People sometimes ask me for writing tips, so I'm doing a series of them on this blog. If you want to read the previous ones, they're here. They talk about the process of getting an idea, and writing a first draft. This one is about what happens after you've finished your first draft.
The important thing now is to get distance on your story. Take some time away from it, until you can read it as if someone else had written it. Stop being the writer, and become the reader. And then, as the reader, ask yourself all the questions you ask of every other book you read. What works? What doesn't? What should there be more of? And less of? Once you can answer these questions, you'll know what to do on the second draft. You become the writer again, and do everything you can to make it more like the book you want to read.
This process has been beautifully described by Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila, who teaches creative writing at the University Of Iowa. She discussed it in The Paris Review Interviews Vol. IV, and I like what she says so much that I'm going to quote it in full:
INTERVIEWERWhat is the most important thing you try to teach your students?
ROBINSONI try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there's something that leaps out – an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don't try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don't see any reason in fine-tuning something that's essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they're putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they're writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.