The Editing Process

Some notes on how I am editing my nanowrimo draft so far.

I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to try not to completely abandon the novel I wrote in November.

This experiment has failed every year since 2010. NaNoWriMo drafts from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016 languish more-or-less in exactly the same state they were in on December 1st. Drafts from 2010 and 2011 have been edited a lot, but remain woefully unsuitable for submission.

But this time I have a plan. Well, a first step in a plan, at least, which is better than I’ve ever done before.

My first goal is to go through the entire draft and highlight sections of text based on certain criteria. Here is an image of the actual Scrivener project I am working on above demonstrating this highlighting. (I blurred up the text because it is too embarrassing to show the world.)

First I went through the text and highlighted every paragraph which contained backstory of events that happened prior to the story, or exposition about the world and setting. I highlighted those sections in blue. There was a lot of it, but I was pleased to see that it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

There was a strong correlation between the days that I didn’t feel like I knew what to write and the days where I highlighted a lot of backstory in blue.

This process went very quickly, and I completed going over the entire project in about an hour.

Some backstory will be necessary of course, but I want to make sure it is in the right strategic places. The first chapter, for example, is not a great place for large swaths of backstory. The movie version of my novel will not start with a black screen and a bunch of text explaining everything you need to know before you can enjoy the movie, like so, so many movies do. (And video games, for that matter.) Instead, hopefully, it will begin with likeable characters doing something intrinsically interesting. I personally give movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime about a minute or two before I decide whether to keep watching or not, so I am trying to keep that in mind when I write my novel. Readers will give me a page or two at best, so I can’t junk it up with pointless backstory. (Not even counting agents and editors, who might give me a *sentence* or two.)

During this first pass, I also marked up any sections where I “broke the fourth wall” just to get filler words into the draft. I used the “strikethrough” text format for that.

In my second pass through my draft, I am working to highlight all of the text which sounds like “telling, not showing” in red. (Red for “danger,” get it?)

This is a fairly subjective measure. It’s easy for me to tell the difference between backstory and current story, but this is taking a lot longer and requires more judgment calls. I have only completed highlighting the first eight days over the course of a couple of hours.

I am looking specifically for any text that basically just states outright what a character is thinking or feeling. “Dejena thought that was dumb.” Things like that. Again, it is largely impossible to eliminate “telling” entirely, but once I have all of the passages highlighted, I’ll be able to evaluate each one to see if it works as is, or if it needs to be fixed.

In a third pass, if I ever get to it, I want to highlight descriptions in green. I don’t expect to see very much of this, because when I write my first drafts, I very rarely describe anything or anyone. For one thing, the appearance of the characters has little or no bearing on the story, so who cares? And secondly, it tends to bog me down in distracting details. It’s very easy to fall down a rabbit hole for hours or days trying to figure out what a personal communication device might look like in five or ten thousand years.

So that’s what I’m working on.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Post-Mortem

Notes on what I did well and not-so-well after completing NaNoWriMo 2017.

Hi! I’m finally back with another writing update. I completed NaNoWriMo again this year, and here’s my assessment of my performance.

Summary

This year’s novel is code-named “Survey.”

It’s a science fiction/fantasy set many thousands of years in the future, in a time after a long war between humans and aliens has finally resulted in a treaty.

A human captain leads a ship on a mission to survey a planet, where a lost colony had once been established thousands of years before. They find a struggling pre-Industrial human society, and alien ships in orbit.

The captain’s ship is shot down, and an alien plot that leads to the brink of war unfolds.

What I Did Well

First I like to highlight what I did well, so I remember to do them in the future.

Workmanlike Effort

I’ll be perfectly honest. At no point during the writing of this draft did I feel particularly inspired or excited about this novel. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like it has potential, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

What I’m trying to say is that I was never driven by a “muse” or “divine inspiration” or a “need to tell this story” or a “personal connection to the characters” or anything like that. Every day I had to force myself to continue writing, because I wanted to give up on it pretty much every single day.

This was a very valuable experience.

Minimal “filler words”

During the gamified NaNoWriMo event, where the focus is on quantity, not quality, there’s a very strong temptation to just put *anything* into your NaNoWriMo draft. This is a fairly well-known, joked-about phenomenon. I call them “filler words.” They might be ideas for another story you’re thinking of, the weather, “I don’t know what to write” over and over, the complete works of Monty Python, things like that.

My personal favorite filler material is breaking the fourth wall to have the characters talk about the story they are involved in, or brainstorming notes about what to write next.

This very blog post could conceivably be used as “filler words” for my draft. I am starting this post on Day 30 with 48,407 draft words completed, instead of writing words to finish up my draft.

But this year, I’ve added very few filler words. I counted only three days that included “filler” content, and I kept it relatively focused on brainstorming for this particular story. I didn’t ever venture into discussing the weather, for example. (The weather was chilly for most of November, incidentally.)

That means that for 27 out of the 30 days of the event, even though I never really felt like I quite knew what to write next, I buckled down and figured out what was appropriate to write for the story.

I finished the story

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once, you probably know that you can’t write what would be considered a novel today in 50,000 words. My personal target for a debut novel is 90,000 words. I’ve read repeatedly that 80-90k words is roughly the point where publishers are willing to “take a chance” on a new writer. They aren’t likely to publish a debut author’s 200,000 epic fantasy, in other words. Get a few successful books out first, then we’ll talk.

(Incidentally, I still consider traditional publishing the best route for me to follow in my writing career. While it would be relatively easy to self-publish, and in fact I *have* self-published a book on Amazon, I just don’t have the mettle to deal with marketing.)

Getting back to the point, there’s a strong temptation to simply stop writing at 50,000 words on Day 30, even though one knows quite well the story isn’t over yet. For me in particular, once the month is over, I really don’t want to write any more. The “special event” is over, and there’s no more social motivation to continue writing. One has to go back to internal motivation and self-discipline, which is what we in the writing biz call “work.”

In the past, I have ended drafts unfinished. Last year, in fact, when I got to 50,000 words of my historical fiction, I felt like I had only completed perhaps one of three parts in the overall story.

But this year I determined that I would complete the story. I knew I could not write the 90,000 words required to tell it fully in November, but I knew that if I did not at least summarize the end of the story, I would never get back to it.

So over approximately the last five days, I stopped trying to “show, not tell” and reverted strictly to telling. This allowed me to dilate huge swaths of time down to paragraphs, and resolve most of the plot threads that I had started earlier. Later, I will be able to come back and expand those paragraphs out into chapters, instead of scratching my head wondering how to finish an unfinished manuscript.

What I Did Poorly

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a post-mortem unless I had criticisms of my performance.

Procrastination

I procrastinated a *lot* during November. I had plenty of time for writing, but I did not use it wisely. I could have easily written 100,000 words or more in November, if I had really set my mind to it. On good writing days it was easy to achieve 2,500 words. Pushing further to 3,000 or 3,500 would not have been difficult with some discipline.

Grammar

I don’t think the quality of this year’s writing is very good. It will require a lot of editing.

It’s not unusual for my first drafts to be poor, because I am more focused on getting down the ideas in my head before they fly away, but I think it was worse than usual this year.

Improving the quality of my first drafts is a point that I want to work on, because I don’t enjoy the revision process as much as the writing process. Once I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s less of a creative process and more of a crafting process. (Not to say that there isn’t a lot of art in grammar, it’s just that I am not particularly good at the more literary styles of writing.) I think of it like sculpting: Chiseling and filing away at the words and sentences until they look right.

If I can improve the quality of my first drafts, it will make the revision process that much faster. I don’t really know how to get better at it except to keep practicing.