Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.


8 Steps All Writers Follow When They Edit

Every author has a different approach to writing. I know this because I read Rebecca Bradley’s wonderful series on how writers do their thing. Each author she spotlights adds a personal twist that intrigues me.

Not so surprisingly, no one’s approach is like mine. Here’s how I write a novel:

  • Draft out events for the novel in a spreadsheet program like Excel. This gives me room to add columns and rows with new information, new ideas, notes to track an event through the story. Here’s what my spreadsheet for my latest WIP looks like:

plot with Excel

  • JK Rowling’s is low-tech, but still an obvious spreadsheet:

jk rowlings plot

  • Convert the draft to a word processing program like MS Word. Mine is usually 70+ pages.
  • Add details about timing, setting, characters, clothing, transitions, chapter breaks.
  • Start at the beginning and read for flow, timing, pacing. Edit diligently. I do this a day at a time. I finish a day’s worth of editing and start over the next day, repeating the process. Eventually, when I read to edit, it sounds fine (kind of) so I move on to the next part. I like this because I get some sense of continuity for the story. Otherwise, I forget what happened when. It sometimes takes until the third or fourth day of editing the same section to realize the character’s voice changed or s/he wouldn’t have said whatever I have coming out of his/her mouth.
  • Continue until I finish the entire manuscript
  • Search for obnoxious words like is, was, that, there, thing and change them. I’m identifying words that make the story passive, difficult to understand, and/or boring. I actually have a long list of them so it takes me a full twelve-hour day
  • Repeat the edit process(often, three-six full read-throughs) until the flow, pacing, and timing are fine and I feel it’s ready to submit.

99.9% of you are saying, Gee. That’s not how I do it. And that’s OK. There are rarely two writers who follow the same method and lots are successful. Find an approach that works for you and use it until it doesn’t. But, there are eight editing tricks we all use in some form. See if you agree:

  1. Ignore the fat lady if she starts warming up. Keep writing. You know what you’re doing and you’re going to do it well.
  2. Keep your pet snake around to greet detractors. Or tarantula, or scorpion. Whatever you have that will keep naysayers outside your orbit.
  3. Expect other people to get out of your way, do your chores, bring you coffee to keep you going as you prepare your Baby. Whatever they’re doing couldn’t be as important as writing a d*** novel.
  4. Repeat this mantra–Editing problems are only opportunities with thorns.
  5. When you scream at your mate (when s/he interferes with your writing) and s/he accuses you of needing anger management, remind her/him that the only help you need is for them to shut the f*** up
  6. Offer a crazed smile when people interrupt. That’ll back them off.
  7. When distractions call, let them go to voice mail.
  8. If you get unwanted visitors, quote Oscar Wilde–“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

Lest you think I’m the only one who writes like this, check out Gina Holmes at Novel Rocket or Adam Blumer here.

More about editing:
15 BIG Writing Blunders
How to Edit Your Novel (according to Yuvi)
10 Tips Guaranteed to Rescue Your Story
Book Review: Self-editing for Fiction Writers

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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Revision is next to godliness

To write is human, to edit is divine

Stephen King 

As much as I’d love to say that a perfect piece of prose can be obtained from a first draft, the truth of the matter is that good writing lays within the revision, editing, proofreading and analysis of a piece. Like a good curry, a well rounded piece of writing needs time to develop its own character, brew and settle. The following strategies may prove useful as you revise your next piece of writing.

  • Give it time. Revision over time will assist in organising your piece, ensuring that the theme and message you intended to share shines clearly. Even a few hours will give you a fresh perspective and draw you away from being too close to your work.
  • Start at the Start. Evaluate your introduction, ensuring that it grabs the readers attention, forms strong images or evokes the senses in order to draw interest.
  • Check the structure. Assess how you have organised your storyline and ensure that it leads your reader through a clear line of images and thoughts. Check you have done more show than tell!
  • Surf with the flow. If readers have to struggle up your stream of consciousness, its likely they will drown. Make it easy for your readers by creating smooth transitions and segues between paragraphs and interactions between characters.
  • Remove repetitive or habitual language structures. Particularly with flash fiction, every word must fight for its right to stay within the story. Every writer is guilty of favourite phrases and repetitive details. Revise any word repetition within sentences, replacing with alternative images or ways of expressing these ideas.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness. In a few words, write the theme or message of your work down on a separate piece of paper. Re-read your story and review its effectiveness in expressing this theme or message. Where could it be boosted? Where does it fall short of delivering?
  • Proofread. After you have made your initial content alterations, use a spellchecker to catch the errors and slowly read your work out loud to find grammar and syntax faults.  Printing your piece out will identify spelling and spacing errors quickly. 

Revision literally means to “see again” or to look at it from a new perspective. It’s an ongoing, organic methodology which gets easier with practice and experience.

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost.

William Zinsser 

Some dude’s thoughts on editing and presentation

not-so-famous philosopher

One day, some six years ago, I discussed with a colleague how I felt I wasted two weeks of effort preparing for a brief 10-minute work-related presentation.  Although the presentation was largely successful as I managed to distill the explanation of a somewhat complicated topic down to the bare essentials, I just couldn’t shake the guilt of expending nearly the two preceding weeks crafting and revising just five Microsoft PowerPoint slides as backup material.

My colleague, however, wasn’t surprised and then statedhe once read, “It takes one hour of preparation for each minute of presentation time”.

According to various Internet searches, that quote is attributed to an 18th century American philosopher named Wayne Burgraff, though personally I can’t validate the existence of the gentleman.

Who knows, maybe the guy was just a quick-witted slouch caught loafing on the job?  Perhaps he spouted the statement as a last-ditch effort to save his job?  You never know what fallacies lay in the depths of the Internet.  In any event, I extend my sincere apologies for my naivety to those of you who may revere the philosophies of said Mr. Burgraff.

It wasn’t until this week that I remembered the discussion with my colleague.  It happened when I was in my second hour of editing the draft of a one-paragraph poem, judging myself for how much time I spent near midnight arranging and re-arranging just thirty words.

I then took a step back and thought to myself, Readers don’t care how much time it took you to write a story or poem.  They’re going to judge the final piece.  It’s going to take as long as it will take to get it right.  And I don’t mean grammatically correct… but right.  Edit until you’re happy with the result; there’s no magic formula.

Improve Your Revision Process with Beta Reading

As writers, we tend to focus a lot on the writing – the actual act of creating our worlds and characters and plot twists. But we all know that writing includes much more than that.  Sure, we have to get the story down on the page and if we don’t do that none of the rest matters. But once the story is down and you’ve written The End at the bottom, what’s next?  Is the story done? Unless you have the gift of perfect spelling, grammar, structure, typing, storytelling, dialogue development, world building (etc. etc.), The End is only The Beginning.

Editing and revision are key parts of the writing process. For me, and probably for a lot of other people, this is the dreaded part of writing. I freely admit that I am a wordy writer.  A very wordy writer at that.  I consider this to be part of the “charm” of my writing, but when I’m looking at it from a distance I can see it as a flaw just as easily.  That said, when I’m working on a story, I will go through it several times after writing The End, checking for grammar and word order, checking for any blatant errors like characters whose name changes mid-way through the story, or problems that are presented but not solved within the story. I will read it silently without making any changes.  I’ll read it out loud to listen to the flow of dialogue (I do this often with prose and always with scripts).  I’ll shrink the screen down so that I can see one line at a time and read each letter and punctuation mark for technical accuracy. (OK, maybe I get a little crazy sometimes with the editing). I do all of this before anyone else sees the manuscript and sometimes before anyone even hears that I’ve been writing it.

But at some point, I cannot edit anymore but I know it isn’t “finished”.  You know the time – right when the coffee runs out, the feeling of doubt and self-loathing sets in and you are certain this work is the most dreadful piece of garbage ever written. It is usually at this point, when I’ve spent a lot of time on a piece and am ready to click the delete key to permanently remove it from existence, that I decide it’s time for another set of eyes.  What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes it is best to let the story go for a brief foray out of the nest, to see if it is ready to fly.  Sometimes you can’t “finish” a story because it is, in fact, already done; other times you can’t finish it because it needs some changes all the way back at the beginning. While the piece may truly be the worst piece of drivel ever written, it usually is not and it just takes someone else’s eyes to see it. Beta readers can help with getting the piece from the “drifting in the wind” stage to the “soaring with the eagles” stage.

Beta reading is a partnership between an author and a small set of trusted readers who are, quite often, also authors.  It allows you to get feedback from readers who are asked to go through your work and provide direct, honest and sometimes difficult-to-hear comments. When working with a beta reader, there are some key tips I’ve found to make the partnership more successful:

  1. Know what you want and when you want it.  It’s important to know what you expect from your beta readers and even more important to communicate it to them. Your beta readers also need to know the turn-around time you expect. Life is busy and things get pushed aside all the time, so it is important that everyone knows up-front what the expectations are. In general, the beta reader’s job is to provide feedback about what works, what doesn’t work and what could be done differently. Sometimes it is an idea exchange – I’ve taken the story as far as I can on my own, now I need someone else to tell me what I can do to make it better. Giving the beta reader an idea as to what you are looking for, be it a thorough, line-by-line editing, general thoughts on the plot and characters or ideas for how to rework a particular scene, helps to ensure a successful collaboration – which ultimately will help to ensure a successful story.
  2. Feedback will, sometimes, be conflicting.  When utilizing more than one beta reader (I recommend no more  than five), you will often (read: usually) get conflicting feedback.  One reader may absolutely love a line while another hates it.  One reader may think you need your character to drink coffee while another thinks they should only drink tea.  While this may be frustrating and hard to navigate, you need to understand that when your story goes out to broader audiences it will face this same situation.  The “you can’t please everyone” concept is important to remember, but you cannot hide behind it. If your beta readers are conflicted on a section of your story, you should review it and see if there is a reason for this.  Perhaps the section is confusing or unbelievable.  Perhaps it is extraneous and needs to be cut.  It may very well be a case where a concept is familiar to you but not to readers from another area of the world.  Getting this feedback early, before the story goes out to the whole world, can help avoid confusion.  Finally, if you don’t understand a comment from a reader, ask for clarification!
  3. Remember that you are the author. You should never expect a beta reader to re-write your story for you; feedback, suggestions, ideas and even line-editing are all fair game, but ultimately the beta reader can only be expected to provide assistance and guidance, not to actually fix it. That’s your job!  Feedback from beta readers is nothing more than a set of data points which you can use to determine where to focus your revision and editing efforts.
  4. It’s not about you. When I get negative feedback, I feel like someone kicked me in the gut. “He didn’t like that so clearly he hates me.”  Ultimately, it is important to have a thick skin when reviewing feedback from beta readers. Whether they love or hate your story, it is not a reflection on you—it is a reflection of that specific reader’s interpretation of that specific story.
  5. Thank your readers promptly. Whether you like the feedback or not, whether you’ll use it or not, thank your beta readers for taking time out of their lives to help. They don’t have to do this!  Even if you don’t have time to review the feedback immediately, at least acknowledge that you received it.  It will go a long way toward the reader being willing to help you out the next time.

Beta readers have responsibilities in this partnership, too:

  1. Understand the author’s expectations. Before offering to do a beta read, you need to be sure you can commit the time to do it within the author’s stated deadline. You have to be sure of what the author expects and that you are willing to do it. If you don’t understand what the author wants, ask! If the author did not tell you what they want, ask! If you don’t ask, you may end up wasting a lot of time.  In terms of investment, I can’t say how long it will take you, but for me, I’ve had some 1500 word pieces take 15 minutes to review and comment on and I’ve had other 1500 word pieces take several hours; it depends on just how much work there was to do. I usually read a story four or five times before sending it back to the author — I put notes in as I read it the first time, then update or remove them as my familiarity with the story improves.

I cannot emphasize this item enough – I was just asked to beta read a piece and the author set his expectations about it, but he did not include the length. Thankfully, I asked.  It is a 54,000 word book.  Looking at my schedule, there simply is not enough time for me to do the job on a piece of that length, so I had to decline (much as I wanted to accept).  If I can’t give it my all as a beta reader, I’m not helping the author.

  • Look past the author’s opinion. Often, the author will explain in the cover letter that the story you are about to read is not up to his normal quality (read: it stinks) or is the best combination of words ever to grace the page.  You need to be able to see past the author’s opinion so you can go into the reading with an open mind.  Otherwise, you’ll end up only seeing the flaws or highlights the author pointed out.
  • Be prepared to give difficult feedback. Beta reading is not easy, but sometimes it is really, really difficult.  As the beta reader, you have to be prepared to give feedback in a constructive and supportive way, even if your feedback is negative.  You need to be prepared for the possibility that you will thoroughly dislike the piece.  I tend to try to be thorough with my comments, explaining what I like or dislike and why, along with providing possible expansions or changes that I feel might make the story better. I’ve had to tell authors they needed to start over or that they had critical structural or technical flaws in the plot which needed to be addressed. Sometimes I’ve had very little to do – the story is complete and well done. Believe it or not, this feedback is actually harder for me because I worry I’m providing little-to-no benefit to the author by saying “Good job!” Of course, if it is good and complete, then that’s all there is to say. Whatever the feedback is, the key thing is to explain it.  If you don’t understand a sentence or phrase, say so. It may simply be that you don’t have the referential experience needed to understand it. It may be that the wording needs improvement to be understood more easily. It is better if you don’t merely say “I don’t like this bit” – take the time to explain why and, if possible, suggest an alternative.
  • Remember that you are not the author. Sometimes I want to just fix it – rework a section to make it better. But I can’t.  It’s not my job as the beta reader.  This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes write an example paragraph or two to try to make my opinion clearer but ultimately all of my feedback is merely a set of suggestions the author has the right to ignore or use at their discretion.
  • Having done so many beta readings now, I can honestly say that it has made me a better writer. I have been able to learn more about what I like and what I don’t like about stories and have been able to apply this to my own writing.  This makes beta reading a win-win situation. Have you worked with beta readers, or been a beta reader yourself?  What was your experience doing this? If you haven’t gone down the beta reading path, I highly recommend it.

The Fear Chronicles: Pride and Petulance, or Get Out of My Rose Garden

Teaching basic composition over the last couple of years, I have noticed that editing and revising are not necessarily built into students’ timeframes. The rough draft is the thing that needs to be done, and if the rough draft is the final draft, then so be it. Revision seems to be the luxury of far less busy folks. Revision is for students who have nothing better to do than scour their essays for errant commas, whilst eating bonbons beneath a lazily turning fan (I’m getting all kinds of Tennessee Williams images here). Or so I imagine. Why else would some of my students’ work be riddled with grammatical errors, sense errors, spelling mistakes, and a deluge of vying fonts?

Revision is a strange process. I would hazard to say that each writer’s revision process is as unique as his/her writing style itself. While for some revision might seem like the enjoyable, last step (once all the heavy lifting of the rough draft is done), this is not the way many other writers feel. In fact, revision generates some pretty passionate, and even volatile, reactions.

Tiffany Madison, journalist and fiction writer, says “While writing is like a joyful release, editing is a prison where the bars are my former intentions and the abusive warden my own neuroticism.”

Stephen King tells us, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Don Roff, author and filmmaker, says, “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”

And finally, Nick Hornby, novelist, suggests this: “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…”

Let’s take a moment and think about the diction used in these quotes to describe editing/revising: prison, abusive, kill, rip, chop, hack, prune. All incredibly violent words. All incredibly invasive. For these writers, the first draft was the joy, and the subsequent drafts were varying versions of suffering.

My mother used to say to me that I was a perfect rose garden, but I just needed to be pruned; by which she meant, I had flaws, and she would root them out. Of course I was resistant to this metaphor. Might this be the way writers feel about having their work edited by an external editor? Might this be the way we feel about ourselves when we self-edit?

In thinking about revising my own work, I find that I vacillate between being petulant about the revision process and excited that my poetry is improving before my eyes with each additional read-through. The petulance emerges, I think, because I think about those writers who either reject editing altogether (Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” approach or Anne Rice’s emphatic rejection of outside editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself . . .”) or those who seemed to reject editing (in this case, I’m thinking about some famous poets whose recent works seemed less edited, less tightly constructed, and yet as equally praised as earlier works). Either way, it’s an unhelpful petulance, because what I’m doing then is comparing my work with work that I don’t particularly like. Why should that be my yardstick?

In returning to my earlier question about my students and their seeming lack of revision, maybe I should consider that they, too, might feel somewhat petulant. And not only that, but somewhat exposed and nervous. No one wants to “rip,” “kill,” “hack” their work. In teaching my students, maybe what I should be focusing on is getting them over this hump of whatever it is: petulance, nervousness, frustration . . . pride.

Maybe pride has more to do with revision than I originally thought. Don’t we all want to create something perfectly birthed from our minds, with no need for pruning? And if we don’t, does that say something about our own abilities?

Maybe we think it does, but it shouldn’t. I think the only way over this hump for any of us, whether for my students, or for myself, is to get beyond the pride and the petulance a few times, and to see the other side of a well-edited poem, essay, short story. Experiencing the satisfaction of a polished piece of writing enough times might make us more inclined to embrace the self- or external editor.

I am reminded of a part in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis), in which Eustace, a particularly petulant and sulky boy, is turned into a dragon. Of course, he can’t stay a dragon, but he doesn’t know how to unchange himself. Eventually, Aslan (a great lion and Christ-like figure), painfully and slowly peels off Eustace’s dragon flesh, until Eustace is himself again, but fresh and new. Less sulky. Less petulant.

We must learn to embrace this change in our writing from something clunky, rough, awkward to something tighter, more polished, more graceful. The process may still be painful, but on the other side is better writing, plain and simple.

The Writers Circle: Revision Survival Strategies

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all need to revise our works after completing the first drafts. Many writers find this to be a much more difficult task than writing the first drat was.  What survival tactics, strategies or tools do you use to not only make revision easier, but also to make it something you do not avoid doing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

NaNoWriMo, Don’t Stop Now


What to do with your 50,000 words now that you’ve won NaNoWriMo

dont_stopCongratulations. You’ve survived a NaNoWriMo November. Not only that, you won. You kept a vigilant eye on that daily goal. And you met–or even exceeded–that goal enough days in the last month that you’ve emerged from the fray with 50,000 words. Now, it’s time to take a look at what you have.

You’ve got a bad, first draft. I’m not trying to tear you down. I’m just telling you what is, in all likelihood, the truth.

But that’s OK. NaNoWriMo, isn’t designed to get you to write a polished novel. It’s supposed to get you off the sofa and into your writing chair. And it did that. But NaNoWriMo is just a first step. And I’d like to give you a little advice on how to take the next step, and do something with what you just wrote.

1. Pause, Don’t Stop

Do you know how long it takes to break a bad habit? Or to create a good one? 28 days. If you do something for 28 days, you have changed YOU. You are now a more productive writer. So we don’t want to lose that. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the pace you’ve been holding yourself to isn’t sustainable–at least not if you have school or a job (or both). Plus, over the past month you’ve probably negelected a few things–maybe even an important person in your life.

So for a couple days it’s a good idea to calm down. Rregroup. Relax. Take your understanding sweetie out for a thank-you dinner. Catch up on a few deadlines and that pile of laundry.

And while you should NOT keep writing at the breakneck pace you’ve been pushing for, you should definitely keep writing. Every day. Even if it’s just a little. Unless your story ended at 50,000 words, just keep writing that. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes each day.

You’re not done, but yes, you deserve a break. A small one.

2. Evaluate

NaNoWriMo doesn’t really allow time to look over what you’ve written. That’s intentional. It’s real purpose is to show you what you can do if you turn off your internal editor. But now you need that annoying alter ego with the red pen. Reread your NaNoWriMo output with a critical eye.

If the story has held up, great. Highlight sections that might not be up to the quality you want. Move stuff around so it flows better. NaNoWriMo left you with a beautiful mound of clay that looks kind of like a story. But now it’s time for careful sculpting to bring out the details.

If your story didn’t hold up, that’s OK too. Because I guarantee you there are snipets of gold in that morass of 50,000 words. Now comes the time to find those hidden treasures and get rid of the rest (BTW, “get rid of” means move into a different document so you can look over it if you need to. It does NOT mean delete).

Which brings me to a question. At the end of NaNoWriMo was your story done? If so you can skip Step 3 and head directly to Step 4. But for the other 99.9%, Step 3 is for you.

3. Keep Writing the Story

Just because NaNoWriMo is over doesn’t mean your story is. Finish it. If the heavy word count is something that was working for you, then keep sprinting. Or, if the gaps in your plot were starting to bug you, but you couldn’t patch the cracks and still win, now is a great time to slow down and smooth over the rough spots. Do a little character backstory, or chart out your plot. Now that you’re not on a strict deadline, you can take a little time and proceed with a little more deliberation if that’s what you want.

What you don’t want to do is set the 50,000 words aside and say, “I’ll get back to it later.” Too many NaNoWriMo novels have died because the author lost momentum. NaNoWriMo tries to make a habit of out writing now. Don’t settle back into the habit of writing later.

4. Edit

After your NaNoWriMo novel is written, you don’t have a finished book. You have a finished draft. So here’s the time when you go back over your work and tweak, rewrite, path, expound…whatever you need to do to turn a rough draft into a second draft, and eventually into a finished work.

How long did it take you to write your daily NaNoWriMo word count? 2 hours? Then set aside 2 hours each day to edit and revise your book. If that wasn’t a pace you could keep up, then make it one hour.

Wrapping it up

If you haven’t noticed the theme running through this post, let me sum up.

You’re not done. So don’t stop.

The Writers Circle: Editing

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

With NaNoWriMo 2013 coming quickly toward a close, thoughts for many writers will turn from churning out lots of words to editing them. Whether you participated in NaNoWriMo or not, let’s talk about your editing methods. What tools do you use? Do you have a specific strategy or process you use when editing? What works for you? What have you tried and found doesn’t work for you?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Fear Chronicles: Why I’m not Scared In November

One of the things I said I would write about for Today’s Author was fear in relation to writing. I mentioned in my introductory post that when it comes to having deadlines, fear takes a backseat. And when it comes to NaNoWriMo, fear may as well be in the trunk. There is something comforting about giving myself a challenge, and leaving no room, none whatsoever, for failure. And yes, I would view it as a failure if I didn’t complete my 50,000 words.

So, to avoid this failure, here are some things I’ve done to help me finish my “novels” in NaNoWriMos past and some things I recommend:

  • Turn off the self-editor, and view this month as an extended exercise in freewriting. Freewriting is something I teach to my students in basic writing classes as a trick to just get over themselves. Freewriting lets them initially scrap the things that will matter later: structure, grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, an introduction and conclusion, and yes, even content. Just write. Get it out, though it might be crap (it will be crap). Ignore your self-criticizing, self-editing, self-questioning side. Crawl out from under your many neuroses, and let the subconscious take the driver’s seat (ah, the car metaphors are revving up . . . see what I did there?)
  • Remember that production is the essence of NaNoWriMo, its raison d’etre. And community. Embrace those two truths. If you’re not a particularly prolific writer (and I am not), then allow (read: force) yourself to be prolific this one month. If you’re not a particularly communal writer, then force yourself out into your community—meet up with fellow writers at coffee shops and bars, and take some comfort in staring at each other over your laptop screens, faces crinkled in consternation and lit with hellish screen-glows. Make your personal suffering a shared suffering. It makes all that sighing and hair pulling and sudden chair overturning all the more meaningful. No more must you be the crazed first wife of Edward Rochester, thrashing about in the attic of Thornfield Hall, alone and ignored—you can have friends to share in your mania.
  • Check the stats often. One of the coolest things about NaNoWriMo is seeing how your city matches up to other cities around the world. You can see if your city is falling behind Rio de Janeiro, or Paris, or the entire city state of Monaco. If you’re competitive, this should get you going.
  • Post on Facebook that you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Make others hold you accountable. And post your word count every day, even if it seems annoyingly self-congratulatory. Get those thumbs up and words of praise!
  • View the writing you do in November as a kind of meditation, because it is. As anyone who has tried meditation (or anything that requires consistency…exercising, for example) knows, it sucks in the beginning. It is often painful and feels pointless. But there is something to be said for persistence, and learning the art of longevity. November 1-8 might feel like a jumbled, jangly mess of terribleness, but hang on. As your mind gets into the groove of consistent writing, it will come to crave that time, and the days that follow will change. Sinking into your writing chair, or standing at your computer (as some of us do) to persist in this particular challenge will feel more and more familiar, expected, and ultimately needed. In essence, you are changing your mental make-up this month; you are changing your routine. And that means you are giving your writing itself a (perhaps) much-needed change in scope, in length, in style, in content.

So, don’t be afraid. No fear in November—that’s the mantra. Enjoy what you produce.