Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1: Let it cook.

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Congratulations NaNoWriMo Winner! You’ve written the world’s greatest novel in thirty days! It is brilliant! Honest!  Perfect!  (Only God is perfect.) Now what?

Whether it took you thirty days or a year to create, whether you’re shopping it out to traditional publishing houses or going indie, you’ll need editing. Even if you’re hiring a team of editors, the more self-editing you can do in advance, the more professional editing will benefit you. So let’s get started.

LET IT COOK. I know you don’t want to hear this, but it has to be said. Put your finished manuscript aside like chili simmering on the back burner, to allow the flavors to mix and develop. Leave the lid on and don’t peek. I know you’re anxious to share it. You’ve seen it and smelled it and tasted it, and it’s good. Your friends are hungry for it. But I promise you, it’s not ready. There’s something missing.

You have to let your novel cook a while. You’ll learn with experience the optimum time for you, but if this is your first novel, I’d say at least a month. Mark your calendar. It feels like you’re doing nothing, but your brain is working. If you try to edit your manuscript before it cooks, you won’t do a good job, because the human brain has a couple of stubborn quirks that you won’t be able to work around.

The first quirk–the one you’ll hear most often and the one you have the most excuses for ignoring–is that once your brain knows what you meant to say, it won’t allow you see what you actually said. This isn’t the most important reason, but it counts. Experienced writers understand that they misspell words, put question marks on statements, use the wrong verb tense, etc., even when they know better. Yet I still hear all the time from my editing clients, “I can’t believe I missed so many silly mistakes.” Letting your work sit undisturbed will help you catch mistakes, because when your brain gets that distance of time, you can better see what you said.

But the big reason for putting your manuscript on the back burner is this. You know how when someone says something rude to you at work, and all you can think of to say is, “I know you are, but what am I?” Then, after you get home and get into the shower, your brain finally decides to provide you with the absolute best comeback ever–what you should have said–five hours too late. Your brain will do its job, but it won’t be rushed.

So get some sunshine and fresh air. Plant a garden. Reconnect with humans in real life. Read. Clean the crud out of your bathtub. While your brain takes a break from actively working on your story, it will, in its own subconsciously brainy way, work out the kinks. You might be brushing your teeth or taking a nap when your brain hits you with an alternate ending that works much better than the one you wrote. Or your brain will create a new subplot that gives your novel richer texture. Or you’ll suddenly realize that you made a timeline error, and how to fix it.

Write these brainy ideas down as they come to you, but don’t open up for rewrites until the time passes. Instead, try to convince your brain that you’re finished with the novel. Only then will your brain provide you with the missing  ingredient: what you should have said.

Do you have a ‘What I Should Have Said’ story?  Ideas to keep your mind off your novel while it’s simmering? I’d love you to share in the comments.

Cartoon elf from publicdomainpicturesdotnet
Illustration by Tanya Hall

As my holiday gift to my readers, if you comment on November 30th, or anytime during the month of December 2015, I will add your name to a drawing. If you comment and also link back to my blog, I’ll put your name in twice. After December, I’ll pick one commenter at random. That commenter wins free copy editing by me, up to 65,000 words ($5 per 1000 words over that). If you’re chosen, but can’t use the prize, you can gift it to someone else (one person), but it has to be scheduled before March 2016 or the offer expires.

UPDATE: This contest is closed. Winner has been notified.

Up next: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 2: Plot Structure


8 Comments on “Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1: Let it cook.

  1. All great advice, Kathy! That’s what I decided to do with my first novel. Let it simmer. Already, many good ideas have surfaced to help me know how to spruce it up.

    • Melissa, you are one of the few writers who sees the importance of this step. But then, you’re a great writer. I don’t think anything in this self-editing series will be new to you, because you’re a true professional. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Hi Kathryn!
    I really liked your post about letting your brain have time to percolate or sommer on something for awhile. Some of the toughest writing challenges, or answers to problems have come to me while I am taking a shower, or when it seems my mind is idle.
    Thanks again for editing our papers! You did such an excellent job! We are still in process getting our dissertations accepted for the research section.
    Have a blessed Christmas!

    • Debbie, you have no idea how many times writers tell me that many of their ideas come to them in the shower. Mine too! It’s a time when we’re not really actively using our brains, so they use the opportunity to work out our problems. We tend to stop the process when we play music, listen to TV, search the internet, while doing mindless tasks, but that quiet time is very beneficial.
      Best wishes on your dissertations and Merry Christmas to you, too!

  3. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 2: Plot Structure | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

  4. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 3: Subplot and Digression | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

  5. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 4: Characters | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

  6. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 5: Timeline | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

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