November is over, everywhere around the world. Congratulations to all who have met the 50,000 word target, but an even bigger congratulations to all those who actually wrote that story that was whizzing around in your heads. But with NaNoWriMo over, now is the time to think about the next steps in your writing journey.
The first thing you need to do is ask yourself the following question: have you finished that first draft in its entirety? Have you actually typed those coveted words of The End?
If the answer is no, then stop reading this post right now. Get your butt over to your manuscript and carry on writing. I mean it. This post will be here when you’re finished. Come back when you actually have a full manuscript to work with.
Now for those of you who have a completed first draft, before you do anything else, I want you to celebrate. You have written a full manuscript. That’s a massive feat and you deserve a pat on the back — just don’t break your arm in the process, because you’ll need it for what comes next. Now begins the long and laborious road of editing.
I say long and laborious because writing that first draft is actually the easy part, even if you struggled to get it out. Editing is hard. It’s during the editing process that the true talents of a writer shines through.
There are many out there who believe that editing involves looking at spelling, grammar and punctuation, however, editing is so much more than that. The type of editing your manuscript requires will depend entirely on what stage your manuscript is at.
Editing falls into four main categories: critique, developmental, line and copy-edit. Each stage is necessary to the development of a manuscript. In a previous post, I delved into the Who and When of Editing, however, I’ve recently discovered that understanding the Who is not enough. It’s the What that seems to elude most writers.
For those who have just completed their NaNoWriMo first drafts, you will now be entering into a combination of the critique and developmental editing phases. You will be looking at your story with that critical eye, getting ready to make the difficult decisions.
Does your plot follow a semi-logical progression of events? Do the plot twists make sense, or do they blindside the reader? Could you hint at events along the way?
It’s the plot of a story that will first grab the attention of any reader. Your characters are going on this journey and the reader wants to go with them. That plot needs to be solid and believable.
But readers don’t continue reading because of a plot. They continue reading because of the characters. They’ve become attached and they want to know if Jimmy is going to kiss the girl, or if Heath is going to dive off that cliff to his death. As such, you will also need to look at your characters with the same critical eye.
Do your characters behave in ways that make sense? Do they have identifiable traits that make them individuals? Is that character really the right character for this story?
That last question is actually a hard one to ask, but it’s vital. You may have written this little girl in your story, complete with the fun game of tag, however, that character might be better suited as a teenager, grumpy and hormonal. In some cases, that side character that you wanted to use in other stories really has no benefit to the current story — they’re just a distraction. However, until you take the time to look at your story critically, you won’t be able to truly answer the hard questions.
Then you need to look at the narrative voice. How much show do you use? Do you share every detail of backstory you can, bogging down the reader in unnecessary facts? Have you shared enough? Do you set the scene and play with the actions? Is the scene told from the perspective of the right character?
And what about first person vs third person? Or past tense vs present tense?
There are so many questions and each manuscript will be accompanied by a different set. There are no right or wrong answers, but to make the best decision for your story, you need to remove the emotionally-attached writer’s hat and put on that detached editor’s hat. It’s not easy. It will likely be the most difficult thing that any writer will face. But the rewards… The satisfaction…
The only real way to be able to make this mental transition from writing to editing is to give yourself distance. After each phase of a manuscript’s life, be it drafting or an editorial pass, you need to put that manuscript into that metaphorical drawer and do something else. If the mood strikes, write another story. Or perhaps it’s time to read that book that you were wanting to read. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you force yourself to back away from your manuscript. The longer that manuscript is in that metaphorical drawer, the greater the distance that you give yourself, making it that much easier to make those hard decisions.
For those working on their NaNoWriMo novels, that first draft needs to be rewritten into a second or third draft. The skeleton that you constructed during November now needs the muscles and connecting tissue. It needs blood.
When you have rewritten that precious story, it will be time to let another set of eyes see it. Those eyes need to belong to another writer, not your family or friends. You loved ones want you to be happy, so they will lie to you instead of giving you the bitter truths that are vital for shaping your manuscript. Hopefully, during November, or at other times, you’ve managed to build of list of writing buddies that you can lean on, swap chapters with. However, don’t just send it to anyone who puts their hand up. Be selective. Remember that your manuscript is still an early draft. You want to use someone who will look at your writing for the story and characters, not for the punctuation and grammar (that comes later — much later).
While you’re waiting for the comments, you’ll be working on something else. (Remember that need to distance yourself from a manuscript.) When you get the comments back, you’ll need to look at them critically, which is not always easy to do; this manuscript is still your baby, no matter how much distance you give yourself. This is something I wrote about some time back, about how to find value in the harshest of critiques. Then it’s back to the rewrites and the hard questions. You’ll send your story to different sets of eyes, and the whole process starts again.
Then you start the line-editing phase, if you haven’t already done so. This is when you look critically at the language and the words. You start delving into the grammar, but on a rudimentary level.
You have a series of carefully chosen phrases, but do those words flow off the tongue, or were you trying to be so cleaver that you get tongue-tied? Can you restructure a sentence to make it stronger, invoking more of an emotional response from the reader? Is that sentence even necessary?
All the while, you are getting different people to read your story, perhaps a professional editor or two. With each set of eyes, you are getting that much closer to a polished product.
Copy-editing, looking at the spelling, grammar and punctuation, is the last thing you do. It’s like putting that skin on your manuscript. For those who are self-publishing, typesetting and cover design are putting on the makeup.
But with all of this comes a question that many have asked me: how do you know when you’re actually ready for publication and/or submission? Remember that distance. How long has that manuscript been sitting in that drawer? If you take that manuscript out, blow off the cobwebs and read it through… if nothing is screaming out at you saying “change me,” then you know it’s ready. You’ve taken that manuscript as far as you possibly can.
Writing a book can be a long journey. That month spent writing the first draft was just the first step. But like all journeys, you’ll never get there unless you start walking. And like the child taking their first steps, eventually you’ll be able to run, then you’ll be able to jump and leap, climbing that steep rocky mountain. Not to sound cheesy, however, I believe that a certain rock star, who shall remain nameless, said that it’s all about the climb.
(Now I’ve done it… That song is going to be stuck in my head for days on end… DOH!)
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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016