When I was a child, my family drove across country three times.  Over three summers, we loaded up the Ford station wagon and made a vacation of it, complete with my grandmother in a wheelchair, my two siblings and an Old English Sheepdog named J. Edgar.  There were a lot of “Are we there yets?” from the fold up seats in the rear of the car (the dog and the grandmother got the backseat).   Each morning that we left a city behind, I remember feeling like we’d never get to the next stop.  After the first few hours of driving, the roads invariably got narrower and more desolate, and it seemed like we were getting further away, not closer to a destination.  But then we’d turn a corner and see a sign for the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore and we’d know that we were getting close to something amazing.  I’d suck up a little more patience and eventually I was always rewarded.

Those trips were long and painful, but they created some of the best and most vivid memories from my childhood.  My family and I experienced this country together.  We saw Buffalo Bill Cody's rodeo in Jackson Hole, explored the pueblos of Mesa Verde, ventured into the petrified forest, felt tiny under giant Sequoias, rode roller coasters that went upside down, and flagged down a wild black bear in Yellowstone (From a car! We weren’t completely insane, although these trips might suggest otherwise). 

Writing is a bit like traveling cross country for me.  It is a tedious journey punctuated by amazing moments and revelations. Every time I get somewhere good, I find myself setting off again in a new direction, down long and winding roads. Only the signs are harder to spot.  At many points along the way I ask myself if I’m done yet, and I always want to believe that I am.  Once you’ve reached that hotel in the middle of Texas with the indoor waterslide, it’s hard to imagine why you’d want to venture back out again.  It’s easy to lose perspective.

I am a writer that tends to love what I’ve written most recently the most.  While I’m writing my crappy first drafts, I’m falling in love with my characters, being dazzled by ideas that spring from nowhere and blown away by plot twists that even I did not see coming.  Can you see the danger here?  

When I’m “finished” I have a story only an author (and perhaps said author’s mother) could love.  But I’m tempted to hit SEND anyway.   But then I remember that I can’t get from D.C. to San Francisco in one leg.  Even if I could do it by switching off with another driver, I wouldn’t want to.  Because the joy of the trip comes from the stops along the way, the secret places that your characters don’t reveal until draft three or twenty.  So for those of you who are on that long drive, here are some signs to remind you that you are not quite done yet.

Rough Road

There’s a reason they call the first draft a “rough” draft.  It’s full of plot holes and lacking any smooth surfaces.  After the months if not years it took to finally get to the place where you can type “the end,” you are going to feel like you’ve made it.  It can be better.  A lot better.  DO NOT SEND.  Not even to your mother.  

Somewhere halfway through a read-through of the manuscript you realize your book may have started out being about X, but it’s really about Y.  No problem!  Y is so much more exciting and adds layers to the story.  DO NOT SEND.  Go back to the beginning and make sure the entire story is consistent with your your new theme/plot/character arc.  A lot of writers hit send too soon because they don’t realize that changing one thing in chapter seventeen means smoothing out all the chapters before and after to build to and build from the new moment.  Make sure your book reads like one smooth story and is not a series of many detours taken through multiple revisions. 

No Outlet

You probably have a few dead ends- plot arcs or characters that go nowhere and serve no purpose.  Purge these from your manuscript. Now look again.  Could the scene be better if it were in a different location?  If the characters discovered the secret a different way?  Now is the time to second guess your decisions.  BEFORE you hit send. 

Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear

Once you have the plot and scenes in place, take some time to dig deeper, to infuse your scenes and characters with even more conflict and emotion.  When you think it’s just about there, take one more look. One of the most critical drafts for me is the internal reaction, tension building draft.  One of my last drafts of the manuscript involves adding at least one sentence of emotional reaction to every page.   This draft always ups the tension and makes me love the main character more.  Go ahead lay your characters bare.  It’s hard, painful work, but your characters deserve it.  Your readers deserve it.


You've finally sent your manuscript to beta readers, critique partners, agents, and friends.  Now take a breath and listen to constructive feedback.  At first it’s hard to hear that your manuscript needs work.  But give yourself time to take it all in.  There’s almost always something you can use.  If you get the same feedback from more than one person pay special attention to it.  The way I look at edits is this: someone can suggest an idea, but I am the only one who gets to decide how to implement it in my manuscript.  Whatever I write will still be mine, and since I tend to love what I’ve written most recently the best, chances are, I will love the result.

Good luck on your journey to finished manuscript, and don't forget to enjoy the stops along the way!


I love this analogy as well. It reminds me of when we took our kids hiking in Vermont; the moaning and groaning always started just as we were almost to the summit, then we would all rise above the pain and enjoy while taking in all that we'd hiked. And then there is the hike down with it's own revelations; no doubt writing is a journey, whether it be a road trip, or a gastronomical undertaking. I agree with all of the above. Veronica, you said it most succinctly; "Done doesn't always mean typing The End."

I agree -- great analogy, and excellent suggestions. I really like your idea of adding at least one sentence of emotional reaction to every page. It's easy to get myopic while immersed in the writing process, so a little detachment is useful when revising. Strategies like this may help.

Janis, I think a hike might've done our family in! And you're so right- writing is a journey no matter what analogy you use.

Megan, I love the emotional reaction draft. It really makes me dig deep into the scenes.

I really like the "Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear" section. So true, and something I need to work on.

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