We’ve launched the “Now What?” months in January and February to focus on editing, revision, and publishing! Today, Adam Wilson, an editor at Gallery and Pocket Books, shares his five steps for perfecting your NaNo-novel. For more about the authors, agents, and editors on deck, check out our Introducing the “Now What?” Months page.
Hello writer-marathoners! Recently, I saw someone joking that now that NaNoWriMo has drawn to a close, perhaps NaNoEdMo is on the horizon. Or even possibly NaNoSubmitYourBookYo is what’s next. (Copyeditor’s note: We like to think the “Now What?” Months are a little catchier!)
For some of you, yes, you’ve been plugging away at your keyboard with an eye toward launching a writing career and, clearly, super-fame. Some of you just wanted to see if this whole American Novel thing could be done by a mere mortal. And yet more of you are still buzzing so hard on caffeine that you should probably just wait a bit, take a nap, and read this later. I, however, was given a deadline. So, ready or not, here are my 5 Things I Think All NaNoWriMo Conquerors Should Know/Do/Whatever.
1. Give yourself a pat on the back
You did what this month—a book? Seriously? Whoa. I’ve known a lot of writers, and I wouldn’t wish that workout on anyone. Think about it—in the history of the world, less than .01% of people even try to write a book. Did I just make that up? Yes. But if feels right, yes it does. And I’m just going to double-down and say that the percentage of people who have actually completed a book is even lower. (A copyeditor will catch my math mistake if I’m wrong. Oh, and that’s a good bit of advice for down the road: copyeditors.)
But, really, you should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished. When’s the last time you said fifty- or sixty- or seventy-thousand words about anything, let alone a coherent narrative with characters and worlds and intrigue and things you just made up out of your own slushy brain matter? At parties, you will be able to honestly answer the question, “Hey, have you ever written a book?” with the not-lie “Why, yes. Yes I have.” So take a moment and think about the audacious thing you’ve done. A novel of one’s own. Crazy. Congrats! Having done this is something you will never forget, and something nobody can ever take away from you.
2. Take a break after your first draft
Okay, after the adrenalized whirlwind of November, this is going to be my most difficult-to-follow piece of advice. Most of you will have ignored it. You might think “that’s so twentieth-century and non-smartphone.” But, really, truly, you need to have taken a break from what you’ve written. Let it breathe like a fine wine, or a bad wine. One will get better with oxygenation; the other won’t be in any worse shape than it already is.
3. Read something outside of your beloved genre
Since you’re clearly following my advice and not obsessively counting adverbs and wondering about comma-placement in The Creation right now, how about you read something? And how about you don’t read the same genre you always do, the one that you just finished contributing to. Reading the same genre is very likely to make you want to rework The Creation to be exactly like whatever published book you pick up—because Published equals Success, right?—and what’s the point in that?
If you’re a hard sci-fi writer, go for some David Foster Wallace, or that memoir about that one woman who did that one amazing thing. If you’re wearing your “Jonathan Lethem is #1” T-shirt right now, try some sweet romance, or erotica, or even a bunch of technical journals. Seriously, you never know where your next great idea is going to come from, or what’s going to make you go, “Hmmm.” And the whole genre- or literary-snobbishness thing? So pointless. You won’t lose anything for having tried. You won’t be dumber; you won’t be more elitist. The other ‘type’ of book you don’t normally read won’t ‘win’ or something foolish. Which leads to…
4. Writing is not a zero-sum game
Okay, there are a million people with a million strategies for how to achieve bestseller-dom. Some people are making a lot of money the old-fashioned way, and others go the e-fashioned way. And there’s always someone portending doom or crying foul about whatever platform or business strategy they happen to have just read an article about online. There are always people ready to question the legitimacy of something someone else has written. I’m not here to try to convince you of any particular strategy or argument. What I am here to do is say one thing: The writer next to you is not your enemy. (At least not for this. If one of them offs your ant collection, that is not a nice person. Do not talk to them.)
Yeah, I know. It feels bad when someone whose work you don’t personally value gets all the attention. We’d all like the world to play to our preferences, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to. I’m not sure anyone’s ever gotten 100% of what they wanted. (Copyeditor?) (CE: Confirmed via office poll. Science!)
The point is: your fellow writers aren’t your enemies, or even necessarily your competitors. Just because Writer A gets a book contract, it does not mean that Writer B is losing out on one. Just because Self-Pubber A has a ton of success with their e-novel, it doesn’t follow that Self-Pubber B is forever screwed. The market is fickle, cannot ultimately be predicted, and rotates her favors all the time.
But you know what that means? It means your turn might be next. No one style or writer ever dominates completely—ever. Sure, series like Fifty Shades or Harry Potter come along and get a lot of attention, but other books are being sold and read and appreciated at the same time as those. One book’s success is not damning for the next. Likewise with writers.
5. Passage Relocation Program
You’ve all heard “Kill your darlings,” and I guarantee you’ll have some really, really cheesy things come out of that fountain pen o’ yours. Things you’ll looooooooove. (Hello Adam, make sure you never forget Poem #28 to your secret high school crush, “I.X.R. B.N.T.”) So yeah, some things will clearly have to go.
However, I’ve always hated this “darlings” phrase—because however will you know when you’ve done something that you both love and is actually really worthwhile for the story? I guarantee you that Shakespeare didn’t kill all his darlings. In truth, you really should like some of the stuff that you come up with. That’s partly how you discover your writerly voice. It’s partly how you separate the wheat from the chaff.
For my money (i.e. time), I think that the best thing to do when reviewing any element in a book is to change the evaluation question from “Is this one of those ‘darlings’ I’m supposed to fear and gather the pitchforks for?” to “Does this element belong here?” See how less cable-news-talking-head the question becomes? Changing the approach changes the result.
As an editor, I’ve been faced with books that come in at 90,000 words and need to get down to 60,000 or so for various reasons. And sometimes even the 30,000 words you have to cut were good ones. However, just because you cut something out of this book doesn’t mean that you can’t use it later in another piece.
The two best methods, IMHO, for determining if something belongs in a specific work are:
- Reading your work again and again and again and again so you’re desensitized to it, and can learn what works and what doesn’t. (Doing this over time is much, much better, and less madness-inducing.)
- Getting someone else to read The Creation. Yes, this means sharing what you’ve done. There is simply no better way to see how your book’s operating than for someone else to tell you how they are experiencing it.
Now what this means is that you will write more than you use. But so what? If it’s that good, you’ll find a use for it down the line. (And no, I don’t mean just publishing everything you’ve ever done online—if you want people to pay attention to you as a writer, you have to respect their time as a reader in equal measure.)
Lastly, if rhetoric allowed me to have six tidbits instead of five, Point #6 would be this: laugh and have fun with all of this. Writing is a terribly tough, amorphous task. If you don’t laugh as you enact your journey, you’ll laugh at the end of it, all alone somewhere deep, deep inside of a padded room.
Adam Wilson joined Gallery and Pocket in 2011 as an editor, having previously worked at MIRA and Harlequin Teen. Raised in Colorado, he defected to Seattle, but somehow ended up in New York, where he reads for a living and places foremost importance on authorial voice. He recently acquired Lynn Viehl’s Disenchanted & Co. series for Pocket Star—her Creation from a NaNoWriMo excursion a few years back. Follow him online @AdamDetritus and check out the Pocket After Dark community site. (Sorry, agented queries only.)
Headshot courtesy of Gallery Books. Top photo courtesy of Flickr user dtelegraph.