A Non-Snarky Guide to Getting Your NaNoWriMo Draft into Shape

NaNoWriMo-ers, congratulations! You survived November! Whether you “won” NaNoWriMo with 50,000 words, crushed it with a full novel, or fell short of the goal but got more words than you normally would have, you’ve accomplished something worth celebrating. Really—at least in my eyes—the point of NaNo isn’t to hit some arbitrary number; it’s to push yourself to do work as fast as you can. If you did that, whatever that looks like for you, ya done good, kid.

So…now what?

A lot of NaNoers are currently climbing out of their recovery nests and scratching their heads, blinking, looking around confused. So you got some words. It’s probably not a full book. It might be a hot mess. It miiiiight be totally nonsensical. But you were passionate about it and you worked so hard, and someday you’d like it to be a Real Live Book. Maybe, if you’re as impatient as most of us, you’d like that day to be, like, tomorrow (Spoiler: not going to happen).

What comes after NaNo? I’m going to offer you my snark-free answer. I won’t tell you to set your manuscript on fire, throw it in the garbage, or set it on fire and throw it in the garbage. Instead, I’ll give you an idea of what it might look like to take your WIP through to true completion. Of course, every writer and every project is different, but hopefully this will be a good starting place.

Step 1: Finish That Draft

Chances are you didn’t actually finish an entire novel in 50,000 words, especially if you’re writing adult fiction. If you did, that’s cool; skip to Step 2. For everyone else, it’s time to finish that draft. My preference has always been to finish barreling through at a NaNo-like pace so I don’t get caught up in tinkering and doubting before it’s all on the page. If you can’t sustain a rapid draft pace to knock the rest out, then I recommend deciding on what you can sustain and sticking to it. Don’t go back; only forward—no matter how broken you might think the beginning may be.

Step 2: Set it Aside

Once you finally cross that finish line, trunk it. Yes, you. In my opinion, there are no exceptions to this step. Even the most famous authors in the world have books that suffer when publishers pressure them to skip the all-important trunk time, and you are likely not as experienced as they are. Time away from your project is vital to gaining the necessary perspective for the next steps. My absolute minimum is one month. No reading. No planning. No tinkering. Go on staycation. Catch up on your TBR. Hell, start writing something else. But do not even peek at that WIP until 30 days have passed.

Time away from your project is vital to gaining the necessary perspective for the next steps.

Step 3: Re-Read and Take Notes

Now that you’ve filled your brain with new things, it’s time to come back to your rough draft and read it. I like to print and read in a binder so it feels a little more like a book-book and I can easily mark on the pages, but your mileage may vary. If you prefer to read on a screen, save the doc as a PDF so you can't type as you read. The point here is not to do line edits. In fact, unless you’re very natural at line edits and/or very experienced, I highly recommend you don’t even attempt them at this stage. The goal with this read-through is to get the Whole Book Experience. Big picture. What works? What doesn’t? What’s confusing? What’s missing? What do you love and hate? Take honest, simple notes about your feelings, questions, and thoughts as you read.

Step 4: Revise (Rewrite)

Take some more time—anywhere from one to four weeks, depending on how organized you are—to come up with a revision/rewrite plan. I like to have an actual list to work from, but again, your revision style might be different (or you might be discovering it as you go). This is one of the hard parts. Now is where you’re trying to take the book you wrote and turn it into the book you wanted to write. That might mean cutting a bunch of clutter to clarify the central story. It might mean fleshing out cardboard characters to give the plot power. Or it might mean re-writing the whole damn thing. What this phase should not be, unless you’re very experienced, is small. It should take you at least a month of NaNo-intensity-level work—probably more.

Step 5: Get Feedback

After you’ve done all you know to do on your own, it’s time to open the office door, so to speak. You’re going to have to let other humans read this project to know how effectively you’ve executed it. That is terrifying and overwhelming and worthy of an entire post of its own, but it’s one of the most important parts of being a writer. You have to learn how to seek, process, and filter feedback. If you’re starting out, get critique and feedback from a wide array of places: mentors, teachers, beta partners (you can find them online), critique groups, writer friends, friend-friends and family (grain of salt), and, should you so choose, professionals such as developmental editors, agents, etc. For a first round of revisions, 3-6 people is probably a good target range. You’re looking for consensuses. Unless you’re paying them, you should allow your readers at least one month to get back to you, but be prepared for some of them to be late and some of them to flake.

Now is where you’re trying to take the book you wrote and turn it into the book you wanted to write.

Step 6: Revise

Back to this again. Now that you’ve seen which issues pop up the most, you should be starting to get an idea of where your weak points are. The skill of letting yourself absorb negative feedback is a hard one to build up, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself strongly resistant to suggestions. Do your best to tamp down those defenses, though. If your goal is to have other people enjoy this book, you need to care about what other people think. Again, make a plan and get to work. Another month is not unreasonable here, depending on the scope and depth of your needed revisions (I know. I'm sorry).

Step 7: Edit and Polish

If you’re like most writers I know, you want this to be the end. Young love, it’s not. I’m sorry. It’s the beginning. Go back to Step 5, preferably with a new round of readers. See if they say any of the same things your first round of readers said. If so, you haven’t quite fixed those problems. If not, they might spot new issues that were either created or revealed by the last round. Once again, make a plan and get to work. Do this until you feel that your book is largely what you want it to be, and you’re satisfied with your feedback. Then you can set about polishing the prose itself, on a sentence level. Once again, depending on your experience and skill level, this might take anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months.

Step 8: Send it Away

Don’t let anyone tell you you need to set your NaNo manuscript on fire and throw it in the garbage.

I’m going to keep it real; your manuscript is probably still not ready for publication. Maybe! But probably not. But it should be, at this point, as good as you know how to make it. So it’s time to send it away, for whatever step you decide is next in your personal goals for the book. Maybe that’s querying agents, or hiring a professional for self-pub, or whatever. When you’ve done all you can do, the book is done (for now). Probably, after you’ve written many more books, it will someday rear its head like a zombie bursting from the dirt and demand you do it right, now that you know ¡so many more things! but that’s a story for another day. Worth noting: don't self-reject here, unless you're sure. Plenty of authors publish their first attempt as their debut, so it is possible (if not likely).

For this day, you should allow yourself to close the back cover of this book and move on to the next—because that’s how we learn and grow. Practice. So don’t let anyone tell you you need to set your NaNo manuscript on fire and throw it in the garbage. Will it ever see publication? Maybe, maybe not. That doesn’t really matter (Big picture). But seeing it through to completion—the best you can make it—is an invaluable experience that can’t be gained any other way but by doing the work.

So go do the work. :)


NaNoWriMo-ers past and present, do you have a plan? Does it change from book to book? Do you skip or add things to what I’ve outlined here? All experiences and tips are welcome in the comments!

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Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 and #1 Amazon bestseller Killing It Softly. She’s the webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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Comments

Peter L. Winkler's picture
Peter L. Winkler December 16, 2018 - 5:05pm

You can't polish a turd. You can only flush it.