Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until Christmas

On November 30th Nanowrimoers will be typing ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.

Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.

If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.

But I have things I want to fix right now

Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.

But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop

Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.

Revise in haste, repent at leisure

If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.

So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until Christmas.

(Thanks for the pic Svadilfari)

What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.


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  1. #1 by osozereposo on November 27, 2011 - 2:49 pm

    This is good solid advice, and I know that, even as it will be REALLY hard to follow. There’s something tantalizing about the idea that if I just kept working, I MIGHT have it fully edited and ready to go at the end of the year, and I could start 2012 fresh.

  2. #3 by Carol Riggs on November 27, 2011 - 3:50 pm

    I don’t do NaNo, but I would imagine some writers are pretty burnt out by the end of the month! Resting would be a great idea in that case. Get back to real life for a while. I don’t envy the mess some of those mss are! And I definitely hope people don’t plan to tidy it up and query in January. That is WAY too soon to market a story!!

  3. #5 by Daniel R. Marvello on November 27, 2011 - 7:00 pm

    I’ve seen this advice before, and it makes sense. But if it takes you a month or two to get through a round of revisions, the first part of the novel is now at least a month behind you. Does that count for starting a new draft? I’m guessing your answer will be “no.”

    I’m just finishing up my third draft, and I can say that the beginning of the story did read differently each time I started a new draft. I think I got some of the benefit of time away from that part of the story, but putting the whole thing away for a while would probably be even better.

    I guess I’ll get the chance to find out. My editor won’t be able to get to my manuscript until January, so I’ll have at least a month between the time I finish the third draft and the time I get back her changes. The fourth draft will have the benefit of her perspective as well as the “off time” I’ll have given the story.

    • #6 by dirtywhitecandy on November 27, 2011 - 8:44 pm

      Daniel, I’ve had to revise novels like that – starting at the beginning again as soon as I’ve written the end. I have to say it’s better if I can leave them longer.

  4. #7 by Yesenia on November 27, 2011 - 7:29 pm

    Good advice. Plan on putting my story away and starting on new stuff as a reward for finishing:)

  5. #9 by TMZ on November 27, 2011 - 10:58 pm

    In 2009 I went crazy with my first novel and cycled through about 4 revisions over the course of the next year. Then I put it away. Just recently opened it after over a year without looking, and it’s amazing the things I’m uncovering with this fresh set of eyes. A year is obviously a really long time, but I think the longer the better if you can learn some self-discipline and work on other stuff while the manuscript “simmers.”

  6. #11 by Juliet Greenwood on November 28, 2011 - 12:41 pm

    That is so wise!

    I know I’ve gone back to a first draft far too soon in the past and you simply can’t see it with strangers’ eyes – which will be, after all, your readers’ eyes. I always feel you write the first draft for yourself, and the second for your reader/editor/agent. Getting that distance is always the hardest bit. And, of course, it’s what an editor does. They are the mediator between the writer and the reader.


  7. #13 by Victoria on November 28, 2011 - 5:45 pm

    Roz, this is golden advice. Just golden!

    I’ve left novels for years before. It’s like a magic pill.:)

  8. #15 by laurastanfill on November 29, 2011 - 2:08 am

    I wrote the first draft of my previous novel while pregnant with my daughter. Then I put it away for 18 months. My brain was shot from lack of sleep and all the challenges that go along with being a new parent. It took me a long time to figure out how to bring writing back into my life. I hope I never go that long again, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience to open that manuscript up again and be emotionally ready to slice it to pieces. The months away lent a totally fresh perspective to the story, but so did my new mom life. I really learned this lesson about setting the story aside and letting it marinate on its own for a while.

  9. #17 by Irving Podolsky on November 29, 2011 - 4:32 pm

    Yes! Excellent advice, Roz. It’s so true. Let the work rest.

    I also find that I look at the piece differently when it’s SHAPED DIFFERENTLY on a page or screen. Changing the format or narrowing the margins for a review can reveal typos easier because the eye is no longer repeating the same “fit-it” steps within the mind. The words now looks like someone else wrote them.

    Now…what do you do for “dead-line” posts in your blog? You don’t have a month to let the piece rest. Maybe you’ve got a two days. Still, that’s better to wait those two days than quickly pushing PUBLISH, don’t you think?

    Or, you can have it edited by someone else, except your mom.


  10. #19 by Daniel R. Marvello on November 29, 2011 - 6:05 pm

    I’ve found the same thing as Irving, regarding changing the layout of the material on the screen. For example, in Word you can change the page size or margins and get completely different line breaks, which helps you find errors you might otherwise miss. I even find that looking at the document in Print Preview mode changes how I read the material.

    As for blog posts, I use The Overnight Rule, unless my wife is available for editing. I usually write my weekly post on Saturday and review it on Sunday morning before I post it. I always find something!

    As for waiting to review a manuscript, I’d be surprised to learn that waiting six months or more would give you any more “clarity” than waiting one or two months. If you ran off and wrote other things, you may come back to the older manuscript with new skills and insights, but that has nothing to do with the down time itself.

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 30, 2011 - 2:35 pm

      Changing the way the manuscript looks is a great tip, Daniel. I love fiddling round to make the words look fresh. Another thing I do is load it on my notebook computer and take it to a cafe. Of course there’s the excuse that coffee and cake are near to hand, but the newness helps me focus.

      And as for blog posts… I have the Dave test. Summon him into the study and read it to him.

  11. #21 by Jason Runnels on December 2, 2011 - 3:22 am

    Hi Roz, I did my first NaNo and “won”. I’m torn though. I am weary from the flurry of so many words and would love to let it marinate, but I only got halfway through my story. Part of me just wants to keep going with the draft, but I uncovered some gems that may impact the overall structure of the climax of the story. I’m afraid if I go back and reread any of this I may flip to edit mode and never get to the second half by my deadline.

    I like the idea of taking notes of things to fix for later. Maybe I’ll do that separately instead of red-lining the NaNo part of the draft before I’m done with the whole draft. Thanks.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 2, 2011 - 10:44 am

      Jason, it sounds as though you shouldn’t be stopping yet. If I were you, I’d carry on to the end. Don’t look back over what you’ve got already, just plough on until you’ve got a draft finished. Then give it its holiday!

  12. #23 by Darlene Steelman on December 3, 2011 - 12:31 pm

    Roz.. thank you for reminding me about the “let it marinate” phase. I finished NaNo and in complete haste picked it back up and started going through it.

    I read King’s “On Writing” years ago. Great stuff!

    Once again, thank you for the reminder…

    I happened onto your blog via Gene Lempp’s blog. Thanks, Gene!

  1. Blog Treasures 12-2 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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