NaNo is over and now I have to edit all the words I churned out during November. I’m not just agonizing over word choice or fiddling with punctuation. I’m keeping an eye out for specific problems in my writing. I’ve noticed six frequent weaknesses in my work. Maybe you have them too.
1. Passive Voice
For some reason, I write in the passive voice too much to be acceptable. The subject should be doing something instead of just being affected. Passive voice isn’t engaging or interesting while active voice makes for a more exciting, immersive narrative.
(Passive) Jeremy was scared of the skeleton.
(Active) The skeleton scared Jeremy.
Both sentences essentially say the same thing, but you can automatically tell which is better.
2. Overused Words or Phrases
Everyone is guilty of using the same words or phrases over and over. In everyday speech, it’s absolutely fine. No one is going to turn to you and say “Hey buddy, you’ve said ‘so to speak’ in every third sentence and you’re starting to piss me off!”
In a novel, it’s a different story. I’ve found I use ‘almost like’ too much. Like when I’m describing a location. ‘The tower rose into the sky, almost like a needle ready to inject insulin into the diabetic clouds’. ‘Almost like’ is weak writing. It should always definitely be something.
3. Adverbs and Modifiers
Let’s take a look. Which is stronger?
Jeremy walked quickly away from the skeleton.
Jeremy fled from the skeleton.
The first sentence had more words, but that doesn’t mean anything. ‘Fled’ is a stronger, more dynamic word than ‘walked quickly’. It conveys panic and fear. ‘Walk quickly’ is the thing you do when you’re looking for a restroom.
Don’t use more words to build up the verb you chose. Pick a stronger verb.
And don’t say ‘really’ or ‘very’. Find a better word. Instead of ‘very dark’, say ‘black as the uncountable miles between stars’. Or, you know, however dark it was.
I’m trying to wean myself off of using italics to emphasize a certain word in my writing. I don’t need to tell my reader exactly how I want them to interpret a sentence.
For example, I found this in my manuscript:
“Dude, I’m not ancient,” Tom said. “I made it to, like, seventy during my last life.”
I have to have faith that the reader will get it. He’s not ancient. That’s obvious. The stress is not important or needed.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
In my current manuscript, I’ve got a huge, meaty paragraph full of details about two characters’ first meeting when they were in high school. All of it was written in the past tense and it just served to tell the reader about an important event. I needed to show the recollection.
I ended up scrapping the whole paragraph. While reading Stephen King’s It I saw a way to show what happened to a character without just giving a description of it. It’s perfectly okay to write out a memory, throw it in italics (which is okay in this situation; italics aren’t always bad), and use powerful transitions before and after to help guide the reader along the way.
That leads me to my last point:
6. Changing EVERYTHING about Your Writing
I’ve got a bad habit of reading an author and jiving with their writing style. Jiving so hard that I view my own writing as garbage and I read over my work with an unhealthy lens. “I enjoyed their work so hard. My work looks nothing like that. Therefore, my work should look like theirs!”
Don’t be like me. Sure, learn what you can from more experienced writers, but don’t go and completely change your voice. I mentioned reading It and learning a method of showing, not telling, but I’m not going to rewrite my whole manuscript to match that of Stephen King, circa 1986. I noticed all sorts of adverbs being used, as well as dialogue tags other than ‘said’ or ‘asked’. An editor nowadays would suggest a lot of changes in his manuscript. My point is, writing goes through fads, trends, and fashions just like anything else. Writing changes and mutates over the years. Learn the current rules, find your voice, and just keep writing.
Today is November 30th and that means the end of National Novel Writers Month. I'm pleased to say that I'm a winner, coming in at just under 65000 words. I finished my manuscript for Venomous, the sequel to Vessels, and I'm glad to say that it's finally done.
Well, at least the first draft is done. Don’t make me think about the future. I've got a lot of editing to do, but I want to share some takeaways from Nano with you before I look at my work and despair.
I'm one of those first generation Millennials so I can remember a time completely without internet. I never grew up constantly connected and I don't feel compelled to share anything online. I have to make a conscious decision to make any sort of post. So when I joined up with the NaNo group, I felt my heels digging in.
Why are we bothering being in a chat room while we're riding instead of just writing? Why are we constantly talking about our progress? What’s this about plot bunnies?
Being a old fuddy-duddy, I didn't quite get it. After forcing myself to interact in the chat rooms and on Facebook I realized it's not about constantly having an outlet to talk about yourself, it's about having a place to go if you need to talk. If you need encouragement. If you need advice. Or even if you just need to bitch.
Community is a big part of Nano and with that comes pressure. I'm not talking about soul-crushing nerve-wracking pressure that comes from a very risky endeavor or a very dangerous job. Pressure can be a good thing. The pressure that the community of NaNo provides is one of support, cheer, and the desire to be able to stand alongside your peers. Get behind on your word count? You'll work even harder and have a whole group of people cheering you on. The fact they can see how you're slacking is a strong motivator.
In order to not fall behind everybody else you've got to get those words out. Whether you have a full-time job, small children, little babies, or really any adult responsibilities you have to carve out time if you really want to succeed. You are forced to figure out what works for you. Is it waking up early in the morning before work? Is it finally trying dictation? Do you do your best work when you're outside of the house? You have to figure out your routine in order to win.
4. Turning off the Inner Editor
I know other writers struggle with their inner editor. That terrible little voice that constantly questions whether or not that was the right word to use, if that word means what you think it means, should you use a comma instead of a semicolon. It also lets you know what you're writing right now doesn't exactly make sense with what you've previously written. You'd better go back and fix that, it insists. With the heavy time crunch of NaNo you don't have time to listen to that shitty little voice inside your head. You have to learn to ignore it until November is all done and only then can you look back and start editing. But only then.
So I found some good people to write with, embraced the pressure of being in a community, figured out a routine, and managed to throw my inner editor in the garbage. There is one last thing I liked about NaNo and it was the ease of tracking. At the end of each day, you paste what you've written and get your daily word count. Not only does it track your daily goal, but also your goal for NaNo, your daily word count average and how soon you'll be done if you keep it up.
That which gets measured gets done,” is the old saying and even though being prolific doesn't ensure a good manuscript, it helps. George RR Martin is said to only write 300 words a day. His work is good but as a new writer, I can't afford to be like him. I'm still figuring things out. I'm throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks and the fastest way I can do that it's a crank out those words and let the editor sort them out.
So there you have it. The Wonders and Terrors of NaNo. Did I learn a lot from it? I think I did. Will I do it again next year? Maybe not. It depends where I'm at with my projects. But I'm glad I finally tried it.