Cheers to everyone writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month! We’re getting to the midpoint of November, and the middle can be a tough slog for any writer. (“Oh, you’re at that part of the book?” Neil Gaiman’s agent once told him).
If you’ve been thinking about publishing the novel you’re writing — or if you’re sure you will never, ever publish your novel — let me tell you this (and I have my editing tiara on as I say this): Do not make that decision in November. Right now, let the words flow. Write some absolute crap. It’s okay. This is exactly the time and place to do donuts in an empty field. Don’t get too bogged down in the idea of fixing it later. Crap will still get you to 50,000 words, and in November, that is your goal.
The next step is to leave your novel alone. Ignore it for the entire month of December. Put it in a desk drawer, as Stephen King advised in On Writing (though now that’s probably a metaphorical desk drawer). This is key. Let it simmer, let it percolate. Let yourself recover. Forget exactly which sentences tumbled out because you were within 150 words of the day’s word count goal and you didn’t care what came out to get you there. Remember only the highs you felt when a plot point worked itself out, when you suddenly knew what to do with Chapter 10, when you wrote something so glorious you weren’t entirely sure it really came from your own brain.
Then decide whether you want to publish this thing.
In March, I’ll be offering a $999 copy editing special for NaNo writers, but if you’re still in the thick of writing, don’t email me about it now. Copy editing comes way after writing. Write the thing, let it sit, then read through it again and fix the spots that jump out at you. Fix the macro things, like adding or subtracting characters, throwing out a whole scene, rearranging scenes or chapters, or writing transition paragraphs.
When you’ve got that down and you’re pretty well happy with it, go through a third time and pull out some editor tricks:
Change the font (Garamond is a nice choice to mimic a printed book), or bring your manuscript from Scrivener into Word, or even print the whole thing out (with page numbers). Trick your eyes into thinking that you’re looking at something entirely different.
Make a style sheet and refer to it as you reread. Do you use any nonstandard spellings or phrases? Write them in the style sheet so you can keep them consistent. List the full names of all your characters, too. (That way, you don’t have to find where exactly in Chapter 2 you introduced that minor character when his name pops up again in Chapter 17 and you have to check the spelling.)
What can you do to prepare, and how can you bring down the price?
There are some basic technical fixes you can apply to your manuscript that will improve your writing remarkably in a short time.
- Search for “ly.” For every single adverb in your manuscript, ask if you really need it. If the adverb’s in a dialogue tag (that’s the “he said” part), rewrite the dialogue to make the tone or emotion clear, or use an action.
“You’re hurting my arm!” he said angrily. (Adverb states the obvious)
“You’re hurting me!” He wrenched his arm away. (Use an action)
“You’re hurting me!” (Trust that the dialogue’s tone is clear)
- Search for “being” “doing” “going” “began” “continued” and “started.” Most sentences will be stronger if you just use the verb.
“He began to get angry” vs. “He got angry”
“She was doing her knitting” vs. “She was knitting”
- Read through the manuscript focusing on only one character. Are their actions consistent? Does their dialogue sound uniquely like them and not like another character? If you removed the dialogue tags, would you know who was speaking? Repeat for every character.
- Is your manuscript within the usual word count for the genre? If not, look for cuts. Ask of every scene, “Does the main character’s journey move forward? What important discovery or action happens here?” Cut the least useful scenes. Use the old screenwriter maxim, “Get in late and get out early”—does every scene start as late in the action as possible? Does every scene end as soon as it can? I trimmed a client’s book from 130,000 words to 95,000 words without cutting any of the actual story by editing out characters getting out of their cars and walking down hallways. Start scenes when the action starts.
Your book will be stronger for all this work. In January and February. Bookmark this post and come back then.
For now, happy writing!