It’s been a while since my last blog post, and I’m sorry. But I’m sure you’ll like what I’ve been up to: finishing a novel.
Back in March I talked about Writing a Novel: The Midway Point. Midway wasn’t a bad estimate; I started After Life (yes, we have a title now) last November, and I finished the first draft on the last day of July. Of course, writing a novel isn’t like competing in a race – it’s like a triathlon, and there a few finish lines to make it through. But first thing’s first: let me tell you all about finishing a novel.
Actually finishing a novel: the final push
Oh, it got hard towards the end. Nine months is a long time to stick at anything, let alone writing one story. My routine really helped here – the more I wrote, the more I came to know what my five thousand words a week translated to in terms of narrative. I knew the end couldn’t be far away and I stuck with it, matching the increasing pace of the story with more and more writing. By the end I was fitting in writing where I could; mornings, lunchtimes, evenings. I was desperate to have it done.
Well, I didn’t have the pleasure of writing ‘The End’, but I knew my final sentence as I was writing it, and I hovered for a long second over the full-stop key before shooting it with sniper precision onto the page.
But that was it.
There was no wave of relief, no feeling of triumph or satisfaction. I knew there was more work to be done, so it didn’t really feel like the end at all – just the conclusion of the first phase of that triathlon.
After the monumentality of the moment sunk in though, I did feel pretty proud of myself. I had a few glasses of wine that night to celebrate and committed to the I’ve finished my book Tweet. I knew what finishing a novel felt like.
Some Time Apart
Earlier this year I read On Writing by Stephen King. It’s an incredible book; as gripping as it is informative. Part biography, part tips and instructions, it’s indispensable for writers of any genre. I’ll talk about it a bit later in more depth, but for now I’ll mention that King recommends some time off after finishing your novel.
Shut it away in a desk drawer to age and mellow, he says, for at least six weeks. He likens this to letting your bread dough rest between kneadings.
I’ve always found it useful to get some distance from my stories after I’ve written them, whether they are blog posts I return to after a couple of days or short stories that take a couple of weeks. On Stephen King’s recommendation, I let After Life sit and rise for two months before picking it back up. I wrote a couple of short stories in that time, and put some overdue practice in on my guitar. It was liberating.
Once those two months were up, I ran a spell check on the whole thing, brushing it up but without actually reading it. It was exciting to see little snatches of sentences fly past as I corrected typos. What hit me was the size of thing – 151,000 words. That’s a lot of pages in need of proofreading. More than that though, was a sense that I was flicking through a real book. Not just a short story, or even a novella. This was a real book, full of characters and narratives and descriptions and chapters and action and twists and I had written it.
Preparing to Proofread
I had a manuscript printed with big font and margins, and an acetate cover to protect it from coffee stains. It came to 299 A4 pages. It was weighty.
For a few days, I didn’t touch it. I was waiting for a full day, when I had the house to myself and I could get stuck in and read it. When the day came, I didn’t know where to begin.
What? you might think. From the beginning, obviously.
In the end, that’s exactly where I started. But not before rereading the aforementioned On Writing and taking notes. See, the longest thing I’d proofread at this point was The Witching Hours, and I’d approached that like a short story – going over every word and checking each scene built towards the effect I wanted to achieve. With a full novel, that would be more difficult – it’s harder to maintain that attention to detail over so much book. On Writing gave me a framework on which to build. These are some notes I adapted from that book – I’ll go over them in more depth in another post.
- Omit adverbs unless they provide information that wouldn’t otherwise be there
- Don’t tell a thing if you can show it instead
- Let character’s actions speak for themselves. Don’t explain what they are thinking – their actions should do that for you
- Purge all passive sentences
- Use paragraph form. Topic sentence first, followed by sentences that explain or amplify that topic
- Serve the story – don’t just keep things in there because they’re good
- In real life everyone is their own protagonist – accordingly, every character deserves to be treated as a person in their own right
- But remember: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t interesting. Don’t pad it out
- A second draft is a first draft minus ten per cent
With my notes prepared, and a method of attack set, I got stuck in.
The battlefield: my manuscript. The weapons: a biro, a notepad, some page markers.
It was simple in the end. I started to read, and I made notes as I went along. If I thought a sentence could be fine-tuned, I scribbled little arrows around it. If I thought a chapter was a redundant, I noted that in the margin. When I picked up that I was using a certain word or sentence structure too often, or if I had written contradictory information about a character, I wrote that in my notepad. I didn’t make any changes – not yet – I just read my story. After just shy of a week, I was left with completely annotated manuscript. Not a page was spared.
It was incredible to read what I’d written. It was raw; in need polishing and fine-tuning. But I enjoyed it. I really did. It was a decent enough story, and I thought the voice was good. I liked the words I’d used. A little style-over-substance in places, but that’s why I was redrafting. Finishing a novel felt very rewarding.
What was strange is that I recognised the work as mine, and yet it felt like reading a story from somebody else’s mind. I suppose most of us aren’t used to seeing our thoughts written down like that! All round, I was happy with it. Happy, and proud of myself.
I let that sit for another week or so. Then I pulled up my laptop, got the kettle on, and started to implement those changes.
I found this the hardest part of finishing a novel – not least because I was rereading a book I’d only just finished. It took a lot longer to reread those pages and to amend them than it did to read them and jot notes down – two weeks in all. It was arduous, but it came with a sense of improvement. If the first draft was a lump of roughly-shaped rock, the second was where it started to get carved into shape.
The distance I’d given myself from the book helped no end. There’s no way I could have been as ruthless after just finishing it. I cut and edited and reshaped bits of the book, cutting out about 10,000 words. That’s fine. I want people to like this book and to read it through to the end – not to get bored because of a lack of pace. Shorter books are easier to read, and there’s no sense in padding it out for the sake of it.
At this point I added in chapters, so that I could break down the story into measurable chunks. Not only would it make the book easier to navigate, it also meant I could hone each chapter to be a structured and effective piece of writing in its own right.
With the changes made, it was time to take another big step. It was time to let someone else read it.
Out Into the World
At the time of writing this, I’ve just had my second draft printed. It’s here beside me, and I will be giving it to my first proofreader tonight. I’m hoping that an independent set of eyes will spot things I haven’t in the book – like plot holes and instances of characters acting out of – well – character. I want to know which bits are slow or boring so I can cut them, and which bits make the story what it is, so I can capitalise on them. The fact is, I’ve spent so long in the world of After Life that it’s impossible for me to see it with unbiased eyes, no matter how ruthless I try to be in my editing.
After my first proofreader’s reaction, I’ll make any changes I feel are advisable. I won’t fight any criticism, hard as it may be.
Then I’ll send it out to more readers. I’ll gauge which parts of the story are going well and which need more work. The fact is, I’ve spent so long on this book that I owe it to both the work and myself to make it as good as it can be. However hard it is to go against my initial judgment.
Soon I’ll be the proud author of my first completed novel. I’m so happy to have gotten this far, and to be in throes of actually finishing a novel. Wish me luck for those proofreads – I’ll let you know how it goes!