Did you do NaNoWriMo? Did you hit your target? Brilliant! Well done.
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo. My kids are still small and disappearing into my room to write for hours on end seems a terribly indulgent thing to do right now. I take the slow and steady plod approach because it fits well with my life. Either way seems to work. The important thing is getting the writing done.
Anyway, the point is, you’ve written a whole novel. Take some time out to celebrate – not many people make it this far. Go out. Watch telly. Remind your friends you exist. Woo hoo!
The next thing to do… is ignore it for a few weeks. This gives you a bit of distance. You can combine that with more celebrating, if you like (I would). Once you’ve got past THAT, then you need to edit.
Your first draft might be a little rough. Don’t panic. It’s allowed to be. The purpose of the first draft was to get words down on a page. Once you have words, you can edit them. You can’t edit a blank page.
First fix structure. If you didn’t do any plotting at the start (some don’t), now is the time to deal with it. Go through the novel and make a list of scenes. Put them on Post-It notes or index cards, if you like. I make a list on a couple of sheets of A4. Do what works for you.
Look at it from a story arc point of view. Are the scenes in the right order? Do things happen logically? Does the tension rise throughout Act 2? Can you increase the tension by moving a scene from here to there? Do two characters sound exactly the same – can you combine them? Move stuff around and see if it works.
Now do the same for the character arc. Make sure the way your character changes as the story progresses is also logical. Hopefully, it will be.
Cut out the deadwood. A long time ago, an editor told me that a scene has to do at least three things in order to justify keeping it. One of those was ‘tickle the senses’. Working on the assumption that ALL scenes should be doing that to some extent, let’s see what else a scene can do to earn its keep.
- Introduce a new character
- Introduce a new setting
- Change setting (transitions of time or place)
- Set a mood
- Show a new facet or a change in a character
- Reveal something key to plot
- Establish motivation for something that comes later
- Heighten mood or build suspense
- Provide comic relief or humour
- Move the action forward (internal or external arc)
Basically, if it isn’t relevant to your plot, the scene has to go.
What if your scenes don’t do three things? See if you have combine a couple of scenes or tweak it a bit until it does. You need to be fairly brutal with this. If you can take the scene out and not leave a hole in the overall story, then it has no place in your book. Around half of the books that I critique are well written, but suffer from a surfeit of irrelevant scenes. Often, once these books have been ‘tightened up’ they go on to find publishing contracts.
Keep a folder for these scenes that you’ve cut. You will probably find a lovely turn of phrase or a snippet of description that you can use elsewhere.
Once you’ve done the ‘big picture’ editing, you should end up with only relevant scenes. Have another look at it and check if anything else needs to be moved around or added.
Edit for consistency. Read through the story as it is now. It might be very different to your original draft (or it might not). Catch typing errors as you go. Note down when you need to add or change things so that the story makes sense. Go through your notes and make changes. If your character has suddenly changed their name, go through and fix it. If there’s a huge hole in the plot, work out how to fill it in. If you need to plant a clue in chapter three in order to make something less like a coincidence in chapter seventeen, go do it. Often all that is required is a sentence or two.
By the end of this stage, your book should read coherently, with no extra flabby bits.
Edit for language. Is your writing as good at the sentence level as it can be? It is worth bearing in mind what you are trying to achieve. I write genre fiction, where the hand of the author has to be invisible, so that there is nothing in between the page and the images in the reader’s mind. An easy read can be very difficult to write. On the other hand, if you’re writing literary fiction, your writing needs to transcend the mundane. People are looking for brilliance. The perfect description, the right word. No killing your darlings here. A difficult read can also be difficult to write.
A really good way to make sure your writing flows the way you want it to, is to read it out loud. You might feel like an idiot doing this, but it works wonders for catching clunky sentences.
Use beta readers. Once all this is done, it’s time to send the book to a beta reader. This is a reader whom you trust to give you honest feedback. You’re looking for things like ‘this bit doesn’t make sense’ or ‘where did X character disappear to?’ or even ‘this bit is really boring’. It will feel harsh, because you thought your book was done to perfection. Stick with it. Let the feedback sink in for a few days, then go sort it out. You’ll know when they’re right.
A word of caution with beta readers. When you and your beta readers are all just starting out, it’s better to have two or three people read your draft. If more than one person identifies a problem with a section (even if they highlight different problems), then that section needs to be changed. Some people will tell you exactly what to change – take advice, but remember that ultimately it’s your book and only make changes that feel right to you.
If you get feedback from a professional editor/book doctor/ published novelist, pay extra attention to their comments. They will have seen a lot of books and will be able to spot the mistakes all beginners make.
Now, you’re nearly done. Read it through one more time to check for typos and syntax errors. Better still, bribe someone else to do it. By now you’ll be sick to death of this book. The idea of reading it again will make you feel ill. It’s not the book you started out with. It’s a terrible mangled wreck of your beautiful idea. But… your beta readers like it and you know in your heart that it’s the best it can be. It’s probably ready to send out to agents or publishers.
While you’re waiting to hear back, you can start work on your next book.