How to edit a novel: use the NaNoWriMo model

Written a little something? A NaNoWriMo novel, peut-etre? Want to edit it? Learn to pound like a faithful hound. Oh, and start a dog too – a blog, I mean


Sometimes doing the dogwork gives space for the creativity to come © Laura Eades 2013

I’m no authority, I’m just like you. I wrote a novel in November 2012. I aim to be finished editing by February 2014. (Ready to have someone kind read it). I’ve edited as I wrote, in an improvised fashion, with puppyish enthusiasm. Here’s what I’ve learned about the editing process.

1. Do it in month-long stints, with deadlines

I’ve found I work best by using the NaNoWriMo model of having an intense writing month with lots of rewards, penalties, and a progress chart (logging my hours spent editing). This works because, once you’re dealing with the huge mass of your novel, you’ll be surprised how often you forget what you wrote or decided to alter last month. So an intense period allows you to cut out the recap time. Then you can step back for a bit and sort out your neglected email or enjoy visitors. I didn’t come back to it until the following January.

2. Don’t put everything else on hold

But I also wanted to see if I could write intensely without becoming a snack-and-caffeine monster. I wanted to see if the creative process was sustainable. And it was:  I also found pairing an intense month with another habit I wanted to kick or foster worked really well. For example, I lost weight during one of my writing months, by using concentration on my novel to pull me away from snacking. I was rigid, using a timer to keep myself to study sessions, and working to a strict timetable.

3. Enjoy the technical challenges

The architecture of the novel – the plot, and how it’s distributed over the different chapters – has taken a lot of my time. If your plot ideas arrived organically this might also apply to you. So I’ve allowed myself huge swathes of planning. Technical stuff has basically been three little processes.

  • First, plotting. All the little scenes written on index cards, sifting though extraneous plot-lines. I discovered that I had three novels! I chose one. Separating things out was important. Then I transferred what I’d done onto a big chart, with columns for different storylines and rows for chapters. I could see then if a storyline or theme was being neglected for several chapters.
  • Second, some character planning. A timeline of the protagonist’s life. Dates. Checking they had sufficient motivation, and putting in the backstory to justify that motivation. This meant writing a whole storyline in, practically. I’ve referred to these charts a lot.
  • Thirdly, combing through for loose ends. I’ve done this process twice. Tethering loose ends is not quick. Getting a plot that really really adds up is quite a big challenge. Each time I’ve had about 15-20 loose ends: main characters who aren’t mentioned for several chapters; an almost motiveless character… this kind of kaper. Each time, I’ve worked out what I needed to do and written it into the chapter headers. Then I’ve worked my way through, shoehorning in the right bits of info into the right chapters. It’s dogwork – but it’s good to do dogwork sometimes. It makes you feel that you’re being rigorous. It allows inspiration to come down. And it lets you off the hook – you can’t be in full flow all the time.

4. Let the creativity take care of itself

Interior design – the creative part – I’ve had a couple of great bursts on this. But I think they’ve really happened when I’ve been working on things consistently over several weeks. Do the dogwork, and you’ll get days of creative abundance without really trying.

5. Get pregnant

I don’t really mean that, of course. I’d hate to be responsible for new life on earth just because you need a kick up the bum. I just mean: Have a deadline! A really serious, unavoidable one! Tell yourself you’ll leave your job. Move country. Book a big trip.

I love my novel, but I also like the idea of moving on from it. Inevitably when you’re doing a big big task like this, other appealing (and seemingly easier-to-accomplish) things start popping into your mind. This is a curse of the creative, multipotentialite person you probably are. It’s a very productive kind of procrastination: Perhaps you have a great business idea? Perhaps you’d really like to get back into drawing? Perhaps you really need to start a blog? (This blog is a shining example of productive procrastination). If you have a deadline, you can say to yourself: yes. When I’ve finished the novel in February, then I can move on to this other thing that’s been beckoning.

ps. But do start a blog, though

Go on. Should you? Probably. The pros: writing a novel is a long wait before anyone gets to see your writing. With a blog you can launch your bits and bobs of writing, and get some instant response – it helps take the edge off being a hermit. The cons: making a really successful blog and building readership takes time and effort promoting your blogposts on social networks. Writing blogposts takes up time you could be writing your novel. So don’t spend too long on it. But it is worth doing.

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More about NaNoWriMo and novelling:

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Know about editing? Want to read my novel? Got any tips to add? I’d love to hear from you. Click on the grey dot under the blogpost to open the comments section.