Even if you made 50,000 words and finished NaNoWriMo, your novel isn't finished yet. You knew this already, right? You know what the haters say: that NaNoWriMo unleashes thousands of terrible novels into the world. It's as if some evil force were holding those poor people captive, forcing them to read every cliched phrase that comes in front of their eyeballs. It's as if they have no taste.
But, of course, the little secret of NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't unleash terrible novels into the world. It releases terrible first drafts into the world. It's an order of magnitude more ridiculous to be scared of first drafts than it is to be scared of novels so the haters round up to make themselves look anything other than silly (to be clear: they are silly. There is no sustainable argument against people doing NaNoWriMo if they choose to).
Ignore those posturing sourpusses. Remember this: not every novelist will be great, but every great novelist started out writing poorly. While the haters complain and don't write their novels, you'll be working on yours to make it better. While the haters yammer on to anybody who will listen about how publishing is failing, you'll be working on your novel. While the haters are apoplectic about that new famous writer who is a terrible prose stylist but selling millions, you'll be working on your novel. And when you publish, they'll turn up at your book release party and tell you how much they admire you, and how they can't can't believe you did it, where did you find the time? And you'll just smile.
If you finished your draft during NaNoWriMo: Nice work! You deserve the good feelings you have. You really did accomplish something notable, and proved to yourself that you could write a novel. Now: put it away in a cupboard for a month or two. Set an alarm, maybe for February, for when to take it out again. Believe it or not, you'll forget more than you can imagine about this book.
If you didn't finish your draft during NaNoWriMo: Heed these words: there is a big difference between not-finishing and failing. You have not failed, you just didn't finish one goal. It's okay to not make a goal, but if you still want to write, let's set some other goals that work better for your life. You already have a start! How many words did you write? Any movement forward is a net positive.
Now here's what you need to do now: write every day, but slow down. Walter Mosley, in his great book This Year You Write Your Novel, talks about staying in the "dream" of your story. He says that you need to write every day to keep that dream alive, and I agree. Set your pace lower — 500 words, 250 words if you must — but make some progress every day. Free yourself from that 50,000 word number, and focus on the smaller daily reach. Then, stop when the book is done, not when you reach a some arbitrary internet month number. Stop when you feel right about closing all the loose ends. Then put the book in a drawer for a few months to clear your head.
Now that you have a first draft done, you need to know how to finish it. The best advice I ever got on this was from Maria Semple, during a class at Hugo House (You should take a class at Hugo House if you are in Seattle. It is an invaluable resource for writers. Perhaps, he humbly offers, this one). She outlined her strategy for drafting, something that always confounded me before she offered this very smart framework. It saved me from myself, and enabled me to finish my novel.
So, what is a draft? It is one pass through your manuscript, from front-to-back. Each draft has a different goal to it. Maybe you will find that you prefer yours to be different than what is offered here, but creating a framework, and sticking to it, offers the kind of constraint that allows you to be productive. Give hers a try, then tweak as needed for your own needs.
You've already done it, right? That was what NaNoWriMo was for. Your first draft is shitty and stupid. Getting it done was your main task. Semple said "A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel. A bad novel can be improved. Not writing a novel is to lose the war without a battle."
So, good for you, you got it finished! Now put it in a drawer and wait a few months. You need the time to let the story slip from your head. You have to wait until you're just a bit excited to read it again. There will be an itch, a wonder, that inhabits you after a bit of time. You will start thinking about your novel. It will start filling in the cracks of time in your life. This is the time to approach the second draft.
Print it out. Find an armchair. Perhaps, rent yourself a hotel room. Somewhere you will not be interrupted, and can sit inside the world you've created. Put your computer away. Sit with a pen, and read.
The pen is for quick marks only — you are not editing here, you are reading and making marks when things stand out to you. Limit them to just a few, such as:
This is the only time in writing your novel that you will be able to experience it like a reader will. Do not take notes. Or, rather, only take very short notes in margins. Trust yourself, that if you think of something brilliant, it will stay with you. You will remember.
Something amazing will happen here: the themes will start to emerge. You probably won't even really know what they are until now. That's because you need to read the book to find out what it's really about. If you see a theme pop up, write it in the margin quickly. Just one word — "Flowers", say, or "ink", or "boats" — if you can.
The second draft is the longest draft. You are implementing the questions and issues from the marks you took. Think of it like a knot — one of Maria's favored images — in the first draft you took string and put it on the table in a very loose shape. Now you are correcting the lay of it so that it will work when, in later drafts, you pull it tighter.
Fix those big issues, punch up the themes. Work through the whole book from front-to-back, and when you are done, you have finished the second draft.
Now you pump up the details. You make it authentic. You know how writers always advise to not do too much research too early? To not fact-check yourself as you're writing, because that can be a black hole of time when you should be writing? Now is when you do it. Now is the time to revel in it.
Answer all the questions. Read that book about foot binding. Look up if that car model was introduced the year your book was set, or the year after. Google the best-seller list from when your protagonist was nine, so you know that she can be reading the book you said she was. Find out if the Lilac Vegetal your villain wears is more floral or more woody. And my favorite: use Wolfram Alpha to research the weather on the days you set your book, if, like mine was, they're in the past. Use Google Ngram viewer to find out if that term you think is anachronistic was actually in use at the time.
Maria never lets anybody read her work before finishing the third draft, and I think that's smart. No agents, no friends, no partners. This is when you share your work. But of course, you are not done yet. You've only pulled the knot tighter.
The fourth draft is all about theme. In your second draft you wrote them down, and so you were more aware of them. But how can you draw them out? Without making them on-the-nose, how can you bring them to life? How can they color a scene? What little metaphors can you tuck in corners where close readers will find them, little puzzles to unwrap?
Those are the jobs of the fourth draft. Extend the intellectual life of your book. Pull the knot tighter still.
Now you're into line editing. You loop, and loop, and loop. Infuse it with life. Kill cliches. Replace vagaries with specifics. Read the work out loud to yourself to find the clunky passages. Every time you go through is one draft. Keep going until the things you change start making the work worse, rather than better. Keep going until you can't pull the knot any tighter.
There is no set time for how long this should take. NaNoWriMo, in one way, is a glorious lie. It's a brain trick to get you to make a first draft, and now that you've done that, you see what's ahead. You see what novelists go through to bring a work into the world, and if you want to join their ranks, now you have a fundamental understanding of how to get there.
We can't wait to read your book. Make sure to send us a copy when it's long-last in print, okay?