How to edit a novel for NaNoEdMo

November 20, 2012

I’ve always wanted to take part in NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated it’s where you challenge yourself to write a book over the space of one month. You have to write around 3000 words per day to meet your quota, but at the end of the month you have a pile of words ready to be edited into a novel.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve written two novels and haven’t finished editing them. I don’t need another novel written. In fact, I’ve never really had motivational issues about writing novels. I love doing it. BUT I’ve had to ban myself from writing fiction, because I have two novels that aren’t completely finished, in the ready to boot out the door stick in front of a publisher way. There’s no point in me piling up manuscripts that aren’t going to go anywhere. I don’t want to turn into Miss Havisham in a room full of decaying, spidery manuscripts.

In the effort to finish these enormous projects, I have adapted NaNoWriMo to my own means. NaNoEdMo. National Novel Editing Month. While I thought I was the only person to think of this, there’s actually a group of writers who run NaNoEdMo in March each year. But I can’t wait until March.

The first novel, a YA fantasy book, needed a serious overhaul. The above image is the original first draft, handwritten on reporter’s notepads on public transport. It was the first long form thing I ever wrote. And it was bad. I’m being honest, because it is amazing proof that if you work on your craft for 5 years you will improve. Going back to early writing you will begin to see the blindingly obvious errors. It had tense changes, incorrect grammar and spelling errors. I considered giving up on the book, it needed that much editing. I thought about starting again with something different. BUT I believed and still believe there is a great story at the heart of it. I had to change the tense of the story from third person past to first person present. Fill out a lot of the missing detail. Deal with coherency issues and boring scenes. And it’s so much better. I have forty pages left to edit, and my goal is to finish the changes on the computer by the end of November.

My other novel still needs a serious look over. Since I wrote it I’ve developed more of a voice and understand what I want my writing to be. It’s not going to be edited by the end of November (I’m not superhuman), but I have a pact with myself to finish it before I leave South Korea.

How to edit a novel?

On paper. It’s all well and good to do a read through on the computer screen, but then your eyes begin to bleed from staring at the same passage for too long. Printing your novel allows you to see it differently with fresh eyes. Print it off with wide margins and double spacing, just as you would send your manuscript to a publisher.

With a big notebook. I lay out my manuscript with completed pages on the left, ready to read pages on the right and in the middle a big spiral bound notebook. Why a notebook? Because suddenly you’ll be struck with inspiration as to a) a plot point that solves all your consistency issues b) a descriptive passage that just won’t fit in the margins or c) a doodle of your favourite character. I write down the page number it is referring to in the margins of the notebook and mark on the manuscript with a big star or asterisk where the passage should go.

In my own notational language. Yes, I could do proper editorial markups, but I have my own write up language that only I understand. I use an infinity symbol to show things I need to look up. I use numbers and pointy arrows and crazy cat lady words, but it’s what I understand.

10 pages a day. It’s hard brain work editing a novel. It takes just as much time to edit as write a book. But setting that goal means that I don’t give up early. Some days I’ll do even more because I get on a roll. But it’s too easy to procrastinate when you don’t have a goal. Ohhh… I’ve edited one page, now I think I’ll go eat some cheese.

With dedicated editing time. If I have a lot to do, or I’m feeling like procrastinating, I tell myself I will edit at a certain time. Once that time comes, I stop whatever I’m doing and I do my ten pages. Allow at least an hour for editing.

In a quiet place. It’s okay to have music on while you edit, if you so please, but editing with other people in your face is hard. Editing requires extreme concentration. Not getting distracted by your friend who wants to show you this ultra-cute lolcat. Close the door to your study, kick your significant other out of the house for an hour or go to the library.

With minimal to no internet access. Log out of Facebook, get off twitter and turn off anything that might distract you. The only exception is to fact check things, and even then make a note and leave it until you’ve edited those ten pages.

Some people like to do one structural edit and one proofread. I tend to do both at the same time. A structural edit goes through all the plot points, character development and structure, looking at big picture stuff. Proofreading is the nitpicky grammar and spelling checks. It’s a good idea to do a run through with the word spell check before you edit it on paper.

I’ll end with one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard, from novelist Jon Bauer. He said “The only thing you have control of in the publishing industry is the quality of your manuscript, so make it a kick ass manuscript.”

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