National Novel Writing Month 2011 (NaNoWriMo) is now in the history books. Congratulations to everyone who ‘won’ (meaning they completed 50,000 word in 30 days). In case you’re curious I made it to 18,500 words, and when I have more time I’m planning on finishing my novel; I’m actually having a lot of fun with it.
Over the past few days I’ve had several people ask “So now what?” I guess that really depends on your goals as a writer, but I’m going to answer that question assuming your goal is to publish your work.
- Step away from the keyboard! You’ve just written a large number of words in a short period of time, and those words are probably still bouncing around in your head like an echo. If you haven’t finished the manuscript you should, of course, finish it. But if you think it’s finished, you should put it aside for a few months. This will allow all of those short term memories about your novel to be replaced by thoughts about how you spent the holidays. By taking a break from the manuscript, when you do pick it up to work on it again you’ll be looking at it from a fresh perspective not encumbered by the memory of initially writing it. Should you completely stop writing for the next few months? No. Perhaps now is the time to start working on that other idea that popped into your head at 3 AM as you were frantically trying to get your word count up. Perhaps it’s time to write some short stories to help create a fan-base for your writing. If your goal is to be a writer, then you should spend a few hours a day writing, regardless of what you write.
- Create an outline. When you do decide to work on the manuscript, do not immediately start editing. Instead, sit down with a pad of paper and, as you read, write down a summary of each chapter. This will help with the editing process in several ways. First, it will allow you to see where there are holes in the plot that need to be filled. How did your characters get from the space station to the penal colony in M86 without a spaceship? Most publishers are looking for novels in the 80,000 word range (although this will vary by genre), so in fact you probably still have some writing to do. An outline will tell your where to focus that effort. Second, it will allow you to see places where you’ve added too much detail. Does your reader really want to see 40 pages of your curse-immortal-servant-of-the-Underworld thinking about biting the woman he kidnapped? Does an entire chapter of your manuscript really need to discuss the doilies in the living room? Third, this will allow you to see obvious errors regarding facts. How did the frat boys drive northeast from Gary, Indiana, and end up in Missouri City instead of the middle of Lake Michigan? Next, this will allow you to see the things that seemed to work when you were in an over-caffeinated sleep-deprived state but that do not, in fact, really work. Should your curse-immortal-servant-of-the-Underworld really sparkle in sunlight, or should it turn into a howling mass of flaming immortal goo? Is that chapter of Haiku really the best way to advance the plot and keep the reader engaged? Finally, a chapter outline will help when it’s time to write a synopsis.
- Edit. Once you have good outline to work from which highlights not just the plot but places where the manuscript needs work, now is the time to start making those changes. Now is also the time to start looking for those grammatical errors and places where word choice could be improved.
- Review and repeat. How many revisions you do before you let others read your work is really a personal matter, but at a minimum I would suggest you do one complete review and revision before sending it to others. Why? Because I know that personally I don’t like reading things with a lot of errors, and a large number of errors will make the manuscript less enjoyable for those who read it. Who should you ask to read it? This is where belonging to a supportive writing group, where you help review one another’s work, can be invaluable. I would ask reviewers to do the same type of outline you did and to include comments about things they didn’t like or didn’t follow. This will tell you whether a reader is seeing the same things you do when they read the manuscript and will tell you where you still have work to do. Once you have back the reviews, it’s back to editing.
How many drafts you do before you begin querying is again a matter of personal taste. One writer I know said she generally does four rounds of revisions before she starts sending out queries but that it does depend on the book. In my next blog I’ll talk about preparing your query material. And if you haven’t had enough of monthly writing challenges, National Novel Editing Month (http://www.nanoedmo.net/) is in March. Happy editing.