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Post NaNo Revisions: The Agents' Perspective

You've already heard a bit about post-Nano revisions and the importance of holding off on querying that rough (but wonderful!) Nano draft. Here to give you more insight, encouragement and advice as you dive into the next phase of crafting your fabulous new novel are six fantastic agents, each well-versed in the after-effects of Nano. They're here to give tips on polishing plot, adding to and finishing the rough draft, fleshing out your characters and who you should send your story to first (hint: not them).

 Jill Corcoran, Herman Agency: twitter: @jillcorcoran

ACTIVATE YOUR STORY. Don’t start by describing what is going on. Don’t start by having your main character ‘think’ about/tell us about all that is happening in their life. Don’t start with shot from a gun, waking from a bad dream, dialog of people fighting, random thoughts from your character that does not activate your plot and bring the character and the reader into the character’s world. Don’t write a passive, telling, descriptive beginning.

START YOUR STORY. Show your character in his world, interacting with other characters that give us a glimpse into who your character is, what problem is he facing and why this problem means something to him, and to us the reader.

 Amy Boggs, Donald Maass Agency, twitter: @notjustanyboggs

Five Tips for Revising Post-Nano:

1. *Mortal Combat voice* Finish it! Unless you're writing MG or short contemporary YA, you'd be hard-pressed to consider 50k novel-length, and even more hard-pressed to sell it. If it is that short, really go over the plot to determine if it's complex enough and find ways you can complicate things to make the ending even sweeter.
 2. Set that sucker aside for a while. It's good to have some time away before revising, especially after such a quick first draft. This allows your subconscious to mull things over and discover in ways you can't when you're knee-deep in the manuscript.
 3. Is the beginning *really* the beginning? This is an especially good question to ask for pantsers. When starting a manuscript, there is lots of time for exploration and spending pages getting to know who your characters are and how the world of their story works. But often that is TMI for the reader. You might want to know if the protagonists brushes their teeth in the shower, but the reader doesn't. See what you can cut from the beginning.
 4. Question your gut. When the goal is to put words on the page as fast as you can, the instinct can be to go with whatever pops first to mind. However, what often pops to mind is what is familiar, what we have seen in other books. And suddenly, without even realizing it, you find yourself writing cliches. This is the time to tear those apart.
 5. Analyze your microplots. Break your manuscript up by its chapters or scenes and ask yourself these questions: What does the protagonist want in this scene? Do they get it? How does getting it or not getting it complicate things? If you can't answer these questions, then there better be a good reason beyond, "That's just the way it happens."

Natalie Lakosil, Bradford Literary Agency, twitter: @Natalie_Lakosil:

"As an agent, let me step back now and say: revision is not a checklist you can power through."

Read more advice from Natalie's revisions post at her blog:

Ponder, Polish, Perfect

Lara Perkins, Andrea Brown Agency, twitter: @lara_perkins: 

Take a step back and think about your characters. A round, relatable, unique main character is key to grabbing and holding a reader's interest. Surround that main character with memorable and interesting allies and enemies... and now you have something exciting.

Begin with your first chapter. Ask yourself if a reader will care about your main character by the end of the first chapter. Note that "care" doesn't necessarily mean "like." Your main character can be prickly, but a reader needs to be invested in your main character right off the bat. A reader needs to see something redeeming and sympathetic in even the baddest, angriest main character. This is arguably the most important job of your first chapter.

As you move through the rest of your manuscript, ask yourself: Do my characters have interesting and relatable goals in which a reader can invest? Will a reader understand WHY my characters have these goals? Is their motivation clear? Are the obstacles that keep my characters from achieving their goals believable and interesting? If not, it might be hard to identify with your characters. No one wants to read a story about a girl who gives up on her dream of going to Harvard because she misplaced her application. The obstacles need to be significant enough that the reader, as well as the character, will struggle to see a way around them.

Are my characters unique and differentiated from one another--in the way they speak, in the way they act, in the choices they make, in their goals/hopes/dreams/fears? Even in the same situation, your characters should react differently. There should never be any doubt about who said what, because each character's voice should be distinct. Do my characters change throughout the story? Do they each have true character arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends? If they don't change, why not? Am I passionate about my characters? If you're not excited about your characters, then it will be hard for your reader to be excited about them. If you adore your characters, if they crack you up, if they break your heart, if they inspire you, then chances are your readers will love them, too.

Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Larson Pomoda Agency, twitter: @BookaliciousPam:

Let someone beside your mother read it. It is her job to tell you that you are a special snowflake. I know that is what I would tell my children. Find a beta reader and critique partner in your Nano friends. Help each other make those manuscripts shine like diamonds.

Gordon Warnock, Andrea Hurst Literary Management, twitter: @gordonwarnock

I often think of Erin Morgenstern, whose debut novel, The Night Circus, was the most hyped book at BEA last year. It had sold in over 20 countries and had a movie deal with the same company that made Twilight before the book was even out. There were whispers of it hopefully being the successor to Harry Potter, and it started as a NaNo novel. She recently tweeted, “There should be the word ‘Draft’ somewhere in NaNoWriMo. You do not have a novel in December. You have a draft.”

This is true, and after being so immersed in drafting your novel, you’re likely too close to it to have any objectivity. You may have heard of the writer who will tack her pages up on a wall, go on the other side of the room, and then read them through binoculars. I’m not saying try this, but you do have to put some distance, and yes, some time in between creation and final judgment of quality. I personally think January should be NaNoReMo, in that everyone should, after taking some time to cool off, go back and revise November’s vomit draft.

Fortunately, when you go to revise, you don’t have to go it alone. If you don’t already have access to a critique group, form one. It doesn’t have to be with writers in your immediate area. You can connect and meet online via social media, email or Skype. The right group can provide you with objective feedback while cracking the whip to keep you revising on a regular basis.

Also, you should be reading heavily in your genre to make sure you are adhering to certain expected conventions. You don’t know how often I receive a “YA” submission with a 12 year old protagonist who sounds like they’re 40. Read actively and notice devices that the authors use to create tension and intrigue, introduce characters, foster sympathy, etc.

Essentially, believe in your abilities, but also take full advantage of your resources. Meet people and then use them for their opinions. Read books and then use them for their techniques. And then thank everyone in your acknowledgements.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. This is fantastic advice, not just for fresh NaNo WIPs but for any new (or currently in revision) WIPs. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oo, this is a goldmine of good advice! Thanks so much!

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  4. Great advice from industry insiders! I definitely need some time off from my Nano novel. NaNoReMo in January sounds like a great idea.

  5. this is very helpful! I'm still trying to finish my NaNo novel, but this is definitely stuff to keep in mind!

  6. I didn't participate in NaNo, but I think this advice holds true for any novel. Thanks for sharing.


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Item Reviewed: Post NaNo Revisions: The Agents' Perspective Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook