Did you just stay up until midnight every day in November to wring out 50,000 (or 20,000 or 80,000) words for your NaNoWriMo project? Or are you almost finished with a first draft of a memoir or family history you’ve been sweating over for years? If you wrestled any such beast even remotely near to completion, we hope you’re taking a celebratory lap around your desk and then collapsing for a nice long nap. It’s important to take time to acknowledge that you’re doing something many people think about but few begin—and even fewer finish—you’re writing a book! But then what do you do beyond NaNoWriMo?
In this post we’re going to talk about paths you can take to get to the next big crossroads on the journey toward publication. If you’re in a post-NaNo haze right now, you might be asking: Is my story ready for a professional editor? Well, maybe and maybe not. The answer depends on the kind of editing you’re looking for. You’ll probably want to do a bit more self-editing before taking the plunge, but you may want to get some advice from a developmental or story editor if you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed. Let’s walk through a checklist to help you figure out where you are, and at the end we’ll include a Guide to Editors that should make the journey a little easier.
Give Your Creative Brain Some Time Off
Your mind needs a little rest and recuperation time, so what we Story Grid editors always suggest is that you and your precious pages take a little vacation from each other after the first draft. In On Writing, Stephen King gives the advice you’ll see repeated by lots of other writers: Put that manuscript in a drawer and walk (or run) away! King says that the period of drawer time for a book is a little like letting dough rest between periods of kneading: “Your mind and imagination—two things which are related, but not really the same—have to recycle themselves, at least in regard to this one particular work.”
King suggests six weeks as a good minimum hiatus, and he assumes writers will be working on other projects during that break. But for a lot of first-time and early-career writers, six weeks will feel like too long. Give yourself at least four weeks to do some reading in your favorite genre and to replenish yourself with whatever makes you feel energized and excited about writing again—museums, camping trips, building pillow forts with your kids—that will go a long way toward preparing you for the tough task ahead.
Read a Masterwork in Your Story’s Genre
Did you write an epic fantasy? Read Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind. A thriller with an unreliable narrator? Try Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A history or biography that’s also an adventure story? Pick up River of Doubt by Candice Millard.
Support your public library, and ask a librarian what’s new in your chosen genre. Check the genre and sub-genre lists on Goodreads. The point is to soak in the work of a writer who got it right. Make notes on the most awesome parts. When you’ve finished, read another one.
Read Your Whole Manuscript with Your Editor Brain Fully Engaged
Every writer has an editor brain, but it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, engaged when writing that first draft with your intuitive, creative right brain. Everyone’s first draft is messy and incomplete. Neil Gaiman tells it like it is: “Your first draft doesn’t count.” And as Shawn explains in The Story Grid book, the editor’s “left brain makes the artist’s right brain work.”
When you’re ready to move beyond NaNoWriMo, take a deep breath and open your manuscript. It’s time to apply the Story Grid principles in a methodical, left-brain way by looking for the characteristics of a ripe and ready story and noting where yours is weak. As you begin to analyze that first draft, you have lots of tools available to help in the articles and podcast transcripts available here on the Story Grid site.
Read the manuscript through a couple of times, ask yourself the following questions. As you answer them, prepare a fresh Foolscap Global Story Grid. Even if you started planning your story with an initial Foolscap outline, take out a blank document and do it again. You’ll be able to see how your global story changed during the process of writing. More important, if you can’t clearly define one or more of the elements on the Foolscap, you’ll know where you’ve got problems with your Global Story.
The Foolscap Building Blocks
Do You Have a Solid Understanding of Your Story’s Genre and Sub-Genre?
Everything comes down to genre. Without understanding genre, you’re adrift on a restless sea with no destination in sight. Genre is your guiding star, your lodestone on the journey to becoming a better writer.
Genre tells your reader what to expect.
Understanding genre will make your work as a writer a lot easier. Committing to a genre for your story will save you a lot of disappointment and rewriting as you move beyond NaNoWriMo.
What external and/or internal values are at stake and how do they turn in each part of the story? You don’t have to have both an external and internal genre, but that should be a conscious choice. For example, Andy Weir’s The Martian is an Action story featuring a Man Against Nature sub-genre and virtually no character arc for the lonely protagonist, Mark Watley. Weir doesn’t need an Internal genre because the heart of this exciting story is Mark’s brilliant use of science and engineering to overcome impossible odds and survive.
Once you’re sure of your genre and sub-genre, consider whether you have included the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions that readers will expect. Shawn does a great rundown of Weir’s fulfillment of those scenes and conventions in his Foolscap for The Martian and on the podcast.
You can read Shawn’s in-depth article on genre types and see examples of representative masterworks here.
Is Your Point of View Consistent?
Do you head-hop from character to character within a scene? Is your chosen POV right for the story? In her recent blog post, Story Grid editor Kimberly Kessler stresses that a writer must make an active choice about the story’s point of view. Take a look at stories in your chosen genre to see whether they use first-person, third-person omniscient, free indirect, or another POV.
The use of first-person POV and present tense is a popular YA choice that builds a sense of immediacy and immersion, but limits the narrative to only what the POV character experiences. Suzanne Collins chose it to tell The Hunger Games entirely from Katniss’s point of view, and that worked beautifully to help readers empathize with the character’s inner struggles.
Third person omniscient is a challenging choice that makes use of an external narrator, but can lead a novice writer into inadvertent head-hopping. Brian Davis has written a post for Scribophile that dives deep into the advantages and pitfalls of third person omniscient POV.
Free indirect style is a form of third person limited POV that removes the narrative barrier between the character and the reader. It’s often used in current fiction. Shawn looks at Thomas Harris’s use of free indirect style in his classic Thriller, Silence of the Lambs.
Second-person POV is more common in nonfiction than fiction. Margaret Atwood is a contemporary writer who has used second-person in some of her shorter works, but it is a device best left to a seasoned or experimental writer.
For detailed descriptions of the four major types of point of view, read Joe Bunting’s article at The Write Practice. Selecting your story’s POV is a critical decision. Whatever narrative voice you’ve chosen, be sure it remains steady throughout your draft.
Have You Developed Both Your Protagonist and Antagonist?
Do you understand your protagonist’s and antagonist’s objects of desire? Is your protagonist a believable character that readers want to engage with? Does he or she follow a clear arc or Hero’s Journey? Is your antagonist as strong and three-dimensional as your protagonist?
In many ways, your antagonist is the heart of your story.
Opposition provides the conflict necessary for your protagonist to make choices, thereby revealing their true nature. Actions always speak louder than words. Your protagonist will be known by their responses to conflict, and it’s the adversary that forces those choices and invokes change. Steven Pressfield has written insightful articles exploring the nature of a top-notch villain here and here.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. An antagonist can be environmental or social forces in opposition to the protagonist’s goals, not merely an individual villain standing in their way. Katniss Everdeen confronts an unjust social order in The Hunger Games, as does Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Cancer is the deadly threat in The Fault in Our Stars. The Martian pits astronaut Mark Watney against a lethal environment; in Cujo, it’s a dog.
The antagonist should be every bit as as well-developed as your main character. If you could flip things around and make your Big Bad the main character, would their goals and needs be strong enough to drive the story?
What makes Cujo more than just a monster? A rabid dog is, on the surface, a simple adversary, arguably small stakes and even cliché. But Stephen King stabs us in the heart by showing us throughout the story that Cujo was a Good Dog acting under forces beyond his control, not a simple monster after all.
What makes your antagonist different from Sauron or Hannibal Lecter or President Snow? What makes them more than a two-dimensional cliché? Can your reader understand what compels the antagonist forward in opposition to the hero, in pursuit of their own desires? That’s what makes a strong antagonist.
Do You Obey the Global Five Commandments?
Do you see clear turning points in each section—beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff— of your manuscript? Don’t worry about individual scenes at this stage, but do consider whether you’ve obeyed the Global Five Commandments, with a strong inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution in the story as a whole and in each section.
In the first Fundamental Fridays post, editor Lori Puma provided a helpful explanation of the components of global storytelling, and for anyone having trouble understanding how to sharpen a crisis so that it really resonates, Sophie Thomas’s article on hooking readers with a great crisis is a must-read.
If you’re still feeling unsure about elements of your story, step back and compare it with a story that you know works well.
Choose a masterwork, pick it apart, and then let it inspire you to sharpen your inciting incident, make your complications deeper, or create a more satisfying climax and resolution.
The classic film Casablanca is currently showing on big screens in celebration of its 75th anniversary. The performances are brilliant, of course, and keep audiences riveted even if we know exactly how all the plot twists turn out. The stakes couldn’t be higher in terms of the love triangle, Rick’s redemption arc, and the larger action story about a freedom fighter’s escape from the Nazis. For writers, the film provides beautiful lessons in each of the Five Commandments. The handing off and hiding of a letter of transit from Peter Lorre’s Ugarte to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine is one of the cleverest inciting incidents in movie history. But the film’s lessons in progressive complications are even better, as we gradually see all the major and minor characters engage in progressively more defiant actions against Major Strasser and the Third Reich, culminating in a climax that includes (spoilers!) Strasser’s death, the freedom fighter’s escape, and the surprise redemption of not one, but two heroes. Talk about a master class!
Has a Theme or Controlling Idea Emerged?
Theme is so closely linked to genre that in some genre types, the controlling idea is already there. Shawn and Tim discuss theme in depth in the aptly titled podcast Musings on Theme.
You might have had an idea about theme before you began writing, but more often a theme reveals itself when you, as a self-editor, look more critically at your global story and genre conventions. Or it may take someone else’s eyes to see your theme; Shawn describes just this situation while working with Steven Pressfield on Gates of Fire.
Pressfield has several invaluable posts about wrestling with questions of theme on his own website. In one post, he talks about the emergence of theme from our unconscious, saying, “We don’t pick our theme. Our theme picks us.” And in another he examines the difference between a subject and a theme in a work of art: “The subject of the Jurassic Park movies is dinosaurs. The theme is, ‘Don’t mess with Mother Nature.’”
If your theme is elusive at this point, don’t sweat it. Set it aside for a while. It will come—maybe in conversations with a friend or an editor.
Find an Outside Reader and Consider a Developmental Editor
After you’ve gone back to your first draft with your editor’s mind engaged, you’ve applied the fundamentals of the Story Grid method to your novel or nonfiction project, Shawn Coyne’s Five Commandments are etched forever on your immortal soul, and when you’ve removed the cringeworthy stereotypes, the cliché outcomes, and the purple prose (You have read the whole thing out loud to yourself, haven’t you?), you’re almost there.
If you haven’t done it already, make sure to have an outside reader look at your manuscript. It can be your favorite beta reader or your supportive writers group, but you really should have at least one other person read your manuscript before you take the plunge and hire an editor. (Hint: Relatives don’t always make the best beta readers. Seriously.)
If you’d like someone to help you take your rough ideas or a messy first NaNo draft through the stages we described above or have already self-edited your manuscript to the point of a pretty good second or third draft, it may be time for a fresh critique from a story expert. In either case, you’ll want to consider working with a developmental editor. If you decide the answer is no for now, revisit the idea in six months. Investing in expert advice early on can save you a few drafts and several gray hairs, so it’s worth it. Take a look at our Guide to Editors for more information. Or visit the Story Grid Editing Services page, if you’re ready to take the plunge.
Working with a developmental editor can make the difference between an adequate story and one that truly works or even hits the top of its genre. It takes commitment and hard work, but no matter how you decide to proceed, keep writing! If you’ve gotten this far in the process, you’ve already demonstrated you’ve got what it takes to be a better writer.