on-writer friends might have thought your sanity was in question when you told them you were writing an entire novel in one month—especially the month that holds Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year.
But you knew what you were doing all along. You were letting go of all the structure and technique that gives writers anxiety and just writing—freely and quickly and getting a first draft down on paper.
Now, it’s there, and you’re wondering, what do I do next? How do I possibly turn this freeing, supportive, and positive experience of NaNoWriMo into a publishable document without going insane?
Never fear—you don’t have to go crazy during the revision process. Just follow along as we take your 50,000 plus words to a whole new level.
“Words sound completely different when read aloud…”
Read Your Entire Piece
When revising, first read your manuscript in its entirety in as few days as possible. You should read out loud and with a notebook nearby. It’s even better if you can convince someone else to read it for you or if you can read it into a recording device. Hearing how your words sound from someone else is even more eye-opening. Reading the entire manuscript in just a few days helps for consistency—it’s easier to notice plot or character detail mistakes if you read your story in a week, rather than a month.
If you have never read your writing out loud, you definitely should. You’ll be amazed at the new discoveries—good and bad—you’ll have about your own writing. Words sound completely different when read aloud; and although your reader will probably read the book to herself, there’s likely to be an audio version when you sign a contract, so you want to be prepared that your book reads well out loud. Besides, you’ll catch more mistakes, inconsistencies, double words, and awkward phrasing if you read your manuscript out loud.
While reading aloud, it is important to take notes. What are you noticing as you’re reading? Consider these points:
- Are there any words you overuse such as a character’s name, an unnecessary word like “very,” or a dialogue tag, such as said? (Note: Said is the preferred dialogue tag, according to most editors and agents. But they actually want you to be more creative with your tags. This does not mean using words like shouted or exclaimed. It means adding internal thoughts or character actions. For more information on revising your dialogue tags, see the WOW! article, “How to Make Dialogue Tags Work for Your Story.”)
- When do you stumble over your prose? (And not because it’s the fifth hour in a row of reading your novel aloud!) Are there places in the manuscript where you have trouble spitting it out? Look at these closely—there may be awkward sentences or unnecessary words. You can rewrite these sections to make them flow better. Underline these places during your read through.
- How have you described your characters? Anytime you include character details, make a note of them in your notebook. For example, let’s say on page three, you state that your hero has short, spiky blond hair; and then on page forty-five, you write that the heroine ran her fingers through the hero’s thick, brown locks. These types of inconsistencies happen to writers all the time—especially during an intensive writing period like NaNoWriMo.
While reading aloud, you can also make notes on:
Character voice and word choice: If you take away the dialogue tags, can you tell who’s talking by the word choice they use? Two people will describe the same event completely different with unique vocabulary. A teenager doesn’t describe a car accident the same way as a police officer.
Subplots: Did you remember to put subplots in your novel? Sometimes during NaNoWriMo, writers concentrate on the main plot, without much development of secondary plots or characters. During the read aloud, make notes on any subplots you started, but didn’t finish, or any spots where you could create a subplot to add depth to your story.
Pacing: I’ve heard NaNoWriMo writers discuss their pacing; and usually, they complain that everything in the novel happens too fast. It’s action, action, action, without a lot of character development or sections for readers to slow down and take a breath. What happens right after a huge action scene in your novel? Do you have a slower scene, so readers can relax before the next big shootout?
[For more on pacing, see “Pacing: Finding Your Rhythm.”]
“You want to show what your characters are feeling or doing instead of telling the reader.”
Revising: Common Problem Areas
While teaching the WOW! middle-grade novel class, I’ve noticed some common problems in early drafts. These can be from writers who are writing their very first novel to those that have already penned a few. When revising your NaNoWriMo draft, check for these areas of concern:
Show vs. Tell: Ever since I was in my first critique group twelve years ago, I’ve used the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” when critiquing work—even my own. Recently, I had a student e-mail me, “What does that mean exactly?” Great question. You want to show what your characters are feeling or doing instead of telling the reader. Here are two examples:
Tell: Billy Ray felt happy that his daughter responded to his e-mail.
Show: When Billy Ray opened his inbox, a smile spread across his face. There it was—the long, awaited e-mail from his estranged daughter.
Tell: Amanda looked over her shoulder because she thought someone was following her.
Show: Amanda quickened her pace and listened for footsteps behind her. She had just heard them a minute ago. She glanced over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster.
Showing and not telling takes some work—it’s so easy to tell readers about your character; it’s more difficult to figure out how to show them. But think about your story like a movie. What would the scene look like on the big screen? Now, write that vision.
Sensory Details: In preschool and kindergarten, we learned about our five senses. But so often when we write, we remember to only address our sense of sight. It’s so simple to describe what the hero looks like or what type of clothes he likes to wear. But what about how he smells? Think about how strong your sense of smell is—especially when it comes to love! Can you still remember the perfume or cologne of your high school sweetheart?
Here’s an exercise to try with your NaNoWriMo draft. Go through your novel and mark in some way (with different color ink, symbols, or words) every time you address a different sense in your descriptions. You’ll find the easiest to include are sight, smell, and hearing. So, double check that you have these three throughout. (They don’t have to be equal, just address each some of the time.) Then when appropriate, work in the sense of taste and touch—especially if you’re a romance writer and working on love scenes!
[For more on using sensory details, see “Where Are We? Using Setting & Description in Creative, Yet Crucial Ways.”]
The Beginning: My middle-grade novel course focuses on the beginning of the novel because this is where so many writers have a difficult time. We are always asking, “Where should I start my story?” You can have the best novel ever, written from chapters four to the end; but if chapters one, two, and three are slow and full of back story, then agents and editors are not going to notice your brilliance.
You must start your story at the moment that life changes for your character. Don’t start five years before and show how your character got to the spot where his life changed—you can work that important back story in through dialogue, narrative, and internal thoughts. Look at most murder mysteries for example—they start with death in chapter one, and then chapter two introduces you to the sleuth. The murder will change the life of the sleuth since she will investigate it. So that’s where the story should begin—not with the detective going to the police academy and working her way up through the ranks.
Think about the beginning of your draft. Could you cut sections and start in a more exciting or crucial spot in the story?
“Fill your chapters with plot development, exciting actions, and character details…”
Too Much Business: Your readers are smart. They know that your main character must eat, go to the bathroom, take a shower, get ready for work, and sleep. You don’t have to show this every day—there should be very few going-to-bed scenes unless something important to the plot is going to happen during these scenes.
During NaNoWriMo, you’re encouraged to reach a certain word count each day in any possible way, even if you have to use filler, like daily routine or describing your character’s every meal. So, get rid of this filler in the revision process.
Think about this scenario: when your character has to drive somewhere in his car, the reader can assume he left his house, unlocked his car, got in, started the engine, put the car in reverse, backed out of his driveway, put the car in drive, and so on. These are assumed actions, and they are not needed in your novel. Fill your chapters with plot development, exciting actions, and character details instead.
Point of View (POV): Did you start chapter one in the head of your main character and then halfway through switch to your villain’s POV? This probably works, if you meant to do it; but if you didn’t, then you have a point of view problem. The biggest mistake writers make in a rough draft is not sticking with their original POV plan. For example, you decide you’re going to write a YA novel in first person in the voice of a seventeen-year-old girl. Then about halfway through, you are suddenly in her mom’s head, wondering if there’s any hope for a relationship with her teenager. This is head hopping, and some writers are in the heads of every character in a scene during their first drafts—by accident.
The best trick for POV is to ask: Could my main character know this information or am I including it because I know? Everything has to be filtered through your POV character’s eyes, unless you are writing in omniscient third person, which is not done much today.
Cleaning it Up
Once you’ve read your manuscript aloud, taken notes for consistency, and checked the five common problem areas above, you still need to clean up your writing. This is actually the “editing” process, where you go through the manuscript and check for commas, periods, question marks, capital letters, repetitive words, adverbs, and so on.
If grammar and punctuation are not your strong areas, then you should find a resource book, a freelance editor, or a strong critique group to help you. Today’s publishing world is competitive—you should do all you can to turn in a polished manuscript. Gone are the days where editors and agents will teach you grammar and proofreading skills. Your manuscript should be almost perfect BEFORE you turn it in.
I am a huge fan of Grammar Girl if you want to do-it-yourself. She has a website where you can search for answers to your editing questions, and she has several books for sale, too.
For more ideas and resources on editing your novel, check out WOW! instructor and former senior editor Annette Fix’s article, “Red Pencil Round-up: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.”
Don’t let the fear of an un-revised and un-edited NaNoWriMo manuscript stop you from your publishing dreams. Take it one step at a time. Some writers can look for all the issues listed in this article in one read through; others, like me, read through their manuscript several times—each time focusing on a different point. Find what works for you, and do it.
When you get that acceptance for your 2011 NaNoWriMo manuscript from an editor or agent, let us know on our Facebook wall. We know we’ll be hearing from you!
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. She is a columnist, instructor, and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is the memoir editor at High Hill Press and the assistant editor for the Sunday Books page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. High Hill Press will publish her children’s picture book, Lucy’s Listening. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them,
for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911, and is an instructor for the Working Writers Coaching Club and the WOW! Women On Writing Classroom. She loves speaking to writing groups, teachers, and young writers and has presented several workshops to all ages. When she's not writing or speaking, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and dog—Chester, a boxer. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com.
Enjoyed this article? Check out these related articles on WOW!:
Beginning After NaNoWriMo
How to Trim the Fat from Your Manuscript
How to Diagnose Your Novel's Strengths and Weaknesses