Columns > Published on July 20th, 2022

My Plan To Shape Up A 700-Page Manuscript In Less Than a Year

It’s a great and terrible thing to finish a 700-page manuscript draft.

Great because, hey, you did it. Pop some champagne. Or a tallboy. I’m told that France says it's cool, beer in a tallboy can can be officially designated as “champagne.”

A 700-page draft is also terrible because, holy shit, you’ve got 700 pages of gobble-de-book with maybe 200 pages of usable novel hidden inside. If you're lucky.

I suspect I’m not alone here. Lots of novelists out there, and would-be novelists, will find themselves in this spot: You’ve got a HUGE monster of a manuscript that needs turning into a decent book.

Let’s work on a plan together.

1. Mo’ Pages, Mo’ Problems

Have you ever spilled a whole sack of flour down a flight of carpeted stairs?

That’s what a super long manuscript is like. You don’t even know how to start the cleanup. You go for the vacuum, but you track more flour across the floor. You clog up the vacuum filter and then sort of blow flour all into the air.

Everything you do creates a new problem, and it gets worse before it gets better.

Long, long manuscripts are like that.

Let’s accept it together as step one: this is about to get ugly.

2. Inventory Readthrough

Step two is a full-on readthrough.

This thing is bound to be full of all kinds of shit that Pete from 7 years ago tossed in there, stuff that makes Pete from today question that old Pete's grasp of writing and plotting and basic narrative, probably even rudimentary punctuation.

I need a full readthrough, like an inventory, just to see what I’ve got on my hands.

The commitment on this readthrough is to only do two things:

  1. Circle things that you need to check back in with later.
  2. Sectioning the manuscript off into different scenes.

That’s it. No rewrites, no gussying up any lines. This is just a breeze-through, one that moves fast to push us to the next step.

One of the mistakes writers make with a long manuscript, they start line edits on word one, readthrough one.

You'll never make it through if you start at the very beginning. A very good place to start, indeed...

Let’s read this thing, then we can edit it. Let's listen to what the pages have to say, uninterrupted.

3. Is It A Book?

Step three is a Yes or No decision: Is this even a book?

An hour in front of paper will at least give the day a different texture.

Yeah, it’s a stack of pages, a collection of words and ideas. But is this something I can and should try and make into a book?

I hope the answer is yes. But I need to be open to the possibility that the answer is no. It could be a pile of shit.

If the first readthrough, that breezy, simple glide over the pages is a slog, a labor of Hercules, probably most like the one where he had to clean out a super shitty stable, if there's just nothing that lights me up on that readthrough, it might just plain suck, and my time might be better placed elsewhere.

4. Section Work

As a joke, Tom Spanbauer, after being asked repeatedly, said the perfect length for a short story is 7 pages. Really, there’s no perfect length, but you can only hear the same question so many times from so many beginning writers before you just say fuck it and come up with an answer.

With my book broken into sections from my readthrough, I’ll put a name and one-sentence description of each section on a notecard, and then look through what I’ve got, what I need, what I don’t, what could move around, and so on.

5. Story Style

Now that I've got my tidy sections, I’ll print out all the sections and mash each one down into a tight, 7-10 page story that mostly, almost, stands alone and has its own reason for existing. 

The edits will look at each section as its own thing, give each its own attention.

This lets me bring a section with me in my pocket. Print it out, carry it around. Do the work in small packets.

It breaks the work down into manageable chunks. I don't have to run at this huge pile every day, just a few pages here, a few there.

On the reader end, which will still be far, far away, I hope this will help me avoid a common writer's trap where books sag in the middle because we all go over the beginning dozens of times, the end about the same, and the middle suffers neglect.

6. Connective Tissue

Once I’ve got my short stories worked out, I’ll put them back together, start at the beginning, and add in any necessary connective tissue that's missing between the stories.

I'll shoot for too little connective tissue rather than too much. It's the easiest shit to add back in if I really need it.

7. Out Loud

I’ll read the whole thing out loud. That’s no big deal, something you’ve all heard before.

Then I’ll record myself reading through it and listen back, like an audiobook.

Once you claw deep into editing, it’s hard to hear your book like a reader again, like it’s the first time. You're like a contractor who walks through a building they worked on from start to finish. You still see the scaffolding, still see what's behind the walls.

With audio only, no page in front of me, maybe I’ll be able to pick out those pieces that don’t work, nail down voice problems, and see where I'm just plain bored.

A Couple Other Tricks

These aren’t steps, they’re things I’ll do along the way to help me chug through:

The Alley

I used to live in a house on an alley, and it was THE place to leave crap people didn’t know how to get rid of. Old TVs were big, couches, and even once the door to a semi. Driver’s side, if you're in the market for one.

The Alley in my manuscript is a huge blank space at the end where I paste sections that don’t make the cut, but maybe I’m hesitant to throw them out. That way, I can shut up the stupid part of my brain that thinks I’ll REALLY want those lines later.

Printing Out

I’ve printed out this first draft, and I’ll print out another once I’ve got it chopped into stories.

I’m a believer in the paper draft just because it’s easy to carry around. It’s easy to edit. And I spend enough time in front of a computer. An hour in front of paper will at least give the day a different texture.

Breakdown

If I do 20 pages a day on the first readthrough, that’s 35 days of work.

I’ll have something like 70 sections of 10 pages each. If I get through two per week, that’ll have me at 35 weeks or 320 days. Too long. 3 per week is 163 days. That's better.

Next readthrough, 5 days.

Audio reading, another 5 days.

Listening through, let’s call that 5 days.

Cleaning it up, another 10 days.

That’d put me 223 days out with a manuscript that’s in some kind of decent shape.

February 21st, 2023.

I’ll be there with some sort of manuscript.

Will you be there with yours?


Get On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts by William Germano at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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