Okay, so you have your novel started…so, now what?

One of the wonderful things about NaNoWriMo is it forces thousands of writers to get the writing party started. This raises the question of: Now what?

The answer is deceptively simple: FINISH  IT.

Okay, I can’t leave it at that. Simple answers just aren’t in my nature. Why? It’s because the simplest answers often hold the hardest truths, and most difficult objectives.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t 50,000 immediately publishable words. I’ll circle back to that point in a moment. Most adult-reader novels (and no, I’m not taking about those at the top of the rating system, but all books that fall outside the picture, children’s, and middle grade markets) these days are more than 50,000 words.   Young Adult novels use to fall into the 50-60,000 range, but with the breakaway success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, Young Adult often exceeds this mark as well. Books in the fantasy genre tend to be on the  higher end of the word count spectrum. If you’re not Brandon Sanderson or George R.R. Martin, your likely word count is between 80,000 and 120,000 words.  Romance and Thrillers tend to ranger closer to the70- 80,000 word mark.  So, our task isn’t done when at the end of November we hit the magical 50,000 words. We can’t spell check and e-mail the partially-finished manuscript out to our top ten fantasy agents and expect them to rush to represent us. Seriously, don’t do this.

Tip #1 then is to write until done. Whether you need another 20,000 words or another 60,000 words, you must finish the story and type “THE END.” Having the privilege of typing that phrase a number of times, let me tell you it’s the best feeling. Revel in it for a day or two. By typing “the end” you’ve done what most of the want-to-be writers never do. You’ve finished the story. Congratulations. It’s a huge accomplishment.

But, you’re not ready to hit send yet. RULE 1 – and unlike pirate “rules” you are not allowed to ignore this one – No story should go from the first time you type “the end” immediately into an agent’s or editor’s hands. The story isn’t ready, and worse, if you had a connection with that person, you might have wasted your “big chance” on an inferior product. Hopefully, your first draft isn’t far off the mark, but everyone needs some editing before publication.

A very wise and funny lady once told me “give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft.” Thank you, Lisa Scottoline for that advice. The saying isn’t unique to Lisa, but she’s the first person I heard it from where it sank in. I mentioned above  very few people can write 50,000 publishable words on the first pass. I think outliners have an advantage over pantsers like me because the outliner already beta-tested, as it were, the story’s structure. For most of us, the hard work comes after we type “the end” and start the editing phase.

Tip #2 – Put the draft away.

We fall in love everytime we write. I love my characters, even the really horrible people, and their story by the time I type “the end.” I’ve spent months or years with them. Like any other parent, this unconditional love means I’m blind to the characters’ and story’s flaws.  I generally need at least a month before I can objectively look at a novel I’ve written before I can wade into the forest of words with a machette. Take at least a week. Longer if you can. The distance will grant you objectivity, and you’ll need that for the editing/ rewriting process.

Tip #3 – Outline the story.

Okay, this is where opinions will vary widely and you’ve going to need to experiment to find out what works for you. Tip 3 is where the editing process starts. Whether you are an outliner or a pantser, my recommendation is to outline your completed story to ensure you hit all the “beats” you need.  I’ve written about the Hollywood Formula of story telling here before and we just had a great review of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat which uses this formula here so I won’t replow this ground.  Please check out those two posts because the outlining and story telling techniques set out in both are helpful in structuring a story or fixing one when it’s leaped the tracks.  If you use this method to dissect your story, the “what’s missing” to take this from fair, to publishable, to kick-butt runaway sucess become obvious which makes the editing process less painful.

Tip #4 – It’s okay to delete.

This tip is a version of Stephen King’s imfamous phrase, “kill your darlings.”

I had a professor who was also a playwright. He’d adapted a well known classic novel that hadn’t been previously adapted to the stage. One of the reasons, I think, this particular work of this very well known and revered writer hadn’t been adapted was the “novel” was originally published week-by-week in a newspaper. Sometimes the week’s episode fit into the overall story arc and sometimes it didn’t. The professor overlayed a plot line of the writer’s actual life with the story. The idea was brilliant. The first act’s execution suffered because the professor wouldn’t kill his, or the original writer’s “darlings.” The tech crew (of which I was one) spent the act-break telling the audience the one scene they needed to know from the first act, and  begging them to stay for the second act.  On a good night we only lost half the house at intermission. The second act was brilliant, beautiful and heart-breaking. The problem was almost no one saw it. Instead of listening to advice, killing the scenes which were neat but interrupted the story, and making the play a long one-act, the professor insisted on his version which kept all these odd-ball bits. Because he wouldn’t “kill his darings”, the professor killed the entire play.

If you have a bit you love and that’s the only reason you’re keeping it, use the cut and paste function. Cut it out of the current story. It’s a cancer that will infect the whole work. Paste it into a file named “darlings” or “neat bits” and save. At some point that darling will rise from its technological grave and be given new life in a story it belongs in. Have faith in yourself that you’ll find a home for it in some other work. If a bit isn’t advancing character and plot, it doesn’t belong in this story. Take it out.

Tip #5 Stop editing when it’s time.

People who advocate for limited editing have a valid point. You can edit a story to death. At some point, you have to say it’s as good as I can make it and let it go. Do you send it to agents and editors now? No.

Tip #6 When you’ve gotten it as good as you can, phone a friend.

Remember when I said writers are parents who are blind to their child’s faults? This is where that maxim comes into play again. You need a trusted reader or six. These people are new to your story and can see what you can’t. Whether you’ve had other readers in the editing process, this group’s purpose is to give you impressions (not line edits). This is the group I want to come back to me with emotional comments like “hu?” or “I cried here.” and not technical ones.  You want cheerleaders out of it. If you get people who finished only because they are your friends or, worse, get the DNF (“did not finish”) comment, you have a problem that needs to be corrected before you go past “Go” and collect your book advance.

Tip #7 Send it out.

A professional writer’s light at the end of the tunnel is publication. You can’t get published if your story languishes on your computer’s harddrive.   You must submit.  Do your research. Meet agents and editors. Send the story to the person it is a good fit for. Self-publish if that’s what you want to do. Then the waiting begins.

Tip #8Start all over.

While you are waiting, guess what you need to do. Yup. That’s it. Write another story. Kismet happens, but you need to put yourself out there. Finish more stories. Give them wings and send them out to the world. Keep at it long enough and you’ll suceeed, whatever that term means to you.

For me,. suceess means writing another 2,500 words today. I best get started.

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6 responses on “Okay, so you have your novel started…so, now what?

  1. Joe

    Thank you so much for this. I JUST finished my NaNoWriMo challenge, yesterday, and your words helped to reinforce that I need to make sure I finish the story.

    I think one other point that could be addressed, if I may, is the overwhelming feeling of “completion” that one gets when they finally finish the 50,000 words. The brain gets so used to cranking out lots of words every day, that there is an inevitable let down of sorts when you finally reach that goal. I’m sure that it is something that a fair number of people would be interested in hearing how one could deal with this. You write with a great deal of clarity, insight, and straightforwardness, that I think it could be of benefit to others, even myself.

  2. Nancy

    Congratulations on crossing that 50,000 mark. It’s a heady feeling. And thank you for the compliment.

    For deadling with the NaNo let down, give yourself a day to savor the “I did it” feeling. Then dive back in.

    Psychology studies show it takes 21 days to create a habit. You’ve now written for 26 days. Writing every day should be a habit now. Keep it up. Feed and nurture that habit for the other 11 months of the year.

    Set a new goal – finishing the novel. Attack that goal with the same energy as you did the 50K goal. The great thing about goals is that we can always set new ones. Once you finish, start outlining or researching your next book while this one cools. Then start edits for the NaNo Novel and start writing the next book. You can do it. You just wrote 50,000 words. Nothing can stop you if you refuse to let it.

  3. Frank Morin

    Great post, Nancy. And Joe, Nancy’s right – the best way to get past the end-of-goal let-down is to set another goal and move forward. One of the best things I learned from Kevin J Anderson is that authors need to keep writing, and push forward multiple projects.

    You hit 50,000. Excellent! Now finish it. Then edit it. Then get beat readers and probably edit again. Then submit. Do over with another book.

    Living the dream.

  4. Joe

    I couldn’t agree more with everyone’s advice. One of the things that I never thought would happen, in my life, is that things would come together in such a way that my reality would start to match my mental image of what I wanted to do. For a number of years, I simply just didn’t have the time to be able to devote to doing something like NaNo. But I have been afforded the chance to “start over” and after some interesting discussions with various people, things just started coalescing for me to be able to get to the point where I felt like I could actually make the jump from a person who wanted to write but struggled with finding both the motivation and the inspiration to sit down and do it, to actually feeling like I could tackle something like NaNoWriMo. And being successful at it has given me the confidence to feel like I am capable of doing it. You step away from NaNo with so much more understanding and exeperience of what it is like to start a book, how to move from chapter to chapter, how to push through tough areas, and come out better than you thought you would. And the challenge I gave myself about a week in, was to make the writing meaningful and not just to write down any old thing knowing I could cut it later…just to reach the 50k goal. So I impressed myself all that much more, which was kind of surreal to think about once I was done.
    I am very much looking forward to finishing off this novel and letting it sit to edit in a month or so. My mind is already trying to get me to start thinking about the next one. So that will be my challenge for the month of December, for sure.

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