Tuesday, December 07, 2010

NaNo Now What?

You've all had a week to recover from NaNoWriMo, so I think it's safe to discuss what happens now with your November novel. What follows is my advice as a professional novelist. Blow me off if you want, but I do this for a living, and I think my approach is at least worth considering.

Let's talk about length for a moment. 50,000 words is a novel-length story, but one with a very limited print market. There are a few publishers who will consider 50K novels (Harlequin) and some print mag and antho markets also willing to look at that length, but most publishers are looking for novels in the 75K - 100K range. That said, e-publishers are much more flexible on length, and I believe most are quite receptive to considering novels in the 50K range (and some do print as well as e-book format.)

Don't panic that you haven't written enough for the traditional print market, because unless you are an expansive, thoroughly detail-oriented, get-it-right-the first-time type of writer, your first draft of a novel is likely going to get longer after you edit and revise it.

So that's length, and now I'd like you to forget about that for the time being, because you have more important things to do than count words. You have a first draft to read, edit, buff, polish and prepare for submission.

First question you need to ask yourself: Is the novel finished? If the answer is no, stop reading this post and go finish writing your book. And don't argue with me, because an unfinished story is not a book; it's a partial manuscript. When you've got a completed first draft, then you can come back and go to the next step.

Next step (if you haven't taken it already) is to put your completed novel aside and take a break from it. Stick it in your file or desk, work on something else and put a little distance between you and the story. How long? Everyone is different, but the shortest break I take is three days, and the longest is a month. This time away from the story is important because you need to be as objective as possible, and you usually can't do that if you're up to your ears in the story all day every day.

Once you feel you've taken a decent break, take out your first draft and read it through one time, start to finish, without editing or making any notes on it. You're reading the manuscript this time to get the big picture, which hopefully will allow you to answer these questions: Is this story worth more of your time? Is it still as exciting as it was when it was just an idea in your head? Are you itching to get back to work on it? And, finally, is it a story you believe you can sell?

That last question is a killer, I know. It requires you to take a very hard look at yourself as well as the work. But if you don't believe in this novel now, you're going to have a very tough time selling it to someone else. Now is the time to decide if it's something you want to actively pursue for publication, or something you need to put away.

Btw, if you ever want to come over to my house and see the eight boxes of manuscripts, short stories and other works I've put aside because in the end I didn't believe in them, I didn't like how they turned out or there simply wasn't a market for them, I'll haul them down from the attic for you. P.S., the stories and the original proposal for my Darkyn novels lived on one of those boxes for six years, so don't think anything you set aside is wasted or garbage. Sometimes you have to wait for the market to catch up with you.

Once you've decided that your first draft answers all those questions with a solid yes, then it's time to prepare for an intensive edit. My method is to go through the entire manuscript again, start to finish, and decide what stays and what goes. I use a highlighter to slash through large portions of the story that bore me, are clunky or just don't make sense; these are portions that have to be reworked or tossed out and written over from scratch.

For smaller/shorter type-in corrections for things like grammar stumbles, misspellings and places where I need to clarify, expand or otherwise clean up things for the reader I use a red pen to circle things and write notes on the page. I also keep a notepad handy for things like name changes (it's inevitable that I'll find at least one character whose name I begin to hate for some reason and decide to change), logic problems that will affect other portions of the story (when you change something in one chapter, odds are you'll have to change it in at least two or three more past that point), and facts that need to be checked (because while you're almost sure that huge clock tower in London is named Big Glen, it wouldn't hurt to look it up.)

Common things to look for: too much explanation/too little action, telling instead of showing, eye references, awkward sentence constructions, identical dialogue tags (he said, then she said, then he said, then she said, then they said, etc.), housekeeping dialogue (Hi, how are you? I'm fine, and you? Wonderful. Isn't the weather nice? Yes, it is. Lather, rinse, repeat), characters standing around and doing nothing, characters sitting around and doing nothing, characters whose names are too similar and therefore too easy to mix up, too much narrative, As-You-Know-Bob dialogue info dumps, any other kind of info dump, sparse descriptions, over-done descriptions, lags in the pacing of the story, scenes or chapters in which nothing much happens, obvious filler, and weed words you've overused or echoed too many times.

You may want to run a spell check at this point, too, but spell checking can be done at any point. This is one of those choices you'll make based on how you like to edit. To save time I've stopped spell checking until I'm down to the very last draft, but if you feel more comfortable doing several, go for it.

Once you've completed your first pass, take the manuscript chapter by chapter and do your rewrites, your toss-outs and write-overs, your type-ins, etc. Go slowly and work carefully, and no, it's generally not much fun, but it's a necessary skill you need to develop and constantly work on improving -- and you only get better with practice, practice, practice.

Once you're finished your second draft, take a break for at least 24 hours, again, to put a little distance between you and the story. When the time is right, read through your revised manuscript and evaluate your results.

Some writers get away with doing a one-pass edit; some have to repeat the editing process a few times before they feel they have a book that is ready to be read. The danger here is that you can get caught in an endless editing loop where you read, you edit, you rewrite, you read, you edit, you rewrite, and suddenly it's ten years later and you're still working on the same book (what I think of as Book of Your Heart syndrome.) Your novel isn't going to get published if no one ever sees it, so keep the editing to a reasonable amount/time frame.

Once you have the final/revised version of your manuscript, hopefully not ten years from now, you have several choices: 1) you can do nothing with it, 2) you can ask a trusted family member or friend to read it, or 3) you can dive into the submission process. You can also burn it, bury it in the backyard or lock it in a bank vault in a box that says Do not open until after I'm dead.

If you decide to do nothing with it, don't beat yourself up. Remember those eight boxes in my attic; I'm not going to throw any stones. Learn from the experience and use it to write a better story next time.

I think the most popular choice (especially for first-time novelists) is to ask someone to read it. Obviously you want someone who can give you some constructive feedback without ripping your manuscript to shreds. I had my older brother read my first novel, and he was kind and considerate with his very light critique (and the book was really terrible, but I was just a thirteen-year-old kid, and it meant the world to me, and he knew that.) An ideal first reader gives you an honest reaction without being brutal about it, and that takes some doing, so be selective.

I won't kid you; it's very tough to go through the submission process. Rejections can be harsh and demeaning. You try not to get your hopes up, but your hopes thumb their nose at you and do what they want. There's nothing quite like being squashed by the very people you wanted to impress. It would be safer -- and saner -- not to subject yourself and your hard work to the impersonal, indifferent ego-thrashings Publishing loves to hand out. And if you don't try, you'll never know, and it's as simple as that.

I know a lot of writers see the new trend of no-cost digital self-publishing as a wonderful shortcut around the submission process, and the editorial process, and all the other unpleasant, tedious aspects of traditional publishing that writers hate. I don't disagree with you. Self-publishing is superfast, and now anyone can do it. You don't have to put up with a single rejection or some idiot editor telling you what you can or cannot write, and that's definitely got to be good for the ego. Those are the same reasons we called it vanity publishing back when I started out.

Whatever you decide to do, think about it seriously, and then start out as you mean to go on.

Now it's your turn: are you editing your NaNo novel yet? Ready to send it out or bury it in the backyard? Where are you planning to go from here? Let us know in comments.


  1. Wow this is a really helpful guide, Lynn, thanks a lot. :D Indeed, I am currently in the process of editing and revising my novel, which is taking A LOT of work but I am enjoying it very much. :) Thank you for the tips.



  2. Me, I'm in the process of preparing for my Harlequin challenge submission (due by Dec 15th) which means I've spent the first 4 days after NaNo finishing the novel, one day flat on my bcak exhausted, and then today doing a 5-7 page synopsis that is currently 8.5, down from 9, so that's something :).

    I'm going to give those to a friend or two I can trust to give me a good crit, polish them, and send it out. Then I'll work on another manuscript for a couple weeks before diving in to the overall edit just in case Harlequin likes what they see :).

    Does that sound as crazy as I think it does?


  3. I'm giving myself one more week's distance. I know it is not finished, but I want to be able to look at it more dispassionately to determine which direction I want to take with it. This is the first thing I've ever written of any length more than about 2,000 words, so I don't know if it will be publishable. It was a great challenge and learning experience, and I'm determined to finish it and get it into at least coherent shape before going on to start another.

  4. Anonymous8:43 AM

    I'm editing my nanowrimo novel from last year. I finished at just over 50,000 words, worked on it for 3 months and it is now 76,000 words. Editing, editing, editing. I'm reading through sentence by sentence - trying to make each sentence better and strike out the "hi, how are you?" sentences. I printed it out on paper for this stage of the editing process. It's much easier for me to pick up mistakes & notice bad sentences on paper than on the computer screen. Next step? Handing off to a reader. Then?

  5. This post rocks! Such good advice, especially in the not-rushing-it category... and no writing effort is ever wasted, even if it stays in the box in the attic the rest of one's life, for it's still a growing experience.

    I'm going to keep this post. I'm in the middle of a cross-country move, but when I'm done, it's back to writing, with your advice in hand.

    Thanks so much!

  6. Editing it? I'm not even finished with it. It needs about 20K more words - namely a build up to the climax, the climax and probably a little denouement. I'm hoping to have it finished sometime in January. I'd like to be ready to send it out into the world sometime this summer, but that all depends on how many rounds of edits it needs. (And whether the book I'm currently querying gets picked up by an agent.)

  7. Happily the answer to your questions is YES but I'm still on break from it. Started working on a new idea yesterday.

    Love this post. A lot of great information. Thanks.

  8. I'm shooting for 80-90K and am trying to finish up before the 24th when I drive to Christmas 850 miles away. If I don't get the draft done, the holiday visiting will kill my momentum and it'll be half of January trying to get it back. After that, the draft goes on a shelf for cool-down and I begin research on my next project.

    @Margaret - good luck with the synopsis. I hate those things.

  9. Thanks, Amity. I managed to get it down to 7 pages and one paragraph so stopped for feedback. I actually don't hate synopses as much as I used to, in part because I've found the initial synopsis invaluable in getting the story straight in my head. That said, the initial is rarely useful when I do the final because of all the tiny changes as I write.

  10. These are really great tips.. I am at the "taking a break" stage. I am going to enjoy my holidays and (try) not think about my novel. Then in January, I am going to start the editing stage. Hopefully it will be worth trying to get published, but who knows?

    check out my blog @ amberlashell.com

  11. My Nano work is sleeping, shhh. I won't be waking the first book until January and then we'll get into it.

    I find a month is an excellent time frame to give distance from the work.

  12. Great post. I didn't finish my NaNo novel. But I enjoyed the experience and I'm still excited enough about my story to continue with it. I hope I make it to the editing stage before spring.

  13. I'm starting revisions on the novella I wrote during the first week of NaNo tomorrow. I'm still excited about the story, it's been a month since I finished it, so I think I'm ready to jump back into it. My end goal is to submit it to an epub anthology that's requesting novellas right now. I'm hopeful!

  14. I first have to get to 50,000 words. By the time I made it to 30,000, I had completely run out of steam and ideas. Part of me wants to set this draft on fire and start anew, but the other part of me thinks I can save it. Hopefully, both sides will come to a mutual agreeement before the new year.

  15. I'm likely about to start a revision process on my NaNo from 2006. Is that enough time to have let it sit aside? Ha! And then I may work on my 2008 one, or the first draft I wrote in 2010 (not for NaNoWriMo). But only one at a time.

  16. What a great description of the editing process! I was just lamenting yesterday that I missed the forced-march boot-camp aspect of NaNo, so that means the "resting period" has gone on long enough. :)

    I also liked your advice about deciding whether it's a story you believe in. Sometimes a story has to wait until the market is ready for it. :)


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