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On Reviewing Your Manuscript: Postwriting Your Novel

We’ve been talking about “debugging” your book — about committing to a cover-to-cover review that will make up the first stage in your document’s rewrite.

With any luck you’ve had enough time by now to catch your breath. With any luck, opening up the book no longer feels you with the anxiety and frustration it did throughout November, while you were still desperately chasing “The End.”

As I said yesterday, with any luck, the book actually has some delightful surprises in store.

Exercising Self-Restraint

I also said before that I don’t recommend making any big changes at this stage. That’s harder than you might imagine, so I’m going to repeat it here.

Your responsibility right now is just to get to know your story as it is. You need to fix it, but you don’t yet know what it is that needs fixing.

Luckily, we’ve got some handy tools available for solving that problem. In fact, they’re tools you’re already familiar with. There’s much to learn from going right back to the beginning.

Character List and Mock Table of Contents (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopI’ve said before that you’re allowed to make minor changes (no more than two words at a time) during your review — that’s meant to fix typos and minor errors. You’ll be doing that every single time you read your book, for the rest of your life (including well after the first printing, I promise).

Apart from that, don’t change anything in the manuscript. Instead, I want you to make changes to your prewriting.

(Actually, depending how much you like to hang onto old records, it might be better to keep your prewriting as-is, and make copies for our postwriting, just so you can compare and contrast later. That’s entirely up to you, though.)

Read through your book, and take a break at the end of every chapter to write down a short phrase describing what happened in that chapter. This isn’t multiple sentences — this is your Mock TOC. We’re going to update it to reflect what actually happened in the story you actually wrote.

If you’ve been doing that all along…review it anyway. Don’t talk about the event you deliberately wrote, but about the scene that developed around it (and how that fits into the overall story). That might mean,

“Chapter 9, In Which the Prince Punches a Horse in the Face”

should now read,

“Chapter 9, In Which the Princess Realizes She Loves Him”

Of course, maybe not. Maybe all that happens is the punching. Your job right now is to figure that out.

While you’re at it, give your character descriptions a once-over. Strike through anything that got left out of the story, and add in critical characteristics that you hadn’t thought of back in October.

Maybe the heroine twirls her hair around her finger. Maybe the villain was born in the 80s. Whatever it is, any characterizing detail can be handy to have on record.

Spending some time consciously tracking your characters’ traits will help a lot as you dive into the rewrite and work on character tags. It’ll be a nice list to have handy when you come back to the same characters a year from now to force them through a sequel. All of it helps.

While you’re at it…take some time to enjoy the tale. I recommend only stopping to update your documents at the ends of chapters. The rest of the time, just get lost in it.

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