This morning I did a shortened version of this on my Facebook Timeline, but as I re-read it I realized I should post it here, with a few extra notes:
Dear NaNoWriMo Participants,
My Facebook timeline is filling with notes about how you have achieved your 50K (and some much more) and finished your novel. Congratulations! Well done.
Now go say hi to your family and friends and thank them for supporting you while you shut yourself away to write, pour a glass of wine or have that slice of cheesecake and celebrate. You deserve it.
BUT you have NOT finished your novel. You have finished a FIRST DRAFT. Your manuscript is not ready to be uploaded on Kindle or Smashwords. Not yet.
Step away from your NaNo project. Start writing another. Clean the house — if you’re like me where you’ve ignored the chores to meet your deadlines, it may need more than a quick dust. Give your story a few weeks to sit and percolate.
Buy yourself a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, haunt the net for other editing suggestions, like this one over at Not Your Usual Suspects: I also have a subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style when I have questions about grammar and punctuation.
Once you’ve been away from it for a while, open up the doc and read it. Really read it. Some people prefer to print it out, some to change the font or read it as a PDF. For some reason, changing the format gives you some distance and lets you see things clearer.
Find the “telling” sequences and change them to SHOW the action. “He was walking up the path” to “Gravel crunched beneath his feet, a somber cadence marking his trek to the gravestone.” Layer in emotion. (You do have some emotion in there, right?) Change the cliched ache in his chest to more internal deeper-POV: “Would it ever get easier? Did he want it to? If that gut-deep ache went away wouldn’t it mean he’d betrayed Emily’s memory?”
Get rid of as many of those dialog tags as you can. Trust me, you don’t need all those “he said”s. And dear God, despite some teachers who encourage you to use all those other dialog tags like “he barked”, “she begged”, “he groaned, growled, cried,” ad infinitum. No. Just no. I have read contest submissions where there were so many tags I stopped reading the story and turned it into a drinking game, skipping through the story just to find how many different tags they used. Believe me, you do not want your novel to become someone else’s drinking game. If it’s not clear who is speaking, use action tags instead. You can get emotion into it easier that way too.
Daniel stomped across the room and slapped the paper on the desk. “What the hell were you thinking when you signed this?”
works better than
Daniel walked into the room and showed her the paper. “What were you thinking when you signed this?” he snarled. (or the even worse, he asked angrily.)
You also don’t need all those thats and other filler words either. Hunt and destroy empty words like really and very. Tighten your writing and get deeper POV by axing phrases like “she heard” or “he felt”. Correct any other issues you find.
Now you’ve finished your second draft. Congratulations. Time for another glass of wine or slice of cheesecake.
But you’re not done yet. Find yourself some trusted critique partners or beta readers and send them the second draft. (Don’t send them the first draft — they can get bogged down in the filler words and miss the big picture problems.) Ask them what works and what doesn’t about the story, ask them if the protagonist acts out of character in any spots, and if they are really good, point out the point-of-view slides. (You do know what a POV slide is, don’t you? If not, you definitely need an editor.) And if you’re lucky they’ll catch inconsistencies in the timeline too. (Like how a character is wearing a dress at the top of page 2 but slacks on page 3 — or how they never got undressed before the love scene. Or maybe how a character named Spencer suddenly becomes Stewart halfway through the book. Yup, had that happen — I had four beta readers for that story. Three of them along with me (or is that myself? or I?) missed it. Thank heavens for that fourth reader.)
Note on critique partners and beta readers: There are some people who focus on the “rules” of writing but most multi-published authors will tell you there are no rules, they’re more like guidelines. So if you have a critique partner insisting you absolutely must never use the word “was” or you must never ever ever do something…well, thank them and find someone else. But that’s a whole different article. And it should also be noted that not every author uses a beta reader or critique partner. They think it would screw up their writing ability or confidence. And that’s fine too. But if you don’t use critique partners, you definitely should be using a professional editor. For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you’ve found a couple good experienced readers/beta readers or writers who will give you helpful suggestions. And no, the best beta readers don’t have to be writers.
Now this is where it gets tough. Just because a beta reader or even a professional editor suggests a change, it doesn’t mean you have to accept their suggestion, but you should carefully consider it. To make it even tougher, sometimes you’ll have one critique partner love a section that another hates. I had that happen in a recent manuscript. I had two editors working on one of my recent releases. One editor absolutely hated a certain paragraph. She left me a page-long comment about how it needed to be taken out, while the other editor left a comment saying how she was glad to see that paragraph there. What should you do? Well, I tend go with the one who loved it, but if you have 3 or so people saying the same thing, there is definitely something wrong. Even if it’s a line or scene that you absolutely love, you may have to admit to yourself that it’s not necessary and delete it. (Ever heard the expression “Kill Your Darlings”?) If you have questions about their comments, you should feel free to ask them what they meant. But don’t argue with them. Just because you knew what it means, because you know the back story, doesn’t mean your reader does. If you have to explain it to a beta-reader, then you are definitely going to need to explain to a reader–and you do that by editing and improving your writing. (And NEVER EVER comment on a review unless it’s to say thank you! Again, that’s a whole different post.)
Now go back and edit your story based upon their recommendations. Once you have cleaned the manuscript up to the point that you aren’t seeing anything more to be changed, send it out to a developmental editor who can catch any character or plot issues and make your story stronger and your characters more in-depth.
It’s true, not every manuscript needs a developmental editor. Good critique partners can help solve some of the issues, but for a new author, I’d recommend you use a developmental editor. In fact, there are those who would recommend using a professional editor instead of critique partners.
Now you’ve finished your third draft. Congratulations. Time for another glass of wine or slice of cheesecake.
Now that all the story issues are resolved, or if you’ve skipped the developmental editor step, send the third draft of your manuscript to the copy editor. Sorry but unless your mom or sister or BFF are professional editors, they can’t do the job. And guess what, that friend who is great at grammar because she taught it back in the 80s? Sorry, but the grammar we learned even 15 years ago isn’t correct anymore. Make sure whoever is checking your punctuation and grammar is going by the most up-to-date version of CMoS.
Once you’ve approved their corrections (you don’t have to accept them all but then any mistakes are all on you), and you’re sure it’s perfect and ready to be released to the world, stop. Do yourself–and your readers–one more favor. Hire a proofreader, or if you can’t afford one, send it to two or more beta readers. Have them go through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb looking for missed words or misused words. (they may even find continuity errors, but at this point they shouldn’t be changing your story on you.) Some people read the story backwards (as in they read page 299, then read page 298, etc.) as you don’t get sucked into the story as easily that way. You will be surprised how much you will have missed because your brain will read what it thinks you wrote, not what is actually on the page. (I recently had a book that went through four beta readers, two professional developmental editors and a professional copy editor (all from a distinguished publishing house) and yet the ARC (which is an Advanced Reader Copy that is sent out to reviewers before the book is released) still had over thirty errors in it. Thank heavens we caught them before the book was released to the public.)
Then, and only then, is your novel done and ready to be formatted for release. (And to be honest, not every book you write should be published. Some manuscripts should be kept out of sight under the proverbial bed.)
Time for more wine. Or cheesecake. Or both. And probably after all those calories, you’ll need a good long walk around the block.
As much work as it sounds, I don’t find edits as tough as writing that first draft. But take the time and effort. Your future readers will thank you–by buying your next book.