It’s November and that means it’s NANOWRIMO. To celebrate my first Nanowrimo novel, Zero Repeat Forever being on the way to publication by Simon & Schuster I’m featuring many published or soon-to-be-published Nanowrimo novels over the month of November, as well as some old posts I wrote during my first Nanowrirmo in 2011.
Today I’m featuring author Madeline Dyer and her comprehensive instructions on completing a Nano Novel.
How To Turn Your NaNoWriMo Draft into a Complete Manuscript
Given that I’ve found I write best when I’m drafting fast, it’s no surprise that I’m a huge fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Hashing out a manuscript of 50,000+ words in a month (or less) is always something I look forward to—and I regularly complete these month-long drafts, even outside of NaNoWriMo (which falls in November) and its summer camps (usually April and July). Typically, I aim to draft four new books a year, and the rest of the time is spent editing—because there’s a lot of editing, rewriting, and thinking to do.
Before we talk about how to transform a first draft into a complete manuscript there is one thing I want to mention first. And it’s quite an important thing. In nearly all cases, a first draft is going to be messy. Very messy. After all, it’s you telling the story to yourself—you haven’t yet shaped it into the story it wants (or needs) to be. There’ll be scenes that aren’t needed, parts of the plot that don’t make sense, and characters that disappear for too long and then suddenly pop up. Your protagonist’s goal might not be clear enough, or the stakes might be too low. The writing might go off on a huge tangent that slows down the plot in the middle, and the pacing might be way off.
But all that is okay in a first draft.
And I think an important part of fast drafting is accepting that there are going to be mistakes and bad writing. But you’ve still got a first draft done—a complete first draft. Even if it is awful. And having a complete draft (no matter how bad it is) is the first step needed when you want to transform your first draft into a complete manuscript. After all, an ‘awful’ manuscript can be edited and polished into something that you love. And I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t start editing your first draft until the first draft is finished—after all, before then you won’t truly know the shape of the manuscript until you’ve written the ending, seen the conflict play out, and nodded with satisfaction at the resolution (or maybe as you were writing the last scene, you’ve realised it needs a new ending, and now know what that will be).
But once you’ve written ‘The End’ on your first draft, (and celebrated, eaten chocolate, called your friends and family, and caught up on sleep), how do you start editing? Well, this is my method—these are the steps I take when fixing up one of my NaNo drafts into something that is way better and works, a manuscript that I’m really excited about.
First Step: Leave it Alone!
After I’ve finished a draft (and sometimes it takes slightly longer than a month if it’s over 100,000 words), I leave it—typically for a month. During that time, I work on something else (usually edits for another manuscript that’s been waiting around for a while). I find that time away from an idea/world/plot really helps me look at it with fresh eyes and realise what’s really not working. Sure, if I’ve just finished the first draft and I’ve already got an idea of something I need to change (like the ending, for example), I’ll make a quick note about it on the first page of the manuscript, but I won’t change it there and then.
Preparation: Read Your First Draft and Make Notes on the Stuff that Annoys You, Questions, and the Scenes that Don’t Do Anything
I suggest leaving your manuscript alone for at least a month. But when you do go back to it, read the whole thing and just read. The urge to change stuff in the manuscript there and then will be strong, but resist it! Instead, grab a notebook and write down all the things that don’t work, that annoy you, that evoke some sort of reaction in you (whether your reaction is good or bad). And then scroll through the draft again, and write down all the scenes that don’t add anything to the plot or reveal anything essential about your main characters—even if you love the scenes. If you’ve got any questions about how something happened—or why a character would do what they did—now’s the time to write those down in your notebook. (And I suggest having a notebook solely for the editing of this manuscript—it’s much easier than having one notebook for multiple manuscripts).
Preparation: Pull Your Characters Apart!
Next, turn to a new page in your notebook and focus on characterisation. Characters are, of course, hugely important. They drive the plot. And they need to be realistic. They need to feel like real people to you (ahem, they need flaws), and you need to know the answer to any question someone might have about them. And you need to know the answer instantly.
I typically have a page in my notebook for each character, and then I write down everything that the draft reveals about them. Most likely, you—as the author—will know more about your characters than is in the draft, and you need to look at this carefully. Have you conveyed enough information about your characters so that their motivations and goals are communicated effectively to the reader? Or do your readers need more information—something from the character’s past, maybe—to fully understand why this character behaves the way he or she does?
The other important thing to look at when analysing your characters is whether, from reading the draft, readers will know why it is essential the characters achieve their goals. What will happen if they don’t? And why should the reader care? Usually, making these notes helps make the characters more real for me, and I really get to know them and why they need to achieve their goals.
These notes are often ones I’ll constantly add to later, when I’m actually working on the manuscript—so it’s always helpful to have these pages nearby. It’s all about getting to know your characters when you already think you know them.
Preparation: the Building Blocks of Your Manuscript
The next area to concentrate on (and remember, no rewriting or editing has actually started yet—these are all just notes in a notebook) is the structure of the manuscript. For this, I always get out my copy of Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a book on screenwriting, but it has a fantastic beat sheet that can be applied to almost every film and novel. It highlights the different parts of a story that need to be there (both in terms of how the characters feel, such as where the euphoric and despairing moments should be—as well as overall plot development, which is usually determined by your characters’ actions). At this stage I always play around with the structure, making sure that these different parts/scenes happen at the right time. Often I find that I’m missing scenes, or that my action has happened too quickly and the pacing is too fast for the first half of the book. And although fast pacing is good, I don’t want readers to feel out of breath and not understand what is happening.
I suggest drawing up a storyboard of the main events in your draft (noting which character ignites each event), and playing around with the order. It’s also good to pay attention to which scenes are narrated by which characters—if your manuscript has multiple narrators—and to check that the structure works (i.e that you don’t suddenly introduce another narrating character after the halfway mark as this could jar your reader). Whiteboards are great for working these sorts of things through, or you can write each scene on a post-it note (a different colour for each narrating character is good!) and move it about until you’re happy with the overall order. Really experiment!
And once you’ve got the structure right and are happy that all the important things happen at the correct time in your plan, the work on the actual manuscript itself can begin!
Round One Edits: Character and Structure
This is the part where you act on all the notes you’ve made so far regarding characterisation and the structure of your manuscript (the order of the important events, when your characters fail and succeed, and how and when your main character’s past is introduced to the reader—as well as who narrates what if you’ve got multiple points of view… yeah there are a lot of components to look at in the first round of edits).
A couple of times, I’ve tried separating this into two distinct editorial rounds (starting with character, and then moving onto structure separately), but each time I’ve found that these two areas are closely linked and I’ve ended up addressing them together. After all, the characters drive the plot, and the structural components and set points you need to have at certain points (such as where your character’s backstory is introduced, where the love story starts and develops, where the protagonist appears to fail in their mission, and when the plot peaks) likely depend on your characters and their actions. Similarly, if your manuscript is told through multiple points of view, focusing on—and fixing—the narrative structure at the same time as you address characterisation works nicely.
I tend to start this round by reading over my character notes and reminding myself of the new structure I want, and then I delve straight in!
I’m a huge fan of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes, and I turn it on for this stage, as I cut and paste huge chunks of the manuscript and move them around until I’m happy with the structure. I also delete the superfluous scenes I identified earlier, edit others, and write new ones—usually scenes that reveal more about my characters (or the newly updated version of a character, if I changed one of them significantly, such as if a new backstory works better for a character and thus changes their reaction to an event). At this point, I suggest you don’t worry about continuity and whether some of your ‘old’ MC is still in some of the chapters—you can fix that later in the continuity edits. Right now, it’s best to fix the big stuff (including any plot holes), add in the crucial scenes that are needed to make your characters more believable and develop your subplots. Remember, subplots should build with—and compliment—the main plot.
Once you’re relatively happy with the new structure in the manuscript, you can then go through from start to finish, and concentrate fully on characterisation (using your notes from earlier—and, chances are, you’ll have been thinking a lot about your characters as well, so they’ll feel more familiar and real to you). The crucial thing here is making sure the characters’ goals and motivations still work and make logical sense with the new plot structure, especially if there’s a new order of events.
And remember the characters need to be active (particularly the main character). That’s important. Readers like strong characters. Few want to read about a girl who has loads of stuff happen to her, but who doesn’t react herself. A character can’t be a victim all the time. She has to react and then instigate parts of the plot herself. She has to take control. She has to be strong. So the action of the plot has to be controlled by your characters (and it’s usually controlled by both the protagonist and antagonist). Now it makes sense that we’re addressing structure and characterisation together, right? Because if you find that the new structure has made your character more reactive than active, you can joggle things around again and rewrite some scenes, or add in new ones to fix this problem. Or maybe your character’s new goal means that you need to change some scenes at the end—maybe something happens too early, or a character doesn’t react quick enough?
You also want your characters to be as believable as possible, so an extra pass through the manuscript, checking that your characters have flaws and histories, is advisable. Remember one’s past experiences shape one’s future actions—and it’s true of your characters too. You want your characters to be as realistic as they possibly can be—both in their personality and their decisions.
And, you may find after you’ve done all this that you need to rearrange some scenes again. But don’t worry. That’s fine. It is after all a work-in-progress at this stage. It may seem a bit daunting, but it’s best to do the really big changes early on in the editing process.
Round Two Edits: Worldbuilding
The next stage in my editorial process is all about worldbuilding, and if you write speculative fiction, this will be quite a big round of edits. You need to make sure that everything within your fictitious world makes logical sense. You need to have just the right amount of detail—but not too much that your readers get bored.
Usually, I do the bulk of my worldbuilding during the planning stage, before I even write the first draft, but I always revisit it here and consider whether anything needs adding, deleting, or developing. For info on crafting believable worlds, take a look at my guest post at the Books and Pallettes site: https://booksandpalettes.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/guest-post-crafting-a-believeable-dystopian-world-by-madeline-dyer/ It’s focused on creating believable dystopian worlds, but the basics apply to all types of worldbuilding, particularly within speculative fiction. And, of course, chances are that your edits on characterisation and the structure of your manuscript might have touched on this area too. These editorial areas aren’t complete, distinct domains—they do overlap. But you still need to make sure you’ve addressed each of these aspects in detail.
Round Three Edits: Continuity and Balance
Next, I suggest you pay attention to continuity and balance within your manuscript. By balance, I mean the length of the chapters, the pacing and how quickly the plot moves. It’s also a good idea to check again the amount of chapters each narrating character has, if you have multiple narrating characters.
Other things I look out for: the ratio of dialogue to description, how characters grow and develop, and how the subplots are tied into the main plot—the shape of them should mirror the primary plot in some way, but also link in.
And, in this round, I also change anything else that just doesn’t seem right or any places where I get bored. Equally, I question each scene again—if this scene isn’t here, does the manuscript lose anything? Ideally, each scene should either move the plot forward or reveal pertinent information about a character (in a non-info dump-y way).
Round Four Edits: The Fixing Up
My next round is what I call ‘the fixing up’. This is where I make sure that the writing itself is the best it can be. That each word is right. Imagery is also really important to me, so I really concentrate on this—making each sentence as strong as possible. But, at the same time, you need to make sure there’s no purple prose (writing that is too elaborate or elongated or far-fetched, writing that is over-showy and distracts the reader from what they’re actually reading).
Beta-Readers and Critique Partners
By now, I’m usually pretty confident in the manuscript and I can see how much stronger it is. This is where my beta-readers and critique partners come in. I ask them to be ruthless—and you should ask yours to be too.
I ask mine to tell me which parts excited them, which bits made them laugh and cry, and which scenes they skimmed through. I want to know all their reactions—as well as any suggestions they have for improvement.
And a note: it’s best to get other writers or experienced readers in your genre to beta-read for you. Family and friends will invariably be too nice.
Revisions: Incorporating Beta-Reader Feedback
And guess what it’s time for now? More work on your manuscript! Here, you should address beta-reader feedback. Any parts of the manuscript that multiple beta-readers have highlighted are parts that most definitely need some work on. But it’s up to you, of course.
I often leave the manuscript for a few days, between receiving their feedback and beginning work again, to get some space and perspective. But then I dive straight in.
And these edits could be focused on character, plot, pacing—anything that you’ve already addressed, or something else you’ve overlooked. If a character isn’t working or seems unbelievable, you could focus on strengthening their characterisation. Maybe the reader needs to identify with them more. Maybe you need to show more of why they behave like they do.
This round can be huge or it can only take a week or so, depending on the feedback you receive. And, if it means you make some huge changes, you may want to redo some of the other rounds, and find some more beta-readers to test it with afterwards.
The crucial thing is to get your manuscript to a point where you feel really confident and good about your characters, plot, worldbuilding and pacing—when you really love your manuscript and believe it’s ready to enter the query trenches.
Proofreading… Nearly Finished!
And when you really love it and think it’s absolutely ready, proofread it. Find any lingering typos or grammatical errors. It’s important, trust me.
So, those are the typical edits I do before querying a manuscript, but even after one of my manuscripts is contracted, I work with an in-house editor at my publisher for two-to-four more editorial rounds.
When people say most of writing is rewriting, they’re spot on.
About the author
Madeline Dyer lives in the southwest of England, and holds a BA honours degree in English from the University of Exeter. She has a strong love for anything dystopian, ghostly, or paranormal, and can frequently be found exploring wild places. At least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Her debut novel, Untamed (Prizm Books, May 2015), examines a world in which anyone who has negative emotions is hunted down, and a culture where addiction is encouraged. Her second novel, Fragmented, released in September 2016. Madeline’s gothic fairy tale retelling, “The Cursed of the Winged Wight”, is scheduled to release in April 2017 in Ever in the After: 13 Fantasy Tales, an anthology raising money for Lift 4 Autism.
Find Untamed at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Untamed-Madeline-Dyer-ebook/dp/B00XXOBB62/
More about Madeline: http://www.MadelineDyer.co.uk/
Follow Madeline @MadelineDyerUK on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, or visit her Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/MadelineDyerAuthor/
As one of the last Untamed humans left in the world, Seven’s life has always been controlled by tight rules. Stay away from the Enhanced. Don’t question your leader. And, most importantly, never switch sides–because once you’re Enhanced there’s no going back. Even if you have become the perfect human being.
But after a disastrous raid on an Enhanced city, Seven soon finds herself in her enemy’s power. Realizing it’s only a matter of time before she too develops a taste for the chemical augmenters responsible for the erosion of humanity, Seven knows she must act quickly if she’s to escape and save her family from the same fate.
Yet, as one of the most powerful Seers that the Untamed and Enhanced have ever known, Seven quickly discovers that she alone holds the key to the survival of only one race. But things aren’t clear-cut anymore, and with Seven now questioning the very beliefs she was raised on, she knows she has an important choice to make. One that has two very different outcomes.
Seven must choose wisely whose side she joins, for the War of Humanity is underway, and Death never takes kindly to traitors.
“This has to be one of the best dystopians I have read this year – If you’re a dystopian fan add this to your shelf.” — Birds That Love Words
“I really couldn’t fault Madeline Dyer… Untamed is a fantastic dystopian survival story, filled with twists.” — The Literature Hub
“From the first line, Untamed pulled me in. This is the sort of book that is incredibly difficult to put down… as a person who rarely reads fantasy/sci-fi but grew up with it always on the nightstand, Dyer’s book reawakened in me a buried love for the genre.”– Jen Knox, author of After the Gazebo.
“Untamed is very captivating and I found myself racing through it… the imagery Madeline has created is brilliant.” — A Secret Book Lover
“The fast-paced action of Untamed really drew me into the story… readers who enjoy dystopian novels would enjoy this book.” — The Story Sanctuary
The Book Depository: http://www.bookdepository.com/Untamed-Madeline-Dyer/9781610409186
After the terrible battle against the Enhanced Ones, Seven and Corin find themselves on the run. With the Enhanced closing in, Seven knows they need to find other people on their side. So, when the opportunity arises to join the Zharat, one of the last surviving Untamed tribes, it seems like the perfect solution.
But the Zharat lifestyle is a far cry from what Seven’s used to. With their customs dictating that she must marry into their tribe, and her relationship with Corin breaking down, Seven knows she has to do something before it’s too late. But that’s easier said than done in a tribe where going against the rules automatically results in death.
And, with the Enhanced still out there, nowhere is truly safe for the Untamed–least of all for the most powerful Seer in the world… and Seven soon discovers how far people will go in order to ensure that she’s on their side in the War of Humanity.
Battling against the emerging web of lies, manipulation, and danger, Seven must remember who she was meant to be. Her life has never been more at stake. Nor has humanity itself.
“A YA Mad Max! Fragmented is a great companion to Untamed. […] a thrill ride that continued to develop the characters in interesting ways as well as the wider dystopian world Dyer has created! I had no idea where the the plot was going to go and Seven continued to be the kind of kick butt YA heroine that I love.” – T.A. Maclagan, author of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone
The Book Depository: http://www.bookdepository.com/Fragmented-Madeline-Dyer/9781946058010?ref=grid-view