December 3rd, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Now What?

Tiffany Yates Martin

Before we turn the blog over to Tiffany Yates Martin, we want to announce the winners of Chuck Sambuchino’s Worst Storyline Ever! contest.

Winners:

1. Laurie Michele – “Nudist cowboy rides his faithful horse across the Wild West, fighting crime and saddle rash.”

2. Therese Calegari – “Defeated by the love of her life in the World Knitting Championships, Mary seeks to rebuild her shattered dreams of being famous by piloting an airplane made entirely of wool, and finds more than she bargained for when a local sheep farmer is waiting on the wing.”

3. Rebecca White – “Dabney, a deaf-mute Duclair duck, witnesses a gang homicide in Chinatown, and must race to learn the difficult International Sign Language for Deaf Ducks and communicate the name of the despicable perpetrator to his fianceé and sometime sleazy topless dancer, Hoa duck Daphne, before he is kidnapped and turned into Peking duck by the Gang of Hungry Four.”

Honorable Mention:

Hayley I – “When three sisters fall in love with two Martians on prom night, only the sisters’ ex-boyfriends, a trio of tambourine players struggling to make it in Toronto’s unpredictable tambourine scene, can stop the playboy aliens from winning hearts and destroying the world with the helium gas gun secretly stored in the prom king crown by an ancient Martian evil.”

Pam Stucky – “A young man, who has never recovered from the pain and anguish of losing his childhood pet rock, forms a rock band in which the band members pass out rocks to the audience at every concert.”

David E Markey – “In a world of puppets one marrionette and one tubesock with googly eyes will need to band together to rescue the Princess Macrame from the clutches of the vile Lord Pleather and his horde of yarn-eating mothmen all the while having to overcome their own biases and mutual distrust all before Dark Lord can unknit the world.”

Congratulations to the winners, and thanks, everyone, for entering!

Take it away, Tiffany!  

NaNoWriMo: Now What?

IMG_0247(1)Congratulations—if you participated in last month’s National Novel Writing Month challenge (or even if you didn’t), hopefully you’re looking at a finished first draft that’s full of potential.

Now what?

Don’t make the mistake of the writer who, after last year’s challenge, had his NaNo manuscript uploaded and available on Kindle one week later. Regardless of how good your story may be, in the inimitable words of Ernest Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is sh**.”

Just as a sculptor wouldn’t have the clay delivered and call it art, the raw material of your first draft is unlikely to be publishable (or sometimes even readable). But that’s not to say that you don’t have the makings of an excellent novel on your hands—if you take the time to do the real work of writing: editing and revising.

Evaluating what you have in your manuscript and knowing what to do to make it the best it can be can sometimes be the hardest part of writing—much harder than the initial sexy, satisfying burst of creativity that is a first draft. If first drafts are the heady honeymoon period, revisions are the marriage—when you can’t rely on the excitement of the new anymore and it’s time to put in the work to make sure you’ve created something that can go the distance.

But what do you do first?

Before anything else, step away. Take a break for at least a few days, ideally longer. You’ve been submerged in the manuscript for a month (or more); you need to surface and catch some fresh air before diving back down.

When you do come back to it, start with an objective read: reading your manuscript as you would any other book, without trying to fix anything, just immersing yourself in the story and reading it start to finish.

Now it’s time to ask yourself some questions about the three main tent poles of story: character, plot, and stakes.

Character:

Readers care about what happens in your story only insofar as it affects characters you have made us care about, so regardless of how “plot-driven” your story may be, or how exciting its events, we don’t care what happens unless we care about whom it’s happening to.

  • Begin by asking a few questions about your characters:Who is your protagonist(s)? As remedial as it sounds, this isn’t always cut-and-dried.       Especially in certain genres—women’s fiction, for instance—there may be multiple main characters, or the story may be a pastiche of tales knitted together, with no clear “hero” or engine of the story in the first-draft stage. Or the main character(s) may be fuzzy or not well developed generic “types” rather than three-dimensional characters who pop off the page. Write down your protag(s) and, for each one, a few defining character traits, what makes her/him unique. Do the same with your antagonist(s).
  • What do they want? Do all main characters have a strong, clearly defined goal? Is their motive for achieving it strong and evident?
  • What keeps them from that goal?
  • How are they changed in the process of getting it (or not getting it)?
  • Is what happens to the protagonist caused or worsened by the antagonist?
  • Is every main character essential? Differentiated?
  • Do your protagonists have flaws, and do your antagonists have redeeming qualities? One-dimensional characters make for dull reading.

Plot:

Before you begin revising the manuscript, I suggest you create what I call an “X-ray” or blueprint for the story—essentially an outline. Basically, make a bulleted or numbered list of the main plot developments—for each one, you will have just a line or two at most. This is just a sketch, an X-ray of sorts of the story so you can see its “bones” more clearly without the “flesh” of the whole narrative covering it. Now it’s time for more questions:

  • Are there holes in the plot line? Perhaps you see you need to show how C leads to D, or X leads to Y.
  • Does each and every development accomplish something—develop character or further plot—in a way that is tied into the central, overarching plot? (If not, chances are it doesn’t belong in the story.)
  • Can you identify the story’s “inciting event”—that thing that sets this entire story in motion? If not, find that event. If you do have it, but it appears well into the outline, consider how to begin the story at that point, rather than before it.
  • Can you identify the story’s arc? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  • Examine why each plot event happens. Is it realistic? Believable?
  • Is there any easier or better way out of the mess for your characters? (The answer must be no.)
  • Are there loose ends? Unanswered questions? Anything unresolved?
  • Any unmotivated actions, or deus ex machinas (unsupported resolutions to the plot)?

Stakes:

What separates a compelling book from one readers will put down is keeping the stakes high throughout the story. I used to be an actor, and the best piece of acting advice I ever got was that great actors make the strongest possible choice in every situation, however big or small. If a character leaves the room, is he simply leaving in accordance with the stage directions, or is he furiously retreating? If a man kills his wife’s lover, is it stronger if he does it out of wounded pride alone, or also a desperate, painful unreturned love for her? The latter is stronger, and therefore more dramatic and compelling. The same holds true in fiction. Characters must want something desperately, and there must be consequences—meaningful ones—if they don’t achieve that goal. When looking at your first draft, consider whether you have maximized every motivation, made the strongest possible choice in every moment for every character. That’s what makes for great, memorable fiction.

Now that you have the tools for approaching your edit, it’s time to go back in and start addressing what you’ve discovered in the above “dissection” of your main elements of story—filling in gaps, deepening motivations, raising stakes, building character, etc.

In future articles, we’ll talk about specific ways to execute these elements of craft, and examine other key story concepts, like tension/suspense, show versus tell, point of view, and flabby verbiage.
And though you may feel you’re standing at the foot of what can often seem like Revision Mountain, take time to acknowledge your accomplishment so far—writing a full first draft is no small achievement, and you’re well on your way to a finished novel you can be proud of.

What’s the hardest part about approaching an edit for you? What techniques or “tricks” do you use when approaching a revision?
 

Tiffany Yates-Martin pic Tiffany Yates Martin has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty years, currently through her editorial consulting company, FoxPrint Editorial, helping authors hone their work to a tight polished draft. As a developmental editor she works both directly with authors as well as through major publishing houses.

As a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, she has worked with major New York publishers, among them Random House, the Penguin Group, and HarperCollins. She holds a BA in English Literature from GSU and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she is the author of the Breakup Doctor series (Henery Press); the second in the series, Bedside Manners, will be released in March of 2015.

36 comments to NaNoWriMo: Now What?

  • Tiffany, it’s interesting – I’m a pantser, but this is basically how I write – I just do all of this as I go along, instead of writing it all, and going back.

    Great advice! Thanks!

  • Fae Rowen

    This is great advice, Tiffany! When I first starting writing, I thought revisions meant copy edits. But in those days, I knew nothing about POV either. Now the hardest part is writing down that blueprint after “The End.” It seems like a waste of time once the story is finished. (Guess you can tell I’m a pantster.) I’ve done the post-outline for one of my four books, and like an autopsy, it pointed out the “crimes” in the manuscript. Almost makes me want to try being a plotter…

  • I totally agree with the after-effects of NaNo. I did it for the first time, since the timing worked out, and by the end of my 50K, I didn’t want to look at the manuscript again. (I still haven’t opened the file). But I knew going in it wouldn’t be a ‘book’ because my books are usually in the 85-100K range. Normally, I do everything you’re pointing out as I go, but because of the NaNo process, I now have to deal with doing all my tracking for 50K instead of each chapter. and then move forward to The End.

    For the fine-tuning, I’ve found a program called Smart Edit helps me zero in on some of the basic mistakes, like overused words, adverbs, etc. When I’ve got the whole book down, I print it out in a different font, in 2 columns so the eye scan is totally different and catch a lot of garbage that way.

  • Thanks so much for this advise, Tiffany. As a person who writes that first draft in one mad rush, I agree. What we get from that effort is the bare skeleton and what the revisions, edits, and rewrites give us are the flesh and the vital organs. Taking the time to go back is the heart of the matter.

    Look forward to your future posts 🙂

  • Great post! I did Nano for the first time last month (I won!) and I enjoyed it very much. I learned that I work much better under pressure with a deadline.

    I didn’t write completely from scratch. I wrote a one-sentence summary of each scene ahead of the time for the entire story. For instance:

    Chapter 1
    Scene 1: Lorenzo gets jilted at the altar
    Scene 2: Lorenzo tries to set his ex’s things on fire in the backyard, but fails
    Scene 3: Natalie watches as Lorenzo tries to set things on fire. She intervenes.

    You get the idea. And it worked out very well!

    I’m turning those 50,000+ words into my second romantic comedy novel (Dog Day Wedding) that I will publish January 24, 2015. I have six weeks to whip that baby into shape before it goes to my editor.

    Loved Nano so much that I plan on doing Camp Nano in April! 🙂

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    What fun to see you at WITS, Tiffany! Thanks for blogging with us.
    Great advice. I’m armpit deep in revisions. My “X-ray” is a collection of color-coded index cards on my office wall. 🙂

  • These are such great replies! Interesting to see how many of you are pantsers (I am too, I must confess), and how unappealing it can feel to go back after writing to create the X-ray. I can’t tell you how many times an author I’m working with who’s having trouble in revisions or feels stuck will finally break down and make the X-ray, and then see so clearly what’s missing or what needs to be cut or changed or developed further. It really clarifies the story’s scaffolding in a way nothing else does, no matter how well you think you know it already. I haven’t heard of Smart Edit, Terry, but am intrigued and will check it out. Rich, your one-sentence summaries are pretty much exactly what the X-ray should be–just a brief line to show what happens in each scene. (And that often brings into the spotlight those sneaky scenes in which NOTHING happens!) Thanks for your thoughts, all–I always love seeing authors’ processes.

    • Orly Konig Lopez

      I actually LOVE the revision process. It’s like doing a puzzle. Each of my index cards has bullet points about what’s happening in the scene. Amazing what you can see. FUN!!
      (And yes, Laura, I hear you muttering that I’m nuts) 😉

  • Thanks, Tiffany! For me, I think the break in between rough draft and fixing the nasty thing is vital. You are right — the author has lived with the book so long that your brain (well, mine at lest) fills in missing information. Then you go back and it hits you, Wait, she has the engraved ring in Chapter six how did she get it?” You know she found it in Chapter Two, but nobody else does.
    Thanks again.

  • Thanks, Tiffany. I never thought of this as anything but my 1st draft. I’m letting someone else read the draft. She’s a published author, so she should be able to give me some good suggestions. When I started, I wrote the blurb first. This way I knew where I wanted the story to go. It kept me on track. I hope that by this time next year, my novel will be published.

  • Orly, if they lock you up for being nuts, pound on the padded wall — I’ll be in the next cell. I really like the revision process. This last time around I was under a lot of time pressure, but it was still enjoyable.

    • Orly Konig Lopez

      We need our own secret code, James. 😉
      I get newly excited about the story with each round of revisions. Glad I’m not the only one.

    • You’re both freaking me out! The only thing that freaks me out more is Jenny’s process of writing out of order. *shudders*

      • Why, Laura, don’t let Orly and I freak you out. Pay no attention to the knocking on the wall. Heh heh heh. All kidding aside, I wrote parts of the fourth Surf City Mystery, Pennies For Her Eyes, out of order and for me it was a mistake. I agree with you, reluctantly. I wish i could write out of order.

        • I write out of order, too. I just don’t think linearly. 🙂 Works fine except for having to go revise the last couple of scenes when you do a read through and realize you did something like make a character left handed in early scenes but he was right handed in the first two scenes you wrote – which were the last two scenes of the book and one in the middle… lol. I’m writing my whole series out of order, actually. I am writing them from the beginning, but I am also working on the last ten books and random books in the middle as well. I need a really good story bible. Or a wiki…

  • Love hearing all the enthusiasm for editing! I meet a lot of writers who just dread it, and I always think it’s the most fun part of the process–when you’ve done the hard work of getting the story out–chiseling the general shape from the clay–and then you get to have the fun of fine-tuning and smoothing it into something beautiful. And yes, James and Terry, it’s so important to have time away from the manuscript. It lets you come back with fresh eyes and see what’s actually on the page, rather than all the “noise” in your head that’s there when you’re so deeply into the story from freshly writing it.

    • Fae Rowen

      I didn’t like revisions until the last book, when I could see the book getting better through the process. A case for “the more you know”…

  • I did splurge and print out my first draft. 164 pages. I may be old school on this, but having a printed copy made it feel more real. I just feel a great sense of accomplishment in getting that much done.

    • Fae Rowen

      I’ve found things in a hard copy that I’d passed over many times on the computer monitor, so I think of that round of edits as a necessity, not a splurge, jmcgarryxx. Aren’t we entitled to a splurge when we finish a book, anyway?

    • JMC, That’s how Orly does it, too!

    • Orly Konig Lopez

      I always revise on a print copy. I know some people who will print and bind it to actually BE a book but for me it’s easier in a 3-ring binder. I revise long-hand and write out whole paragraphs or new chapters then slip those into the binder in the right spot.

      Try reading it on an e-reader (I save my ms as a pdf then open it in iBooks on my iPad). It’s amazing what you’ll find doing a beta read in that form as well.

      • Mine is in a 3-ring binder. I just finished formatting it in MS Word. I won’t print it out again until I get it ready for publication. I want to get the content down, then format.

  • I think it helps to look at the manuscript in a new way when you’re starting revisions–whether that’s a printed copy, a Kindle, or even sometimes just a different font. Sort of “tricks” the brain into objectivity.

  • karenmcfarland

    Tiffany, because of circumstances that were out of my control, I did not participate in NaNo this year. But I thank you for all those suggestions because I can still apply them in my own process of writing! 🙂