NaNoWriMo: How to start revising your novel in the Now What? Months

How to start revising your novelDid you do NaNoWriMo last November? I hope you took a well deserved break in December. Or if, like me, you decided to press on with actually finishing the draft, you at least relaxed the pace a little. But whether through the madness of November or not, if you’ve got a first draft that somehow doesn’t look much like the masterpiece you were imagining, you’ll understand why NaNoWriMo refers to January and February as the “Now What?” months.

The Now What? months are dedicated to revision and editing, with a sprinkling of publishing advice for those who decide they want to really see if this thing will fly.

A disclaimer!

I’m not actually revising my NaNo novel yet. As I mentioned in my post on a newbie’s experience of NaNoWriMo, although I ‘won’ in terms of wordcount, I finished November well short of a completed first draft. And I’m still going; at 111,000 words and counting, the novel has turned into a sprawling beast, but I’m sticking to my resolution to finish drafting before I start editing it.

What I do have, is a lot of experience with awful first drafts, and a lot of time spent procrastinating on writing blogs and websites searching for ways to deal with them.

The first step of novel revision

The first step is astonishingly simple, one you can manage with both hands behind your back, even if you’ve never tried to edit a novel before and the very idea terrifies you. I promise.

The first step is to read through your manuscript from beginning to end. A lot of authors like to print out in hardcopy to do this, but if you’re wedded to your eReader by all means stay on screen.

Resist the temptation to get stuck right in correcting every bit of sloppy wording or inconsistency you come across. Simply take stock of what you’ve actually got. I find it useful to take some brief notes, in the margins or in a separate notebook, about which scenes work and which don’t, if a section is boring me, or any bright ideas I have while reading. You might want to break out the highlighters for a spot of colour-coding.

So what has all the hard work of drafting got you? All the blood, sweat and tears… alright, caffeine, cursing and tears? Well, in my experience there’s a few basic types of first draft:

The bowl of noodles. You have plots, sub-plots, timelines and character arcs going in any direction you care to mention. They cross and re-cross, tangle together and trip each other up. You’re sure there’s a coherent story in there somewhere, and every now and again you come across a nugget of brilliance. But it’s all just a confused mess, and you haven’t a clue where to start. This type of first draft is most common in pantsers, but plotters aren’t immune either.

The plate of soup. Yes, I said plate. Instead of being a self-contained bowl of deliciousness, your story has been allowed to spread well beyond its natural boundaries. The result is a plot that looks thin and uninteresting, no matter how good the original concept, and you may well find you’ve thrown a few unnecessary ingredients in there to try and compensate. I have a feeling this may be where mine is headed!

The bread and butter. On the face of it, this is a perfectly adequate story. Sure, it could be a bit neater, and maybe there’s a few holes or an unexpected dollop of jam on one corner. But all the bits you’d expect are there, in roughly the right places. Trouble is, it all looks a bit uninspiring. Dare we say it – bland. You find yourself eying up other plots jealously and wondering whether your idea was any good in the first place. You might end up here if you followed an outline to join up all the dots but maybe sacrificed a little bit of creativity in the process.

The half-and-half pizza. A NaNoWriMo special! Halfway through, you lost faith in your original idea, or had a flash of inspiration too good to ignore, and your story veered in a completely new direction (or two. Or three.). But with the tyranny of the daily wordcount looming over you, there was no way to start from scratch. So you ended up with a draft that looks like the literary equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. This could happen to anyone!

frankenstein giphy

Fixing the first draft – how to get started

So, once you know what sort of problems you’re dealing with, what on earth are you going to do about them?

The good news is, whatever type of first draft you’ve ended up with, it can be fixed. If you’re a bowl of noodles drafter, you’ll be doing a lot more untangling and clarifying, compared to a bread and butter drafter who’s going to be adding detail and colour. But you can follow the same basic steps to help you approach the task and make it seem less daunting.

You’ll make several passes through the manuscript before you’re anywhere near finished with it, so don’t get bogged down trying to fix everything at once. On each pass, look at one or two specific elements. In general the advice is to start big and get more detailed with each pass. We’re not even going to be worrying about grammar and exact word choice until much later. So, with that in mind, we need to draw up a brief plan of action. I like to pin mine above my desk as a constant reminder of where I’m going.

So what does a plan of action look like?

Here’s a brief example, based on how I approach it:

  1. Plot, pacing and storyline. Where are the plot holes? Which sections are dragging and need to be cut or have the tension ramped up? Are the stakes high enough to keep a reader’s interest? Do I foreshadow important events and is the climax satisfying and convincing enough?
  2. Characterisation. Are character motivations and goals clear and believable? Do characters behave in consistent ways throughout the novel and develop as a result of the story events? Do they (especially viewpoint characters) have distinct voices?
  3. Consistency and details – I include research here where I need it. Does your wizard produce a spell in chapter 18 which he told you was impossible in chapter 3? Does your supposed only child suddenly start talking about a sister? How exactly does a nuclear reactor work? Have you got a character sprinting three miles with an urgent message a day after he fractured his ankle?

And so on, as many passes as you need to resolve your story issues.Your plan of action might be in a different order or focus on different elements, depending on what you’re working with. If you find yourself making major changes, you may even repeat a step or two. But you’ll have the end of the revision process in sight.

I’m not giving a detailed “how to” for each element here. Partly because this post is already long enough, and partly because there’s a wealth of revision advice already out there, including on the NaNoWriMo Now What? pages. I’d also recommend taking a look at their revision webinar with K.M. Weiland, James Scott Bell and Kami Garcia. When I get to the stage of revising my NaNo novel, I’ll share some further thoughts and examples with you.

Do you already have an action plan for revision? Do you find it tougher than writing the draft in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

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