Congratulations to everyone who took part in NaNoWriMo! Whether you made it to the finish line or not, we probably all have this in common after National Novel Writing Month: we have wobbly manuscripts.
In fact, I have a wobbly manuscript, and I even didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo. This particular Jenga game between my book and me has gone on for three years now. I hope the next revision will be the last, but I can’t focus on the end game. Right now I’m playing around with thigs like which characters should live or die, and what to do with the second half of the book now that I’ve removed an entire point of view.
That’s the thing about being a writer. You don’t just have to “murder your darlings,” as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said (and as countless writers have paraphrased since, because what we do best is steal lines). Sometimes you have to murder the whole town and burn down the houses, too. The secret to being a decent writer is to become a ruthless editor of your own work.
See all of those pretty books lined up on your shelves? They were not born that way. Every page inside those gorgeous covers was most likely tweaked, played with, cried over, and rewritten entirely before that page made it into the final manuscript.
So how, exactly, do you murder your darlings after creating them with such love and excitement? Here are 10 strategies to try:
- Put the book away for at least two weeks. It’s impossible to see your work objectively when you’re in the heat of creation. Give the manuscript time to cool off. Go work on something else, or take up tennis. Then come back to it.
- Jump ahead in the story. One of the most common problems with early drafts is that the story takes too long to get going. Shorten your runway.
- Ditch the research. If you’re writing historical fiction, as I am at the moment, take out as much of the research as you can—it’s probably clogging the story. Put back only what’s necessary.
- Play with point of view. If you chose third person, rewrite the first 50 pages in first person and see what it does for the emotions on the page. If your draft is in first person, try the story in third to see what a broader perspective does for your narrative arc and descriptions.
- Delete flashbacks. Set them aside in a file and then see if you can work in the backstory in another way—in little pieces scattered throughout the book, perhaps, or even worked into the dialogue. Only put in flashbacks that are crucial to the main plot line.
- Check images. Are you using off-the-shelf metaphors, or are they original? Are the images you’re using too much for the story, so that your reader will be distracted by the language?
- Do a scan for adverbs and adjectives. Use only what you need, and try to make them fresh.
- Outline your plot. Review each scene to see if it contributes to the story. If not, jettison it into a separate file and see how the book reads without it.
- Find Beta readers to critique your manuscript. Don’t rely on your best friend. Find other writers to swap manuscripts with, and then see if there is a consensus of opinion on what needs to be revised.
- Start with #1 and repeat.