Back in 2009, I used NaNoWriMo to create the first 20,000 words of what eventually became STONE OF FIRE.
But the words I wrote that month were only the start of the journey. They were first draft words that needed a lot more work to turn into book form. (You can check out the entire journey here.)
In today’s article, Tania Strauss at NY Book Editors gives some tips for the first steps after NaNoWriMo.
If you participated in NaNoWriMo, then first of all, congratulations! You followed through on a major project and are now sitting on a big pile of original pages, with which you can do… something.
So what are the next steps? Well, that kind of depends on what, exactly, that big pile of pages adds up to.
The truth is that unless you’re so practiced in novel writing that the form is programmed into your subconscious, or unless you planned out your project heavily in advance, anything you bang out in a month is likely to be semi-formed — ideas and seeds that could become a novel, but that aren’t quite working on that level.
Sometimes what we think of as a “first draft” of a novel isn’t, in fact, working like a novel yet.
But that’s ok!
Anything that interests you sufficiently to devote a month of time, and tens of thousands of words, likely has a novel hidden in it somewhere.
If you’re trying to figure out what the fruits of your NaNoWriMo labor have yielded and where to go from here, below are some questions to ask yourself:
Is your manuscript about something?
Does it focus on a character, a problem that needs to be solved / goal that needs to be reached, or a governing thematic idea?
Ideally, your manuscript will have the following elements: at least one primary protagonist and several supporting characters; emotional or psychological issues that each central character needs to work through; an external problem that need to be resolved via plotting; and some sort of broader thematic content tying these elements together. If you’ve written a series of scenes or musings that aren’t bound together by a set of central concerns, then what you have likely won’t quite qualify as a novel just yet.
Do your manuscript’s “central concerns” start out in one place and end in another?
In other words, do circumstances change as a result of the events of your narrative, and do your characters also change as a result of the things they experience?
Even if these shifts are very subtle, one of the key elements that defines a story is that it charts a “journey” or has an “arc” – we start in one place (the beginning), and then a bunch of things happen (the middle) that take us to another place (the end).
So with that in mind, do the things that occur in your manuscript serve the purpose of pushing your subject matter from its origin to its conclusion?
Not every single scene or narrative passage needs to be doing so directly – especially in a first draft. But again, part of what makes a novel a novel is that it’s about.
If your content is wandering all over the place and bouncing from one topic to another, rather than consistently pushing your characters and their circumstances from a beginning to an end point, what you have is probably not functioning like a novel.
Is your manuscript long enough to be a novel (let’s say, at least 150 pages)?
If it’s shorter than this it’s probably more along the lines of a short story or a novella, and there’s a good chance it’s that short because you haven’t yet developed enough material to give it the facets and substance of a novel.
Did you answer “yes” to all of the questions above? If so, great! But if the answer to those questions was “no,” or if you’re just not sure, chances are you have a lot of interesting stuff on the page, but it’s not organized or developed into something that would truly qualify as a novel.
So how do you identify the most promising parts of that “interesting stuff” and turn them into a complex, focused work of fiction?
Look at what you’ve written and figure out what is most striking and compelling to you. How can you expand those key elements and ideas into something a bit more, well, novelistic? If you’re not sure how to approach such a comprehensive self-edit, here are some tips to help you take that draft in a new direction:
1) Is there a particular character or central relationship that you find more compelling than the others?
If so, think very hard about what makes that character interesting to you. In particular, think about what they may want or need that they don’t currently have. This can be something external, like money or romance, or something more psychological, such as the desire to live a more fulfilling life, or move on from a traumatic past.
Then think about how to build a plot that will move your protagonist, step by step, towards that goal. Remember, one of the key elements of a story is that the people and circumstances in that story must change.
2) Is there an event in your draft that could have implications much more far-reaching than you initially realized?
It’s not remotely unusual for authors to go back over their early brainstorming efforts and realize that the heart of the story they’re trying to tell is buried in a detail they initially didn’t give much thought.
In your haste to get those November pages written, you may have glossed over a plot point that could have fascinating and complex repercussions. Maybe a character got into a car accident, or lost a sibling, or got a promotion. All these events could be meaty enough to serve as an instigating event or focal point for a novel-length story.
3) Is there a central preoccupation that keeps poking out from the situations you’ve thought up?
Maybe you’ve filled your first draft with scenes of confrontation between a mother and daughter, or with scenarios that illustrate class tensions.
If you find that to be true, there’s probably something you want to say about those issues (mother/daughter relationships, social inequality, etc.) percolating in the back of your mind. So maybe you should consider what, exactly, about those issues interests you and how you could build a story – complete with three-dimensional characters and a focused narrative – that explores this central “theme” you’re interested in.
Once you’ve identified which parts of your NaNoWriMo project actually have the potential to turn into a complex, long-form story (aka, a novel), you can get to work writing that story with a sense of purpose and direction.
I’d love to hear where your manuscript stands. Do you think your NaNoWriMo project is a working first draft of a novel? Or did it spark an idea that will become a fantastic story? Let us know in the comments.
Tania Strauss writes for NY Book Editors, a premiere affiliation of editors with extensive experience from New York’s major publishing houses.
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