NaNoEdMo Week 1: Giving your novel a workout

I hate to work out. I don’t like being sweaty. I feel ridiculous doing repetitive exercises or lifting weights. Knowing the benefit of these things doesn’t make it any easier to start doing them.

That’s how I feel about starting revision on any project. New ideas are fun for me. It’s simple for me to start writing a first draft if I’ve got something that intrigues me. Most of the time, though, that passion and energy dwindles greatly as I write the draft. Even if I love what I’ve written, it’s hard to commit to returning to it later to face the hard work of revision.

Beginning to revise a novel is a bit like going to a gym for the first time. You may get a quick orientation, but after that, you’re pretty much left wondering where to start, how to even use half the equipment, and feeling like everyone can see your flaws and will be judging your every move. My first reread of anything I’ve written is painful. I find criminally bad grammatical errors, underdeveloped plots and characters, dropped threads, and every other mistake imaginable. It would be far easier to shove it in a drawer and never look upon it again. True, some projects do meet that fate. There are some stories I don’t care to refine, to share with the world. Sometimes the act of creating the story is enough. But most deserve more exploration.

What I’ve learned is that I can motivate myself to do almost anything–even work out–if I see a direct benefit in doing it. It has to connect with me. I found motivation to exercise when I joined roller derby. I hated the drills, the crunches, endurance exercises, the reek of our protective gear (hockey players may be the only others who understand exactly how badly these things stink), and the pain of injuries. I had to do squats to strengthen my legs and core, stretches to develop flexibility. I had to learn how to fall so that if I was hit I could avoid getting run over by other skaters and be able to get back up as quickly as possible. Learning to deliver a hit well is difficult. Whips–a fan favorite–seem simple but take proper timing and execution to be effective, and can cause injuries if done improperly. But I loved skating, and in particular, skating alongside incredible women who hit hard but were fiercely supportive of each other. So I did all these and more, knowing that even if they were really difficult for me, these exercises made me a better derby skater. They also got easier the more I did them

Tackling a revision requires very different tactics than planning and writing a first draft. Just as I never could have just jumped into a derby bout and been successful–quite frankly, I would’ve ended up in the hospital–starting all over from scratch and writing a new draft can’t be the only tactic in getting your novel into a polished form others will want to read (and hopefully spend their hard-earned money to buy). Developing structure, plot, characters, voice all take different strategies. And just like physical exercises, these tactics get easier over time.

It’s hard work to slog through a manuscript, finding its flaws. It’s even harder to cut out parts you may love that just aren’t working. Sometimes you have to play around with the order of scenes. Other times you may need to add characters or give some the boot. And yes, eventually, you’ll need to clean up grammar, spelling, and word choice in order to make the final draft sparkle. Sometimes you’ll mess things up trying to make improvements. Working on improving your novel will improve your craft. Eventually, you may not make the same mistakes you’re making now. You’ll make new ones, of course, but that’s the learning curve for any activity.

If you’ve got a project that needs some liberal use of a red pen to get it into shape, why not join me and many others in participating in National Novel Editing Month? NaNoEdMo takes place each March, and challenges each participant to spend 50 hours during the month editing an existing novel. Check out their community at for more information, and let me know in the comments if you’re participating. I’d love to cheer you on as you work to improve your own project!


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