Most successful works of fiction go through a number of stages before being fully completed. Sometimes these stages are progressed through swiftly; sometimes writers try and short-circuit them and publish too soon. Often, the stages are simply unknown and so steps get skipped inadvertently, to the work’s detriment. Here’s an outline of the stages to assist you:
This is the initial formulation of the story, including the first draft. Many writers write simply because of this stage — the ‘plunging into’ a new world, the constant creativity, the sense of wild abandon. You immerse yourself in the creation, making notes, inventing characters, scenes, images. Even if you are a planner rather than a pantser, there is always this element of rawness when a work is first begun. It’s usually a joyful stage, even if the topic or theme is dark or painful, simply because of the energy involved. The first draft is, as many have said, the mere beginnings of the finished product, but it’s obviously essential. Many writers write just for the joy of this stage.
Pen down, first draft finished — now the tinkering begins. This can include an initial technical editing, fixing obvious typographical slips or proofreading things, straightening out names and places, adjusting basic scene structure and so on. Some writers don’t do this stage immediately after the first draft; many do. Like painters working on a master portrait, it’s difficult to put the brush down and walk away.
Unfortunately, some writers think that this is the point at which they have achieved publication readiness. They are actually a long way from that, but the evidence of the marketplace strongly suggests that many believe they’re not: books are printed and distributed today which a simple reading of the first page reveals were not at all ready.
3. Stepping Away
Walking away from a first draft is advisable, even for a short period. During this stage, the writer puts the manuscript aside for a while and goes off and does something else — perhaps works on another project or something not writing-related at all. This creates perspective: coming back to the initial draft even after a few days yields new insights and enables the writer to spot errors or to see scenes in a new light. Sometimes writers are able to leave a draft alone for months and only then revisit it.
It’s at this stage that disillusionment often sets in. Returning to a draft after some time away, the writer can find that he or she has emerged from their initial ‘immersion’ and that everything in the book seems quite different — and not as good. Many writers abandon a work at this point.
Some go ahead and publish it, though, not realising that they could benefit from a further four stages of manuscript evolution.
Whether or not a work appears disappointing, it can still evolve into something worthwhile. This next stage is a vital one on the road to creating a successful piece. Here is where the writer explores the work in a new light, finding out what that joyful first draft was really all about, going on a journey into his or her own imagination and creation to discover the themes, messages and connections which the story generated in a fashion beyond the writer’s rational awareness at the time.
It’s often a marvellous voyage. New links between character and plot or between scenes are spotted; beautiful relationships between aspects of the work, previously unenvisaged and unexpected, reveal themselves. Many writers at this point experience a sense of wonder — did they really write this thing?
It helps to have a sense at this stage of the maxims employed by master authors through the centuries, and it’s here that I am going to plug my book How Stories Really Work, a forty-year survey and distillation of what makes successful works of fiction ‘tick’. By grasping the underlying simplicities behind plot and character, and by understanding what grips, guides and moves readers, a writer can begin to understand what is both present and missing in his or her own work — and that’s when the fun really begins.
Discovering all these wonders is also essential to a marketing campaign for the book, by the way.
Having obtained a broad outline of how to proceed, the writer can start to really develop the work with a fresh confidence that what is being built is something worthwhile and strong. The misaligned bones of the work’s body are repaired; flesh is added (or removed) where needed; connective tissue is healed and restored. Soon a new artefact appears: all that was intended from the beginning, perhaps unconsciously at that time, now stands proudly in the light. Characters engage with the plot; themes unfurl as they should; meaning communicates powerfully and effectively.
The true story has emerged, like a butterfly from a cocoon.
Now the penultimate tasks are undertaken, including painstaking proofreading and final tiny adjustments. This stage resembles the earlier ‘tinkering’ stage, but here the actions are similar to adding polish to what by now will be clearly a worthwhile and almost complete work of art.
Only at this point should publication be considered. All that has been learned from stage 4 onwards will also be useful in planning a book’s actual release into the marketplace — it will help isolating a target audience, designing a cover, writing a blurb and so on.
You can probably tell that these stages can be whizzed through quite quickly in some cases, while in others a great deal of time is involved. Often the process stalls along the way, resulting in many manuscripts languishing on shelves or in hard drives, their authors unsure of how to proceed. Hopefully, in looking over these steps, you will be able to spot where particular works are at in terms of a runway towards publication and success.