of revisions still to make, or any major revisions — make them, and then go back to the read through part again. Your final read through should not bring up any major revisions.
Write a synopsis
When you have a final revised manuscript, it’s time to write a synopsis. You only really need a synopsis if you want to try to attract an agent or traditional publisher. If you plan to self-publisher, you probably don’t need a synopsis.
A synopsis is a short (one to three page) outline of your entire story. Do not hold back here. The agents and editors that you’re approaching do not care about spoilers. You need to tell your entire story in your synopsis.
A synopsis is always written single-spaced with a double space between paragraphs and told in the third person, present tense. (John does things, not ‘John did things’ or ‘I did things.’) Write character names in ALL CAPS the first time you mention them. Only name the major characters — for more minor characters you can use descriptors (the teacher, his mother, etc.)
I write my synopsis by writing a sentence for each chapter. That might be my one page synopsis, with only a little expansion. I expand each sentence to a paragraph for a three-page synopsis.
Write a query letter
Once you’ve written your synopsis, it’s time to write a query letter. Again, you only need this if you’re going to send it to someone. If your plan is self-publishing, you don’t need a query.
A query letter is a one-page sales letter. It introduces you, your story, and asks the agent/editor if they’d like to read your manuscript. The goal is get a request for your manuscript (or some part of it) from the person you send the letter to.
In other words, the query letter is a pitch to get someone to agree to read your pages. If they ask for those pages, then your letter is successful. If they don’t ask for pages — if none of the people you send the letter to ask for pages — then you’ve got a problem with your query, not necessarily your manuscript.
This article by Zach J. Payne is a good one. It teaches the basics of writing a query letter.
Figure out who to send the query letter to and go out on submission.
Once you have a completed manuscript that’s revised, a synopsis, and a query letter — it’s time to move forward and get the whole thing out there. That starts with choosing some agents or editors to send the query letter to.
I like to use Query Tracker to manage agent/editor queries. You can research all of the agents who represent the type of book you’ve written. My advice is to look at agent websites before you query them. Check out their social media feeds. See if you can figure out what they want and how they want it.
Be sure that you follow their submission guidelines exactly. They are looking for any reason to weed people out of their clogged inboxes.
My personal system is to send out ten query letters at first. I’m looking for one person to ask for my manuscript. If someone asks, then I figure my query is good — and I send it out as widely as I can.
I’ve gone through this process three times and signed with three diffrent agents.
Now we wait.
There is a LOT of waiting involved in being on submission to agents. Months, sometimes. Remember that book you plotted while this novel was resting? Pull that out. Write it while you wait.
Do you have a writing question I can answer for you? Send it to email@example.com with ASK SHAUNTA in the subject line.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, The Astonishing Maybe, and Center of Gravity. She is the original Ninja Writer.