If you spent November obsessively engaged with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), you weren’t alone. It’s estimated that worldwide in 2013 around 400,000 people took part in the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. One of the ideas behind NaNoWriMo is to help writers get into a daily writing habit by simply getting a lot of words down, and to that end the project emphasises quantity – an average of 1667 words a day – over quality. Polishing can come later, and while inevitably many of the thousands of novels written as part of the annual event are, let’s say, not very good, excellent work can result.
Novels which began during NaNoWriMo have become bestsellers – titles including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. But note that I wrote, ‘novels which began …’ The finished novels were considerably refined than the first drafts uploaded at the end of various Novembers. If your NanoWriMo novel ultimately proves nothing more than a means of establishing a regular daily writing habit then it will have been an invaluable experience, but if it is to have a chance of commercial publication then November was just the start of a process which will involve additional drafts and editing and proofreading and revision, until the novel is good as it can possibly be.
But if you stuck the course, don’t forget to take time to celebrate. Print out that NaMoWriMo certificate and display it with pride. You did it. You hit the word count and ended up with, however messy, the draft of a novel. Or at least something as long as a novel. Which is to say, you wrote a lot of words very quickly, which is both the achievement, and now, perhaps, something of a problem. The problem being that your great mass of words might be twice as good if it were half as long, because so far it’s essentially all been about quantity.
And so you could be facing the crash which can follow the high of completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. The question looms – I did it, but is it any good? Or was I just fooling myself, wasting my time? Or if you didn’t take part in NaNoWriMo, perhaps you have a first draft of a novel which you finished recently, or some time back, or even years ago, but then didn’t know what to do with, and so have done nothing, being overwhelmed by what you have created, unsure how to proceed.
However you came by your raw manuscript, here I’m going to look at the next steps towards ending up with a polished, finished novel. Some writers will even tell you that what follows is the part they enjoy most. That now free of the initial pressure to get something, anything(!) down on the page, they can cheerfully dive into the process editing and rewriting.
One thing you can now do is enjoy the fact that you no longer have to rush. That you can approach things at a more measured pace. And you can set yourself some sort of timetable. You don’t have to do everything, or indeed, anything, now. Enjoy Christmas and the New Year, then come back to things afresh. But that’s crazy, you might be thinking. I’ve written like mad, and now you tell me to do nothing! I might as well not written in such a frenzy all November!
Well consider the working methods of one of the most successful popular novelists ever, Stephen King.
King is known for writing fast. So fast that he sometimes publishes two or three novels a year, as well as a handful of short stories and smattering of magazine articles, reviews and other pieces. But the fact that King writes quickly does not mean that he produces each book in a hurry. That he just goes from one, finished, to the next. No, what King does, as he explains in his exploration of the novelist’s craft, On Writing, is put each newly finished draft in a draw for months while he works on something else. It might be that only when he has written a complete draft of another book, that he will he return to the earlier manuscript. Then he takes it out of the draw – King always prints out everything as insurance against digital failure, so perhaps you should too – and settles down to read it with the advantage of distance. The time elapsed allows him a degree of detachment, free of the initial buzz of creativity, with which to better assess his work. He can come to his own fictional creations almost as if they had been written by someone else. This distance – and you can see it attested to in the notes King writes in his books, which will often end with the dates the novel was begun and finished, dates which can be as much as four years apart – quite simply allows a writer to see what is wrong with their work, what needs to be improved, and what should be cut. When we have just finished writing we are too close to the work to see it clearly, and will tend to either over-rate or under-rate it. Either conclude that we have written a timeless masterpiece, or something so terrible it should never see the light of day. So allow Christmas to clean your mental pallet, and come back to your work with a manageable timetable for development and a fresh perspective.
Now Stephen King doesn’t, so far as we know, participate in NaNoWriMo; though he did once challenge himself to write a novel in six monthly episodes, and the result became one of his best books, The Green Mile. But King does say that his first drafts tend to be over long, filled with material which on reflection simply isn’t needed. This might be anything from dialogue which doesn’t further either character development or story, because the same points are covered elsewhere, or diversions from the main story which lead nowhere important. Whatever the problems might be, King says that on average he finds he can comfortably cut 20% from his first draft without losing anything significant, and end up with a book which is tighter, more focused and gripping. Cuts can range from individual words or lines, to entire scenes, subplots or characters.
I’m going to suggest that if a seasoned professional like King, with a career spanning five decades, who knows the art of novel writing inside out, still ends up with first drafts from which he can cut 20% and improve things by doing so, then you can cut at least as much from your novel and make it better in the process. And if you wrote your manuscript for NaNoWriMo then the likelihood is that it is far more overly wordy than a more traditionally created work, and that it would likely benefit from even more extensive pruning. Perhaps as much as 50%. Because when we write quickly we have a tendency to write sloppily, throwing in everything with abandon, because we know we can fix it later.
Well later is now (or after Christmas) and we should spend the season of joy and goodwill planning a little homicide. Kill your darlings! (The first draft of this post had a whole paragraph about how this well known saying is generally attributed to the American writer William Faulkner – but I killed it in revision.) In his 1916 book, On The Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
Quiller-Couch meant cut anything – a line of dialogue, a description, a joke – which no matter how good by itself, detracts from the whole; from the characters, the theme, the development of the story. It is advice which stands a century later.
So now you read your manuscript again, as objectively as you can. Don’t be afraid to be impressed by anything which is good. But be ruthlessly critical in seeing what is wrong. Remember, even if you don’t, professional readers, agents and publishers will, and they are far less likely to be kind to you than you are yourself. Be your own worst critic. Don’t leave the job to anyone else. Be prepared to tear your work apart so that you can rebuild it better.
You will probably, especially if you have written your draft in a month, be embarrassed by some of the things you have put on paper, and might determine to cut or revise them right away. But hold a little while longer. Word processors allow the line between writing a draft and the process of continual revision to blur into one homogeneous process, so that in the regular course of things you may never produce discreet drafts. And herein is one of the great advantages of the NaNoWriMo process. You end up with a complete draft, and rough as it will inevitably be, what you have created is a valuable thing. Don’t waste it with instant revision. Remember how perhaps you spent months or years working more conventionally on a novel and never reached the end because your word processor was always as happy to go back and polish what you had already written (and rewritten) as it was to press on until the end, which maybe never came, but receded, like the horizon, forever.
Well you have your first draft. Read it all the way through, and don’t change a thing. You wrote in haste. Now is the time to change tactics and reflect at leisure. As you read make notes, either in a notebook, or perhaps using the ‘comment’ function in Word. But however you do it, make observations about what you have created. What is good, what you really like, and what doesn’t work, and why. Note what might be kept but will need reworking. And as you read, and as you go about daily life, think about what you’ve written, and get to the heart of the matter. Because before you start pruning you need to know what to cut, and to know what to cut you need to know what the book is really about. What is the core, what is the subtext? Whose story is it? What was all the furious creation really about?
Strange as it may seem, it might not even be obvious just what the book is about. Or who. This can be especially true with a novel written quickly, where just to keep the words and plot spinning you might have introduced more characters than are necessary, simply to fill a function in the story. American crime novelist Raymond Chandler said that every time he got stuck he had a man walk through the door with a gun. NaNoWriMo encourages that sort of solution, but it doesn’t always stand in the long run.
All that said, let the manuscript sit, then read, take notes, and work out what it’s all really about, which characters are needed, and which minor characters can be combined, or even replaced by someone quickly looking something up on their phone. Which locations, story elements, lines of dialogue or description, are key to the book, and which are packing, first thoughts about which you now have better ideas. What can be combined and condensed and refined to make a better, more refined, coherent work. Where the contradictions are in the story or the behaviour of the characters. These will need to be resolved.
And then you can set about a ruthless course of genocide on all those darlings. All those bits which seemed so good at the time, but which now make you go what on earth was I thinking? Save your manuscript under a new file name – adding ‘second draft’ will be fine – then work through it with your notes and your newly found insights and remove everything that doesn’t need to be there. This isn’t, yet, the time for polishing the prose; there is no point in expending time and effort something you may change later. For now go ahead and give yourself permission to get rid of things – if you change your mind you can rescue cut material from the first draft. Which is why you retitled your document before starting anew.
A lot of what you cut will probably come in the form of dialogue. Why? Well have you ever listened to the way people talk in real life? Real human beings don’t talk like people in a book. They are not, in the main, as, smart, clever, witty, focused. Literary dialogue generally gives the impression of realism, but actually cuts what is said to the essence. Good dialogue in a novel isn’t littered with all the trivia of everyday conversation, the repetitions, the sentences which simply fade into nothing. The polite niceties which oil the wheels of social intercourse are greatly reduced on the page. Every hello, goodbye and introductory digression about the weather, sport, or Elaine’s new baby are not faithfully transcribed. Yes, all that’s the stuff of life, but it’s not the essence of fiction. And yet, especially if you’ve written a novel in a month to a deadline and word count, that’s exactly the sort of stuff you may well have written by the ream.
Now is the time to hunt it out of your manuscript and get rid of it. Along with all the bits and pieces your rereading tells you are no not needed for the long haul. And when you’ve cut all the obvious deadwood, then you are ready for some serious rewriting from start to finish.
But that’s another story.
A version of this article first appeared in Writing Magazine, the UK’s best-selling magazine for writers