Life After NaNoWriMo: What’s Next for Your Novel?

Congratulations! You have won NaNoWriMo (or close enough) and you are now the proud owner of a 50,000-word, vaguely novel-shaped object.

What’s next?

Buried... again by projectbamboo

Buried… again by projectbamboo

Well, whatever you do, DO NOT PUBLISH what you have right now. I know that seems obvious, but you might be surprised. As self-publishing has become easier and less expensive (yay!) it has also become easier and less expensive to self-publish junk(boo!) Given the biases against self-published work, you owe it to your fellow S-P authors—and to your own career—to raise the bar of self-publishing quality.

Anything you write so quickly is bound to have plot holes, thin or inconsistent characters, an unbalanced structure, gaps, overlaps, ill-advised sub-plots, and other perfectly reasonable disasters. Beating your novel-shaped object into something you can actually work with is going to take some time.

At this point, I highly recommend finding a professional editor who does manuscript review.  She’ll tell you what she sees, what’s working, what’s not working, and give you suggestions for what to do next. Be prepared to hear, and accept, constructive criticism. As an editor myself, I promise: We’re just trying to keep you from going to the prom with spinach in your teeth.

But maybe you don’t hire a professional editor, for whatever reason. Perhaps you’ve been kicked in the head by a large farm animal, who can say? In any case, here are some suggestions for working toward your next draft on your own.

Before you start… don’t. Back awaaay from the computer. You’ve been working like a dog, you poor baggy-eyed thing—go for a walk! Take a nap! Visit a friend… you do remember your friends, right? The people who have been waiting for you to resurface? Rejoin the world for a couple of weeks. You deserve it, and your book needs you to come back with renewed energy and an open mind.

OK, you’re back from your break (you look fantastic, by the way—have you lost weight?) and ready to go. Every author takes a different approach to this process, but the basic steps are Read, Reorganize, Revise, Refine, and everyone’s favorite, Repeat.

Step 1: Read

First, print your book. Yes, on paper. Having the text in a completely different format will help you see it more objectively.

Now, read your book… as a reader. This may sound easy but I assure you, it is a challenge. Do your best not to see the struggle and revision history behind every sentence. Read the book as it stands and hold it to the same standards you would a traditionally published novel. Where your book reminds you that it’s still just a draft, that’s where you need to focus your efforts.

While you’re going through this, you will want to change and rewrite. For example, maybe you realize that your psychotic economist will be SO much more terrifying if you have him fall down the well before the sloth racing…

OK, maybe not.

In any case, don’t start making changes now! That way madness lies—it’s what a programmer friend of mine calls a “one-tweak loop,” where one small fix breaks everything else and suddenly you’re up all night. Keep a pad of paper beside you and make lots of notes, but do not change your text yet.

Step 2: Reorganize

Now that you’ve read through your rough draft and made a ton of notes, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where to start. At this point, we’re not talking about editing the wording; we’re working on a much higher level than that.

Go back to your computer for this (and make sure to back up your original file. You worked hard on that!) Now, think of yourself as a crane operator. You’re going to be picking up hunks of text, stories, character description, and putting them where they seem to make the best sense.

If you’ve made any notes about things to delete, do it now… except you’re not actually going to delete anything. Instead, you’re going to cut it out and paste it at the very bottom of the document. It’s a lot easier to be ruthless if you know you’re not losing anything.

If you’ve made notes about things to add, put in rough sketches—enough to know what you want, but not in such detail that you get completely sidetracked. Keep this part of the process moving.

Step 3: Revise

OK, you’ve shifted things around so they’re in essentially the right place, removed some flotsam, made some notes about what you need to add. Now drop down to a more detailed level and work through your draft page by page. Writing new content at this stage is no easier than writing content at any other stage, nor is it faster. But this is where you make the shift from writer to author, from generating text to crafting a book. Whatever motivations got you through NaNoWriMo will probably help. Also ice cream.

Now, remember, we’re still in the drafting stage. Don’t feel pressured to make everything perfect right now; that’ll just shut you down. Focus on clearer, cleaner, better.

Step 4: Refine

When you feel everything is in place for this round—I can’t believe I’m going to say this—run spellcheck.

Don’t get me wrong—I despise spellcheck and all it stands for. But at this point in the process, it’s going to have to be good enough. There is no way you can proofread your own work adequately. No one can. Even editors don’t proofread their own work.

Later on, when you get to a draft that you want to publish—or submit to a publisher—I highly recommend hiring a professional copy editor. If it is purely impossible to do that, give the draft to the most obsessive friend you have. We all know someone who keeps correcting everyone’s grammar and spelling and generally being a pain in the butt, right? Yeah, that person is your best friend right now.

Step 5: Repeat

I know. I know! “Will this nightmare never end?!”

Ready for the really annoying answer? Here we go: It ends when it ends. When you know for a fact that your book has everything it needs, isn’t carrying any extra baggage, and is as clean as you can possibly get it. When you’re looking forward to people’s comments on Amazon.  When you feel like mailing it to the meanest kid in grade school with a note that says, “How you like me NOW?”

How long will that take? Oh, probably longer than you’d want. But whatever else you’ve taken away from NaNoWriMo, I hope you have found a greater respect for yourself as a writer. After all that work, don’t shortchange yourself: you deserve whatever time you need to make your book the best it can be.

  • Brian Rush

    EXCELLENT advice! And unlike far too many professional editors, you don’t add the self-serving “you MUST have a professional editor.” (“I recommend” is perfectly fine, I do, too, and on the strength of this I’m going to unhesitatingly recommend you to all my fellow-writers who are likely to be able to afford your help.)

    I would add just one thing. If you’re not going to hire a professional editor for whatever reason, then in addition to doing all of the things you suggest, find someone (or preferably more than one someone) to take a look at the book and provide a different perspective. A writer can proofread and style edit his own book, but the large-scale stuff really needs someone else’s eye.

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  • Janet

    Really great article for all sorts of writing–not just novels! I write business and grant proposals and I’ll follow this set of rules now. Thanks!