How to Stay Motivated While Polishing Your Manuscript
Finishing the first draft of your novel is a celebratory occasion where you get to bask in the glow of your new creation.
Make no mistake: this is a momentous occasion, for your completed manuscript is in the minority among manuscripts. I discovered a number of articles claiming that 97% of manuscripts go unfinished, though I have not been able to back this up with actual research. But I have personally started at least a dozen novels and only finished three.
Common wisdom says that the first draft is the hardest part of writing a novel, but the next steps can feel even more intimidating when you get there. Unfortunately, most authors don’t spin out perfect first drafts. Chances are you’ll need to spend a little more effort on revision and self-editing before querying agents or self-publishing on Amazon. Whether you’re diving into deep revisions or you’re ready for sentence-level editing, the stakes can feel higher than a rough draft.
If you’re struggling with motivation to get started, here are some tried-and-true tips to help get you on track.
Take a Break
After you’ve been staring at a manuscript for months or even years is not the best time to examine it critically. Instead, put it in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. Read a great book or two, or outline a new project, and come back later with fresh eyes.
In order to self-edit properly, you need to exercise objectivity. You’ve probably fallen in love with a few of those words, whether or not they’re actually publishable material. This first step distances you from the words on the screen. If you’ve already received critiques or beta reads from several sources, time can also mute the negative impact of that critical feedback.
At the end of 30 days, you may feel the same about every word you wrote. However, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to dive in and discover flaws that must be cleaned up in order for our audience to love our book. If you do, you won’t be alone. Some famous authors have even admitted to disliking their own published books.
Practice Time Blocking
Once you’re ready to tackle the next big phase of your manuscript lifecycle, you’ll need to set aside time to do it. I recommend time blocking. This refers to holding space in your calendar for an important activity the same way that you would a medical appointment or family event.
In my worst days as a project manager, my calendar would be stacked with a dozen or more back-to-back meetings, culminating in a task list I could only complete at night. It was a genuine struggle to eek out five minutes for writing. Once I practiced time blocking, my work life became so much easier and so did my writing life. Guess what? Other people schedule around my obligations, including my time blocks.
This is a good place to mention that you should also choose a time of day when you have energy and feel productive. For instance, if you are typically ready to drop by 9 PM, putting it on your schedule at that time may not work. I’m an early bird, so I choose mornings. And I never schedule over one of these blocks for anything less than an emergency.
Our calendars are stuffed full of… well, all kinds of stuff! Penciling in an activity is the first step to making it a priority.
Divide to Conquer
At The Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, you can win a free steak by consuming an entire 72-ounce steak in an hour. According to the company website, about 11 percent of contestants actually accomplish the challenge. Most people don’t even try; it’s just too hard to even consider.
Self-editing a novel does not need to be a 72-ounce steak challenge. Some small percentage of people can hunker down and power through, but the rest of us need to take a measured approach. For instance, divide your steak into a dozen 6-ounce portions and eat one per week.
There are many ways to slice-and-dice revision and editing tasks, but one approach is to work from macro to micro: fill any major holes, then polish character arcs and plot lines, and smooth inconsistencies, leaving grammar and punctuation for last. You could also proceed through your manuscript chapter-by-chapter until you get to the end.
There’s no single right way to break up the work. Just remember that you don’t have to do it all at once.
Surround Yourself with Inspiration
After dinner each evening, I collapse in front of the television with dogs and cats vying for space on my lap. Books, computers, and notebooks cannot compete. The cat inevitably wins the lap and I fall asleep in front of the TV.
This is one of the worst editing situations you could choose for yourself. I don’t recommend it!
Instead, try to cultivate an environment that will be fuel your success. Consider some of these important sensory factors:
Physical Comfort: Carve out a space where you can sit comfortably, either at an ergonomic computer workstation or a desk. Edit when you are sufficiently rested.
Sound: Some people may write in front of a television, but I find TV distracting. I prefer to work on nonfiction in total silence, but for fiction I wear headphones and crank up a playlist of my favorite classical songs (all dark or dramatic). My friend plays NPR quietly for background noise.
Distractions: Put your devices on “do not disturb.” Warn family members about your editing time period. If you can get away with it, work in a room by yourself behind a locked door or go to a library so that you can’t even see that pile of dirty laundry.
Colors: Different colors can have a profound impact on our emotions and mental states. Blue and green are often viewed as calming and creative hues. My writing space has teal walls. Assuming you can’t change your wall color, you can try using pillows or blankets to surround yourself with serenity.
Scents: Studies (such as this one) have credited scents with enhancing mental states. My daughter’s second-grade teacher passed out peppermint candy at math time to help the students with focus. (She called it “minty math,” which made it sound a lot more fun than you’d think.) I like to chew peppermint gum while I write and edit.
Tackle Your Biggest Challenge First
During the revision process for my second novel, I discovered a major hole in the plot and I needed to add an entire chapter. This happens. I couldn’t immediately get my mind around it, so I temporarily added a page break and a chapter title between 21 and 23. Unfortunately, every time I happened upon this empty page, my eyes slid past like they were magnetically repulsed. Over time, I felt worse and worse about the empty chapter. I couldn’t even work on the smaller revisions because I knew without that chapter, I would never finish. It was so stressful!
Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Regardless of how you feel about Twain the writer or the human, that statement contains a lot of truth. After I wrestled chapter 22 into place, I could suddenly complete the rest of my revisions and edits.
Polishing your novel may not be the easiest part of the writing process, but it is a necessary part of the craft. Try some of these tips to get you started and keep you going.
Chris Africa writes science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels. She earns her keep as a program manager at a digital agency. You can read her work on Wattpad (https://www.wattpad.com/user/chrisafrica) and Amazon.com (https://www.amazon.com/stores/Chris-Africa/author/B0765X38W3)