Editing After Nanowrimo (or any first draft extravaganza)

So, you wrote a novel in 30 days. Now what? That’s the question of the century. . .er, month. You could put it in a drawer and only bring it out to read it and laugh (that’s where my 2004 Nano is). Or you could try to bring it to a polished, maybe even publishable, piece or art. How do you revise now that you have a first draft?

Here’s what’s worked for me for Finding Fiona. Hopefully you can find something helpful out of it.

First, take a break from it. 
Step away for a couple weeks (or longer, if you can bear it!). Get a breather. Don’t try to delve in as soon as you’ve finished it. The story is too fresh on your mind. Write something else. Read something else. Just forget about it for a little while.

A couple weeks later, read through it. 
Take out a weekend and read through your novel. Try not to have too many breaks between it. Enough to keep your eyes from glazing over, yes, but if you wait a couple days, you’ll lose the flow. You need to be wrapped up in the story without forcing yourself to read on. Mark stuff up if you want to, but try not to get too in depth yet. Some things will stick out to you right away — like changed names or spellings — others will take longer. Don’t get caught up in editing, though. Five minutes is your max!

Okay, onto the real list! Keep in mind #1-3 don’t necessarily have to be in order.

1. Look at the big picture. 
Make an outline of your entire novel. Maybe scene by scene, maybe chapter by chapter. Look at where the characters start, where they journey, and where they end up. Ask yourself these questions:
— Have you written a beginning, a middle, and an end?
— Is there an inciting incident in the first 50 pages?
— Do you have a sagging middle or is it tight and concise?
— Is there a climax where everything comes to a head and your characters make that last life-changing decision?
— And do things wrap up neatly at the end?

What do you think? Can you clearly see scenes you don’t need? Can you clearly see scenes you need to implement?

I’m going to be honest here. I cleaned up the text, but I didn’t really look at the big picture of Finding Fiona until after #3. 

2. Consider what you want out of this novel. 
When I start revising, I like to have an “end plan.” This could be accomplished by asking yourself what you want your readers to feel when they put the novel down. Do you want them to be crying in agony from the main character’s death or just catching their breath for the first time since they picked up the book? This can help you because you can consider what a reader might think about how your characters fall in love and kill each other and defeat evil.

You could also find your end plan by asking what you want the characters to be like at the end of the novel. He started off as a poor farm boy, but now he’s a wizard embracing his destiny to save the world in the sequel. Or perhaps your MC started the book off as a spoiled brat, but after falling in love with the guy from the wrong side of the tracks, she’s reevaluated her way of thinking. How will your character change? Asking this can help you during revision because you’ll be thinking: how will this help my MC to her new self?

Another suggestion is to consider your theme: the overall messages of your book. Love conquers all? The love of money is the root of all evil? Books don’t have to have a preachy message, but if your characters have morals instead of being morally ambiguous, it’s inevitable that their values will come through in their decisions.

I wanted Finding Fiona to be a fast-paced novella with some romance and mystery. I also wanted people to wonder about the question, “What does it mean to be human?” and consider how science can overstep boundaries when trying to create something created by nature (in this case, a human being). 

3. Get a second opinion. 
Sometimes, we’re just too close to our work. We can’t see its own flaws. Sign up for a critique group (Critique CircleScribophile, Critters, ReviewFuse). Don’t be rude and shove your completely unedited work on some poor unsuspecting soul. At least learn proper grammar and spelling first. I find it is much easier as a critter to critique someone’s big picture issues if I can actually read a sentence of theirs. (And it will probably easier for you to clean up your writing before assessing if Character A’s motivations made sense or not!)

Be nice and return the favor. Critiquing other people’s works will really help you when revising your own work. You may think you don’t have anything to offer. Just read the work like a reader and tell the reader if their story makes sense, if you enjoyed it, if you would read on, and if you answered negatively to any of those things, tell them why not. Worry about writerly terms (POV, setting, dialogue, description) once you feel comfortable with it.

Also keep in mind that it’s hard to find critique partners who will read your entire novel in its first draft form. That’s usually for a beta reader and they may come later. If you’re lucky, then that’s great! But don’t expect someone to read your 75K unedited first draft unless you’re willing to read theirs. In that case, good luck!

I sent Finding Fiona, originally 35K in its early drafts, through Critique Circle. I had about 11 chapters around 3K a submission, so I sent them through the submission queue week by week. I also had a couple beta readers look over it during the CC submission and afterwards.

4. Find out what you need to change.
You have your outline, you have your second opinion (maybe on the first few chapters, maybe on the whole thing). Now look at your draft critically and look at it with the eyes of a cruel editor who wants a best-selling novel under his belt.

POV — Are you consistent with your POV? Have you chosen the right POV?
Setting — Do you make it clear to the reader where the story is set? Have you placed the story in the right setting? Is it vivid and a part of the story instead of the backdrop? If I’ve invented a world, have I thought every logistic in this world through, but only shown the parts that affect my character?
Dialogue — Is the dialogue realistic? Can I realistically see people saying that dialogue in real life? Do I use dialogue to info dump or to move the plot along? Do I use too many dialogue tags or adverbs? Have I punctuated it correctly?
Character Development — Are my characters likable? Sympathetic? Three-dimensional? How do I reveal character? Do my characters change or remain the same?
Plot and Pacing — Do I have an inciting incident early on? Is something at stake? What’s the conflict? Are there any parts that drag? Does everything make sense?
Writing Style — Is there a certain word or phrase I overuse? Maybe a certain sentence structure? Do I show instead of tell?

Not sure what the heck any of this means? Get a writing book and see if you’re implementing its techniques. Read articles (I really recommend Writers Digest) on writing and compare their ideas to what’s in your book.

Better yet, read lots and lots of fiction in your genre. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t work. What could the author have done better? What did they currently have that was absolutely crucial for the story to work? Then compare it to your own work honestly. Could you see your book on shelves? Or on the top charts of Amazon.com? Do you think readers would rave about your characters and your plot and your writing?

After my crits from CC and my readings, I realized Finding Fiona had a sagging middle. The characters sat around and talked a lot instead of doing things. I also saw that Fiona needed to be more of a proactive character instead of reactive; that the villains needed to be a bit more threatening yet more human at the same time; that I had way too many dialogue tags, sighs, and rolling of the eyes; and that one of my secondary characters needed more fleshing out. There are a lot more little changes, but I’m not going to bore you 😉 

5. Make a list of goals. 
This is a more detailed version of #2. You should have an idea of what you need to change by now. So, make a list of the changes and what the end result should look like after the changes. This works as a physical list, but it could also be mental. As long as you consider how to change the problems.

For Finding Fiona, I said: Okay, there’s a sagging middle. I can cut this scene without too much trouble and combine these other two scenes. In order to make Fiona more reactive, Fiona won’t ask James to talk to Greg for her; she will plan to go by herself. 

6. Go through chapter by chapter. 
Go through each chapter with your notes, your goals, and your critique partner’s/beta reader’s notes. Implement the changes.

Easier said than done, I know, but you can do it. If you need your character to be more spirited, then have her argue with her parents when they ground her. If you need your dialogue to be less boring information, then rewrite the conversation with just the essentials. If you need the climax to be more difficult for your characters, then put someone’s life at stake. You can do it!

I opened up Finding Fiona in one window and my crits from Critique Circle in another window. Then I went paragraph by paragraph and made the changes. 

7. Get another opinion. 
This may seem repetitive, but you should get another opinion. Preferably from different people. A few of the old ones is fine because you can ask if it’s an improvement, but get some fresh eyes.

I found some more beta readers for Finding Fiona and sent what I felt were the roughest chapters through Critique Circle.

8. Make the changes again. 
Pretty self-explanatory, right?

9. Get another opinion. 
Yes, another one.

I asked my husband to read over my “final” draft and and sent my first chapter to my local writing group. I implemented changes and posted again on Absolute Write. 

Your process may vary after this. Some people believe drafts need to be revised and sent to beta readers and revised and sent to beta readers until there isn’t one flaw. Others believe that too much revising will cause your story to lose its spark.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I think there is such a thing as too much revision, but it varies from story to story. Some just need enough tweaking to let the characters shine. Others are going to need an overhaul. But I do think it’s important not to let yourself lose the original vision of revising. Remember your goals way back before hours of editing, before you had a dozen betas all with different opinions? What did you want out of this novel? Keep that in mind.

If you’re going to self-publish, then you really do need to revise and edit until your eyes bleed. You need to get as many opinions as you can and read this story until you are absolutely sick of it. Comb every sentence and every paragraph. You are a businessman/businesswoman, and this is your product. If you are going to ask people to spend money on it, even only a dollar, this needs to be the best product possible. Really, this makes sense for those who are querying or searching for a publisher, as well, but I can’t stress this enough for self-publishers. Put your best foot forward. If you can, maybe believe that hiring an editor and/or proofreader is essential to self-publishing.

I think the hardest things for writers during revision is knowing what needs to be changed and then having the perseverance to change it. First, you need to recognize what’s flawed in your work. Then, you need to find ways to fix it. It’s not that hard once you get down to it, it just takes more work than the first draft for most people. Think of it this way: you found a beautiful gem in a trash dump. Now you need to polish it up so it can shine and everyone can see it’s true potential.

Sometimes, you may need more than this. There are a few novels of mine that I know need an entire rewrite because the plot doesn’t make sense. It’s based on villains that don’t make sense and worldbuilding that’s nonexistent. I could make all the goals that I want, but I’d need to go back and completely change the structure of the novel. That may be necessary for you, but the important thing that will help you is bring able to ask yourself hard questions and giving yourself honest answers. Or getting honest answers from beta readers and critique partners.

Some more resources:
Natalie Whipple’s Stages of Revision
Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision
Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (what’s super helpful with these is they actually have exercises at the end of each chapter that help you put what you’ve learned into practice).

Good luck with Nano or other first draft revisions. You can do it! Stick with it. Don’t give up. I’m starting to like revision more and more as I do it for more novels. Kind of messed up, I know, but there it is.

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