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How to Get Perspective on Your Messy First Draft of a Novel

Posted Tue, 4/18/2017 - 7:44am by  |  Category: , ,

This is the Hugo House “How-To” series, where Hugo House instructors share tips related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from Waverly Fitzgerald who is teaching Deep Novel Revision, which will help writers with a rough draft (maybe a NaNoWriMo novel) and writers who have completed a substantial portion of a novel create a plan for a complete revision. 

1. Write a messy first draft.

I like to suggest writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month since you really can’t get too hung up on perfecting your novel if you’re writing 50,000 words in a month. But every novelist has a tempo and you have to honor that.

2. Get some distance from your novel.

Let it sit for at least six weeks. A year is better.

3. Make a list of the elements your novel would contain if you were able to create the ideal version.

Also make a list of the things you dislike in novels. Yes, I know it seems absurd but they may creep in without your noticing. [This idea comes from Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month].

4. Choose three of your favorite novels in your genre (whether that’s literary or mystery or historical) to use as models.

Choose novels you admire because they have the qualities you most want to emulate and fear you do not have the skills to carry out. [This idea comes from Heather Sellers in Chapter after Chapter. She also recommends choosing three books on writing novels.]

5. Read your novel as if you were a reader.

Print your novel out single-spaced in two columns on a landscape-oriented page so you are reading it as if it were already a published book. Or make a PDF and send it to your Kindle. Resist the urge to get back into the text and make corrections.

6. Find a beta-reader.

This should be someone who understands the type of novel you’ve written and who will give you feedback on how it reads. Where did your reader get tired of the main character’s whining? Where did they get confused about what was going on? Where did they guess the identity of the murderer? (It doesn’t mean you have to change it. Maybe you don’t care.)

7. What is the theme of your novel?

What moral values do the characters struggle with? Have you considered every aspect of these choices? Are they represented with actions or characters in your work?

8. Make a document that will allow you to grasp the whole of your novel at a glance.

Some writers do this with Scrivener. Some do this with index cards, the old school version of Scrivener. My friend, Annie Pearson, taught me how to make a Table of Contents in Word by using heading styles. Using your preferred method, make notes on point of view shifts, changes of setting, action, and other things you know you need to change.

9. Determine if you have used the right structure for your novel.

Does it need to be told in a straightforward chronological way from the point of view of one character? What are your other choices? Look at your model novels and see what they do.

10. Make a list of decisions you have to make and a list of tasks you can do.

The decisions (will I use third person or first person?) often take longer to figure out, so use the tasks to keep on moving forward.

These techniques are only part of what the first three classes of Deep Novel Revision will cover. You will be working from the top down to the sentence level, making decisions about plot, character development, point of view, structure, scenes, dialogue, and sentences.

For really ambitious writers, Waverly will also provide additional homework assignments to help you produce a synopsis and a query letter, research agents in your genre, and polish your first fifty pages for submission. One of the students in her last Deep Revision class won the Elizabeth George Award to continue working on her literary novel that takes place in Alaska—a novel she was considering giving up on when she began the class.


Waverly Fitzgerald has written sixteen novels, nine of which have been published (by Doubleday, Jove, and Kensington). She is grateful her first novel was written when she was 13 as she made every mistake a novelist can make in that novel. Her current project is a historical mystery set during the English Civil War. Besides teaching for Hugo House, she also teaches online for Creative Nonfiction magazine. She will present a workshop on point of view at the Chuckanut Writers Conference this summer. For her essays on urban nature, she has been awarded a grant from Artist Trust, a fellowship from Jack Straw, and residencies at Whiteley, Centrum, and Hedgebrook.