How to Read Your Novel: Taking a Step Back

8:00 AM Gemma Fitz 12 Comments

So with CampNaNo finally over, I threw my then-WIP into the cellar to rot for a couple months and pulled out my Big Baby-- the sci-fi, spy thriller, dystopian-ish, cyber punk young adult thingummy I drafted this past November, rewrote this past April-May, and put aside for a quick breather in July. I cheerfully fished it out of my files and decided to read through it just to get back into the rewriting/revising/editing groove.

It sucks.
I have no idea what this is from, but it is too accurate to not use.
No, it really, really sucks. Reading the first couple paragraphs felt like being stabbed in the stomach with a pitchfork. And if you think that's a graphic description don't read those first couple paragraphs. Because that description, however graphic, does not even come close to explaining how I felt about my rotten little story.

And seriously, being stabbed in the stomach with a pitchfork is not a pleasant sensation. It's more the kind of sensation that makes you want to pull the pitchfork out and run away and cry and maybe see a doctor. The last thing it makes you want to do is sit down and start washing the blood off the prongs, bending them back into shape, taping the handle that splitting apart back together, and basically making the sharp, pointy thing that's sticking out of you look beautiful. It's also the kind of sensation that makes you ask yourself "What was I thinking to leave sharp pointy objects lying around where I could so easily run right into them and get stabbed in the stomach???"

The problem was, I didn't know how to read my own story. And I think that a lot of us probably have that problem. We tend to scroll through our manuscripts alternating between "I'm a genius! This is the most awesome thing ever! Let's go publish it right now!" and (more often), "This sucks! I'm a horrible writer! Let's destroy this thing in the most violent way possible!" And with either of these attitudes, it's super hard to make our stories any better.

So, because I'm a nice, generous, I've done my best to find a comparatively painless way to read through your novel, and I'll be sharing some tips with y'all over the next few weeks.

Aha! Finally we get to the picture. Sorry for the super long introduction, but it was so much fun to write about pitchforks I felt it was necessary.

Today I'm addressing the most important aspect of reading your novel (or anything else you've written), and that is taking a step back. You need to view your book objectively, through a perspective other than that of the author. When a writer reads his own story, it's hard for him to see what's good and what's bad. This is why we have beta-readers, but most of us don't want a beta to see our first-- or even our second or third-- draft. You need to become your own beta reader.

So take a step back. Think of it as a book somebody else wrote-- someone you don't know and someone who is definitely not you. Try to treat your novel as just another book on your TBR stack. You hope it will be good, but you know it might let you down, because books just do that, sometimes.

Try to emotionally distance yourself from your novel. When you run into a huge plot hole, don't think "Oh my word, this sucks! I need to fix this!", think, "Hmm... the author didn't do a very good job with the plot-- maybe it'll make sense later on?" You'll have time to fix everything later. For now, you just need to make note of any major problems, and it's not going to help to get worked up over them.  (I'll talk more about this in a later post, so stay tuned.)

Another way to emotionally distance yourself from the novel is to keep telling yourself that you are not responsible for your story. As I was reading through my WIP, I would say things like, "I'm not the one who wrote this, I can't change any of this, I'm just reading a book, and when I'm done I'll decide whether I like it or not." (I probably looked insane, wriggling uncomfortably, grimacing, and muttering things under my breath, but I was alone in my room as always, so there was no one to see me.)  Just saying, "I'm not responsible," relieves a ton of stress and can allow you to enjoy your novel objectively, without obsessing over the problems.
Once you've succeeded in seeing your novel from the perspective of a reader-- not the author-- it will be significantly easier to push through your manuscript, noticing the flaws, but not having hour long sob-fests every other paragraph.

How do you read your stories? Do you ever get overwhelmed by the sheer suckiness of them? Or do no one else's stories suck as much as mine do?


  1. Oh gosh, that was the best way to describe re-reading stuff. xD I love it, and I totally feel ya there. Being able to step away is CRUCIAL, and I really wish I'd learned that sooner. (On a side note -- you've got this! Editing sucks, but you'll survive, and it'll be better for it. :D)

    1. Glad you liked it! (I had far too much fun making that comparison-- I have a warped mind.)

      And thanks for the encouragement. I really hate editing-- but I might as well get used to it now since it's going to take a while. :)

  2. Totally agree but I think you shouldn't be so hard on yourself :)

  3. Hey Gemma! I just stumbled onto your blog, and I just wanted to say how cool I think it is that you have a dedicated writing space and are continually writing. Like, #goals. I've been a wannabe writer for the longest time now, and while I do have a book blog and all, I'm not a consistent writer at all. I'm following in hopes that you'll motivate me to be more consistent. <33

    ANYWAYS, the advice you have in this post is so spot-on! It can be really painful to read a first draft but I think we all need to remember that it's a first draft for a reason. :) Whenever I'm reading, I always look pretty critically at a book and I'm coming up with things I did/didn't like about it, so whenever I edit (when I do, which isn't often, haha), that's the mindset I try to adopt. I actually think editing is kind of cool, even if it's super difficult, because you get to shape something super rough into something that's beautiful. (Plus, I like fixing things instead of trying to come up with things, so that may explain it. ;)).

    Lovely, lovely post! <33

    1. Greetings! Oh, I've been there before-- I had a very long "inconsistent wannabe writer" stage-- and I'm still not as consistent as I'd like to be. Anyway, I hope I can be of help! (But here's a hint, the number one motivator for writing, at least for me, is a story idea you're super passionate about!)

      First drafts are never going to be perfect! Or, in my case, second drafts either. Yes!! Definitely a good mindset with which to read your story. (Spoilers-- I'll be talking a bit about that probably next week.) Editing isn't really my thing, simply because it takes an eternity of doing the same thing over and over again, and in the end, all the edits in the world won't make my story /perfect/. But yes, there are so many different perspectives to use when you look at editing, and I try to adopt a positive one. :)

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Oh gosh, yeah, it hurts. I've adopted a new method of drafting I call sparse drafting, and basically what happens is that my first draft is essentially a very detailed but messy outline and my second draft is a slightly less messy first draft. Just giving permission to your book to suck helps so much -- you did it by self-mind-tricking here, whereas I just told myself, "it's not a REAL first draft. Word vomit it allllll out."

    Thank you for dropping by The Devil Orders Takeout, Gemma!

    1. Thanks for commenting! That sounds like such a cool method (though it would probably drive "pantser" me insane)! I'd love to see what that would look like...

      You're welcome-- I love your blog!

  5. I totally know what you mean! Re-reading my own work is always a challenge. One thing that has helped me, and I'm pretty sure you mentioned that you did this, is to let the draft sit for a good while so when I do read it my mind is fresh and I feel more like a reader. Otherwise I'm still in writer mode, and it gets too confusing to try and separate myself from it. I love your advice, Gemma!

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for The Tag of Happiness! If you want to check that out it's right here:
    Have a great day!

    1. Yes, yes, yes. That draft must sit in order for me to even make it past the first sentence. I try to read a lot of not-written-by-me books, too, between the time I finish writing the novel and the time I pick it up for the first read through, to get me into reader mode.

      Oh, thank you so much! I will go look, and hopefully participate soon. :)

  6. Phew, I really need this right now. :P I'm attempting to revise and write my first draught at the same time (because it doesn't make enough sense to even finish writing yet) and this is the motivation I need. I've been trying to look at it like I'm the beta-reader, but emotionally distancing myself will help. Thank you!

    1. Oh, I hate it when that happens-- you simply can't write more until you've made sense out of what you've already written. It overwhelms me so much, and I usually end up quitting. Good luck and keep at it!


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