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How to Run a D.I.Y. Writer's Retreat - Lisa Tiffin

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ongratulations! You took part in November’s National Novel Writing Month and committed endless hours to your manuscript within a mere thirty-day span. As NaNoWriMo Founder and Program Director Chris Baty says, “The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else. When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it's a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month.”

Now it’s January. Those dishes are done, along with most of that clearance-sale Christmas candy. Your manuscript languishes somewhere in your word processing program. Even though there are a few plot holes the size of semi-trucks, a stereotypical character or two or twelve, and enough typos to make your computer groan for five minutes as the document loads, you still have hope, or at least, blissful ignorance. Where do you go from here? 

I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo since 2002, and it’s been my experience that the editing process is far more challenging than the mad scramble to write during November. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Keep your eyes on the prize—whether that’s traditional publication or a self-published book to distribute amongst friends—and take small, yet steady, steps towards that goal.

Is the novel complete?

Look at your word count. Whether you achieved 9,000 words or surpassed 50,000 in November, you’re probably not done. Most novels for adults average in word count from 80,000 to 100,000 words. Young adult novels can range from 30,000 to 60,000 words. If you intend to find a traditional publisher, word count is the key—not the number of pages. However, this is a rough draft. Just make sure you got the basic story out; you can fill in the holes later during revisions. Keep a rough word goal in mind, or you may end up with a 300,000-word tome that makes editors and literary agents weep.

If you ran out of story too soon, that’s okay. A novella or flash fiction story can be revised and submitted to markets or distributed online. Don’t think you’re a failure just because you didn’t make that 50k goal. The point of NaNoWriMo is to make people write. If you committed even one hundred words to paper or screen, that’s more than you had when November started.   

Yes, the rough draft is complete. Now what?

Save the file on your computer. E-mail it to yourself. Burn it to a disc or copy it to a thumb drive. Have a back-up chip surgically implanted in your frontal lobe. In other words, don’t trust your computer for one instant. All it takes is one brilliant Blue Screen of Death, and your words vanish into the ether forever.

Okay, all your back-ups made? Now, don’t look at your file for two weeks. Maybe a month. Personally, I regard this as the marinating of the manuscript, like a fine steak in a nice blend of sauce and spice. If the words are too fresh in your mind, you’ll read what you expect to read. By giving yourself some time and distance, you can approach your novel with a fresh perspective and then proceed to tear it to shreds.

Support and the solitary writer

It used to be said that writers existed in isolation. Now, with the Internet at our fingertips, that’s no longer true. There are plenty of places where writers can find support—the trick is to pry ourselves away from those venues so we can do other things like, well, write. While your manuscript is marinating, take time to network and find support.

If you relied on the NaNoWriMo forums during November, you’ll be pleased that the forums stay open when the site meets fundraising goals for the year. Other options include Absolute Write and the Writer’s Digest Community.

Genre writers should consider professional organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. If you don’t qualify for membership yet, make that a goal.

Never forget the power of Google and other search engines. Look at your genre and your specific focus. Whether you’re writing about superheroes or anthropomorphic animals (or anthropomorphic superheroes), odds are that a forum or blog exists to support that interest. If it doesn’t, take the initiative and build your own support network from scratch.

How to edit

There are five ways to hone your editing skills:
1. Edit your own work.
2. Have others edit your stories.
3. Edit other people’s work.
4. Read literature about editing.
5. Read. Anything. Everything.

Editing takes practice and possibly a prescription for anti-depressants. Basic editing and revision involves catching typos and undoing all of the dirty little tricks that bolster word count during NaNoWriMo, such as avoiding contractions and giving all of your characters four middle names that are used every single time your character speaks or does anything. (“Mary Ann Roberts McDowell Sanchez, please leave your brother Chuck Rutabaga Lowell Sanchez the Third alone!”)

Draft after draft

There’s no way to predict how many times you’ll read your manuscript or endure full revisions, but don’t expect to catch everything in one pass. It’s like plucking lint off a pair of corduroy pants. Every time you think you’ve got it all, another tuft appears to taunt you, then another.

Set specific goals for each draft. The first time I read through, it’s merely to reacquaint myself with the story. I may correct minor typos, but I don’t do any major editing. Instead, I take notes about plot holes, inconsistent characters or spellings, or elements I need to research further. If you use Microsoft Word, utilize the balloon comments feature within the document. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with jotting down notes longhand.

Be sure to number your drafts and save them all separately; that way, if you ever want to measure your progress or recover deleted material, you can open an older version of the file and find what you need.

Just be warned—reading your manuscript for the first time is like expecting an adorable puppy and discovering he has green polka-dots and excess body parts. You love the puppy dearly, but you’re a bit self-conscious about taking him out in public.

The good news is that given time and effort, your story can become a thing of beauty. The bad news is that this involves time and effort.

The dilemma of deleting

The delete button is your friend. It’s that friend who always tells it like it is, even when it hurts. If the delete button tells you that gorgeous paragraph of description is really a free-loading hulk that stops your story dead in its tracks, listen. Don’t focus on the fact that you spent three hours straight, perfecting those five sentences. Follow your gut instinct. Dump that freeloader and move on with your life.

If you have any niggling doubts about a sentence, it either needs to be rewritten or deleted. There’s no such thing as, “It’s okay,” if you’re aiming for public viewing or publication. Make it shine, or make it go away.

Staying motivated

If you worked well within November because of the strict deadline, this is where self-discipline is vital. Set daily, weekly, or monthly goals. Some days, you may only get through a single paragraph or page. That’s okay. Progress is progress.

If you meet your goal, reward yourself—just like you’d reward a kid who had good grades on his report card. Get that expensive coffee, eat that cookie, or play that computer game you’ve been craving all day. Go on. You’ve earned it.

Consider the source

After editing for months and spending hours reading agent blogs and industry books, you’re finally ready to send out those query letters. But wait—who else has read your novel? Friends, family? Unless they’re at your same writing level or published themselves, accept their praise with caution.

A writer needs feedback from other writers; and to achieve that, you must make yourself vulnerable to criticism. Sure, you don’t have to agree with everything you’re told, but always listen. If you detect a theme in their complaints, follow through and fix your story.

Remember that one way to hone your revision skills: editing other people’s work. You’ll realize a lot of people make the same writing errors that you do. Plus, it gives you necessary perspective for when you receive your own harsh critiques. It’s not easy to inform a stranger that her beloved novel is a polka-dotted freak with three extra noses. Be tactful but honest.

Critique groups

If you want to meet and critique with fellow writers face-to-face, check out the bulletin boards at your local bookstore and college or use databases such as or your region’s section on the NaNoWriMo forums. If there aren’t any convenient organizations, investigate these sites to find the right online match for your needs.

For science fiction and fantasy writers:
- Critters

Any genre:
- Critique Circle
- Scribophile

Useful books on editing

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King uses published literature and bad examples to demonstrate problem writing and how to fix it. It’s like a school workbook without any patronization, letting you learn from other people’s mistakes and recognize your own story’s flaws.

The Mind of Your Story: Discover What Drives Your Fiction by Lisa Lenard-Cook is nitty-gritty in a different way, drawing on the concept of the right brain as the creative and the left brain as the logical editor. Together, those warring brain hemispheres tap a writer’s intuition and form a cohesive novel.

Read, revise and learn

I’ve had a few critiques that have left me sobbing in despair of ever making it as a writer; but in the end, I dried my tears and dragged my carcass back to the keyboard. Somewhere in the midst of wallowing self-pity, I realized that I had a choice. I could remain blissfully ignorant and push onward with a project that was too flawed to succeed; or I could hear the painful truth, start over from scratch, and make my novel the best it could be.

Improve or remain in stasis. What choice will you make?

Everything comes down to that one word: improvement. Read within your preferred genre and beyond—both old masters and new. Absorb techniques and descriptions, and cultivate your own distinct voice. There are no failures, only setbacks. Even if your NaNoWriMo manuscript is never published, every hour of effort transforms you into a better writer, word by word. Revel in what you’ve accomplished!

And if you’re game for more writing and editing practice, remember—there’s always next November and another 50,000 word challenge.


Beth Cato resides in Buckeye, Arizona with her husband and son.  Her work has appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Niteblade Fantasy and Horror Magazine, Crossed Genres, and the books The Ultimate Cat Lover, Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Cat, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: True Love. Her story, “And Yet Stars Still Existed,” has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Information regarding her current projects can always be found at her website.


Want more tips for manuscript revision? Check out these articles on WOW!:

Manuscript Revision: How To Diagnose Your Novel's Strengths and Weaknesses
Self-Editing for the Flabby Writer
Common Story Mistakes
Backstory: Relevant Information or an Inconsequential Event?
Adding 10,000 Words...Without Panicking
Phrases We Need to Find and Kill

Want more on NaNoWriMo? Read this article from Susanne Pitner: NaNoWriMo Applied

Looking for more articles on fiction writing? Check out these articles on WOW!:

Novel Writing Methods:
Novel Writing: Choosing a Method that Works Best for You
Outlining Vs. Blank Page
Twisting an Old Plot into a Fresh Idea

An Exercise in Various Beginnings

Character Trait Chart
How To Choose Character Names for Your Novel
Character Trouble? Try Man's Best Friend
Bringing Your Characters to Life
Men Behaving Badly: When Heroes Act Unheroic
Building Believable Characters

Breathing Life Into Dialogue
Fiction Slam: Preparing to Tell Lies & Tips for Making Dialogue Stronger

Point of View:
Should You Write in First or Third Person?
Deep Point of View

Fiction Tips for Crafting Comedic Scenes
Fattening Your Scenes
Sex Scenes

Description etc.:
Senses: Finding Physical Stimulants
Show Don't Tell
Easing Exposition Into a Story
Dramatic Irony

Specific Genres:
Navigating the Fantastic: Rules for Writing Fantasy
5 Historical Pitfalls and How To Avoid Them
Manifest Magic: Exploring Magic Realism
Breaking Out of the Mystery/Thriller Slush Pile
How To Find the Perfect Horror Fit for You
Romantic Views: Romancing the Genre & The Secret Life of a Christian Writer
How To Break All the Romance Rules and Still Have a Hot Novel
How To Write a Picture Book
YA Voice: Do You Hear it?
How To Write for Teens


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