If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, the question of what you do when you’re finished your draft can be daunting. Here’s my list of “Do”s and “Don’t”s to help you out.
It seems that quite a few members of the bullet journal community are participating in NaNoWriMo this month, which means that, all going according to plan, within the next couple of days some of you will have a brand, spanking new novel draft sitting on your computer or in your notebook.
If that includes you, then congratulations! Drafting a novel is an accomplishment worth celebrating, as is contributing 50k words to a single project in just one month.
In recognition of this, I’ve compiled a list of my biggest “Do”s and “Don’t”s for what to do after you’ve finished your first draft. I’ve written three novel drafts in the past year, so believe me when I say I’ve been where you are right now.
Don’t: Start querying agents
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but your book is nowhere near ready for querying. You may have written the best draft in the history of writing, or you might just think you have because you’re so incredibly excited to be finished. But there’s a difference between a good draft and a good novel.
Do: Let your novel rest
Instead of jumping into querying, let your novel rest. Give yourself at least until the new year before you open it up again and look at it with fresh eyes. At that point you’ll probably still be head-over-heels in love with the story, or at least parts of it, but you’ll also find lots of areas where it can be made even better.
Even if you’re not in a position where you think the story is perfect and in no need of improvement, it’s a good idea to step away from it so you can look at it more objectively. Things that you thought were amazing might be a little mediocre, while things you thought were horrendous might be salvageable.
Pretty much every time I finish a draft I have about five minutes of excitement that I’ve finally reached the finish line and then I start to despair. Because that’s when I realise that it’s time to clean up all the plot points and characters I’ve been dropping left and right like an overflowing garbage truck.
I’m very much a pantser, in that I ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ and figure out the story as I write. I refused to accept this for years, because I’m hyper-organised and so, surely, I should be a plotter, but I just can’t do it.
I’ve come to accept and, dare I say, love this part of how I write, because it’s so exciting to start writing and realise the story is going in an unexpected – but oh so much better – direction, but this means that when I finish the draft there’s a lot of work to do to turn it into a cohesive story. And so when I come down from the initial high of completion I can easily despair when I realise that I now have to actually face those inconsistencies and thin plotlines head-on.
Do: Consider what is salvageable
For me there’s a very simple test for this: Am I still excited about it?
This doesn’t mean that I never feel dread or despair at the thought of editing, or that I never think to myself that it’s unfixable. What it means is that something about the story still lights a fire under me.
One of my current drafts, for instance, is a complete mess. The A plot is, frankly, ridiculous, and will likely need to be scrapped (which in turn might involve scrapping the A plot for the entire series, a rather daunting prospect). I could say to myself that perhaps that novel served its purpose by teaching me what not to do.
It was my first story, and it taught me a lot, because I kept on changing things and rewriting things and trying to make that novel all the things I wanted to do in a story, instead of trying to figure out what that story was. And, certainly, in your case that might be this novel’s purpose in your life. Maybe all that is salvageable is what lessons you learnt about how to write a novel.
But in the case of this book, I get so excited when I think about it. I can’t wait to get back to it. I love the main characters, their relationship, the world, the secondary characters – I don’t even care if I have to go back to square one and come up with a completely different story, as long as I can keep those people in that world.
This is a classic beginner’s mistake, one I’ve made myself. It manifests in two forms, depending on the overall cohesiveness of your draft and, I think, your experience with judging the story.
In version 1, you realise that editing your story involves considering things like character motivation and plot, but you also edit for grammar and diction at the same time. This is, to put it bluntly, an utter waste of time. By the time you’ve gotten the character, plot, setting, etc. all in a place where you’re happy, there’s a very good chance you’ll have deleted large swathes of words that you agonised over only weeks earlier.
In version 2, you either have a reasonably cohesive story together or you think you do, and so you do the straightforward work of fixing the grammar and diction without ever going deeper and questioning whether the characters are consistent or if the plot makes sense. Maybe you have a kickass draft, but don’t take that for granted. Read your draft with a critical eye and pay attention to how the story is shaping up before proofreading.
Do: Edit it
Unless your novel is middle-grade or something like YA contemporary, then chances are 50k words isn’t enough for the complexity of the story. There will be places you rushed over to get to the next bit, secondary characters you threw in with placeholder names (or am I the only one whose drafts are filled with people called Councillor Jerkass or Lieutenant Ihatenames?) and no personality other than to serve as a plot device (are you surprised to learn that Councillor Jerkass exists to impede the main character?).
Even if your novel is long enough for your genre, there will likely be inconsistencies or areas where your setting is sparse or your characters are behaving uncharacteristically. Once you’ve gotten all of that sorted, then it’s time to proofread.
Over to you
Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Do you have any advice on approaching a finished draft?
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