We’re at the final stretch now, with only three days left in this insane month of novel-writing!

If you’re on target for NaNoWriMo, then you should have 46,666 words by the end of the day. If you’re like me and fell behind at some point in the month, you may have a little (or a lot) less than that target word count. I’m sitting at 26,589 as I write this, and to be perfectly honest, I’m okay with that. I’ve never won NaNoWriMo, not in all the years I’ve attempted it, but this year, I got further than ever before, so even if I don’t “win”, I have 26,000 words I didn’t have at the beginning of this month, a solid foundation of a first act to stake the rest of my book on. And now that December is approaching, I’m looking at the very real, very hard work I’m going to be putting in over the next few months to finish the book.

So, for the rest of you… what now?

If you’re on target to win (or you’ve won already), then congratulations! Whether your draft is finished, or you’re only halfway through the story in your head, 50,000 words in a month is no small feat. You deserve to celebrate. Crack open the champagne. Binge all the movies and TV shows you sacrificed over the course of November. Take a well-earned break.

If you’re behind like I am, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: it’s okay. It doesn’t matter that you won’t reach 50,000 words by the end of the month. Some people—*raises hand*—can’t keep up with the daily 1667 word pace, but that doesn’t make you any less of a writer. I’m a traditionally published novelist, and not being able to write 50,000 words in a month never held me back. So, no matter how many words you ended up writing, whether it was 49 words or 49,999, you attempted something extraordinary, and whether you stumbled on the way, scrapped your idea and started over in the last week, or just plain gave up on “winning” this month… You. Are. Still. A. Writer. The very act of sitting down to write makes it so. Don’t let falling short of the goal of NaNoWriMo get in the way of that, because at the end of the month, you committed to writing something, and that is what really matters.

And when it comes down to it, NaNoWriMo is just the beginning. 50,000 raw words does not a novel make, so, whether you are set to win this month or not, there’s a lot of work ahead to take the words you’ve written this month and turn them into a fully-fledged novel.

So here’s what you can do next:

1. Finish. That. Draft.

Get to the end of the story. Whether that means you need to write 50,000 words or 150,000 words, write that idea that you started at the beginning of this month to completion. Don’t stop until you get to the end. Finishing is the hardest part.

2. Put it away for a while.

Just because you’ve finished the story doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication. First drafts generally suck. Sorry, but it’s a 99% provable fact. Anyone who writes perfect first drafts is actually an alien-built robot disguised as a human and it’s really not fair that they get it easier than the rest of us. Put the story away for a while. Take a few weeks off. Watch TV. Read books. Play video games. Get outside. Enjoy the holidays. Whatever it takes to get your mind off of the book. You’ll need some good objective distance from it before you move on to the next step.

3. Edit that motherf**ker.

This is where it gets fun err… really really hard. Editing is hard work. There is no way around that. But it is an unavoidable part of the process if you want to turn your raw first draft into something worth publishing. So, now it’s time to take that draft that you put away for a few weeks (or a few months), and read it beginning to end. Tip: print it out in an easily readable font, double-spaced, with a really wide right-margin. Read it with a pen in hand. Mark things as you go. Avoid focusing only on spelling errors and word choice. You want to dig deep, look at the big picture, take a hard look at your characters, your plot, your setting, and see where things could be improved. Mark where your characters’ choices don’t make sense, where they act out of character, where they’re merely pushing the plot forward because you needed to hit your word count that day, where they disappear for half of the book and then suddenly come back. Make note of plot holes – “Wait, where the hell did this guy come from?” “How did they get to the other side of the desert so fast?” “How did the villain suddenly get this information?” Make sure that each scene stands on its own, that each one moves the story forward on multiple fronts (I wrote a guest post about this here). You want to check for inconsistencies in character, a beginning, middle, and end to your story, steady forward momentum, gaping holes in the plot arc, things that don’t make sense, the story moving too fast or too slow, repetitive dialogue or action, anything that might be missing. Read it like you would a published novel and figure out where it falls short.

4. Revise. Revise. Revise.

Take those editing notes and rework your story as many times as it takes until you feel confident that it is the absolute best you can make it. This could mean one extra draft. It could mean five extra drafts. It depends on the story. Some are more difficult than others. And when you think it’s ready to publish…

5. Send it to some beta-readers.

Beta-readers are your novel’s test-group. You want to reach out to people who read vigorously in your genre, who are familiar with the genre’s current tropes and expectations, and who will provide honest, critical feedback. This is important. You want to make sure that your novel is on the right track, that it will fall nicely into the genre you are aiming for without being a duplicate of another novel. Beta-readers are there to point out things you may have missed or not considered. They are there to help you improve your novel to the best it can be. Find beta-readers you trust to give you constructive feedback and who genuinely want to help you succeed. Some people are dicks in the name of being “blunt” and “honest”. Be wary of using them as beta-readers.

6. Revise based on beta-reader feedback.

Listen to your beta-readers’ concerns. If multiple readers mark something as needing more work, pay close attention to that. If someone offers advice on how exactly to fix an issue, consider whether their advice jives with your vision for the story. If you agree with the change, go for it. If you don’t think their advice is the right way to go for that particular character or scene, then think of your own way to fix the underlying issue. You don’t have to listen to your beta-readers on every single issue, but do consider why they may have pointed out a problem. You can always ask follow up questions if you need to.

7. Polish and Submit.

If you intend to self-publish, hire an editor to help you refine your story to its best self. Whether you need a content editor or a copy-editor is up to you and the quality of your beta-readers and your story, but at the very least, make sure someone other than you proofreads your novel before you publish. Spelling and grammar mistakes are the bane of the self-published author.

If you intend to submit to agents and publishers, you don’t need to hire an editor to help you refine the story since that is something your agent and eventual publishing house will help you with, but you do need to make sure that your story is polished to the best of your ability and proofread for mistakes. Follow the agent or editor’s submission guidelines to the letter and only send what material they request.

Hopefully, by the time you reach the end of the list, you’ll have a published novel or a book deal. Good luck!

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