I often hear from people who want to write a book but don’t know how or where to begin. Or from people who have already written a book that’s ready for publication but don’t know how to get it published. I recently began a new blog series, Writing and Publishing Tips From Authors Around the World, to help writers.
The nineteenth contributor is U.K. author Yvonne Marjot and she’s here to talk about what happens after you finish writing a novel.
Before it begins, or, what to do between finishing your novel and publishing it, by Yvonne Marjot
Writing’s wonderful, isn’t it? You love the moments when time flies past your flashing fingers on the keys, and a thousand words pours out of you onto the paper, and it’s just how you thought it would be. You hate the times when getting a sentence out is like wringing blood from a stone, and you only manage fifty words, and when you read them back they are all wrong.
Regardless, you resent the time you have to spend away from the book – earning money to pay the rent, feeding the kids, keeping the boss happy, mowing the lawn – and you keep putting the book away, and telling yourself you’re not really a writer, and you have more important things to do with your time. But somehow, no matter how you rationalise things, you find yourself coming back to the writing, again and again.
And then, one day, it’s finished. If you’re not there yet – have faith. Writing’s an addiction. If you’ve really caught it, you’ll finish. Never doubt it.
That’s where the journey really begins.
I’ve read some great first drafts. Books where the whole arc of the story is there, the characters are believable, and I tell the author that if I saw their book in the bookstore I’d buy it without hesitation. I’ve also read a lot of really dire works, where I can see what the writer is trying to say but it’s not very clearly put, or the writing’s repetitious and samey, or the spelling and grammar’s bad. But even the best of them weren’t ready to go out into the world yet.
Your first draft’s your baby. Okay, you know it’s not perfect, but it’s the very best you can do. Giving birth to it exhausted you. There’s nothing you’d like better than to have it accepted by the first agent you approach, and get it off your hands. It doesn’t work that way.
Take some time. Put it back under the bed (or away in your documents folder) and do something else. Take the kids to the beach, climb that mountain you were promising yourself, go to a concert or get your hair done. You deserve it. You’ve worked hard, and the work was good. When you come back to your writing, you’ll be fresh and ready to start again.
Because, make no mistake, this is the hard work. If you’re lucky, and pick up an agent and an editor early on, they will tell you these things, but you don’t need to wait. You can start this work on your own, and if you intend to self-publish you’ll have to. I’m going to write a list here. Some people love lists – gives you something to cross off, makes you feel you’re making progress. Others hate them. Me? I’m an inveterate list maker. Even if I can’t work on a project, it cheers me up to think I’ve wrestled it into a list, because that means I’m in control. Here’s some of the stuff you need to do:
1. Read it out loud to yourself. Yep, every word, if you can bear it. At least, you must read all dialogue aloud. Only then will you hear whether it sounds right, or has become stilted or old-fashioned under your pen. Remember that dialogue doesn’t have to obey rules of grammar, or correct speech, or any other constraints that we think should control our writing. Your characters can say what they like – go ahead and let ‘em. Just make sure it sounds convincing when you hear it.
2. Write a synopsis. Hateful things, synopses – how can you distill the vast scope of your vision into half a page of text? Ridiculous. Do it. You’ll have to do it before submitting to agents, so do it now. It will help you to define what are the essential aspects of your work. There are lots of good websites that can help you to do this – you can download a synopsis question-list or template, or just read up on how other authors do it. (At this point, if you’re really confident in your work, you can start to submit the synopsis and initial chapters to potential agents and publishers. That’s a whole new journey, and I’m not going to address it here.)
3. At this stage in the proceedings, you do need to read. While you’re writing, courses and self-help books are of limited use, other than as an effective way to avoid getting on with the writing. But once you’re finished, you need to read up on how other people have dealt with the problems you are now facing – how to get the book into a saleable state, and how to go about selling it. Never stop reading – it’s always the best use of your time (unless there’s a writing deadline looming!)
4. Actually, write two synopses. Write the distilled-essence-of-book, to refine your own understanding of your work and to encourage others to read it. Also write a chronological description – a timeline – which sets out every major event and twist as it unfolds.
5. Read your book again, with the timeline synopsis beside you. Do all the events unfold as they happen? Are there flashbacks or jumps into the future? Do they work? Can they be better? A common writing style is to begin the book with a glimpse of the climax, or some interesting event which occurs much later in the book. Then you go back to the beginning and tell your story, having caught the reader’s interest. I’m partial myself to books that begin gradually and release their secrets slowly, but there’s no doubt they are harder to sell. The modern reader wants an immediate fix, and sometimes we must bow to our readers’ requirements. If necessary, change the order in which you tell the story – sometimes you need to jump ahead, and then flashback to fill in the gaps, rather than plod steadily forward in one direction.
6. Run a full spelling and grammar check. You may choose variant spellings or “incorrect” grammar – but you must know that you’re doing this and be prepared to justify your choice. Mistakes have to be rectified. No agent/editor will bother to go past the first page of your submission if these basic tasks haven’t been done. Watch out especially for words that sneak past your spellcheck program. One of my favourites is discreet/discrete. The first means “secret, concealed, subtle”, the second “separate, individual, singular”. This is also a good time to do ‘find and replace’ on words such as there/their/they’re or it/it’s.
7. Read it again. Try to spot if there are any common words or clichés that you use frequently. Use the ‘find and replace’ function to pick them out, and amend or vary them. For instance, I have the bad habit of using the word ‘just’ far too often – “the post box was just down the road but she was just too tired to walk that far so she just didn’t bother.” (I could remove all three instances of the word in that sentence and it wouldn’t alter the meaning at all). It’s not bad to use adverbs and adjectives, but again I’d recommend that you use them sparingly. Starting a chapter with “It was one of those long, hot, slow summer afternoons when all you wanted was to lie on the grass and eat ice cream,” is not so bad. “The tall, thin, white-faced vampire eyed me with a blood-chilling, predatory glare,” not so good. “My blood chilled under the predatory stare of the vampire,” is much more immediate. You could even leave out ‘predatory’. We all know our vampire shorthand – if it stares at you, it thinks you’re prey, whether the author tells you so or not.
8. Look at how you write. Are all your sentences long and complex, cramming in as much information as possible before finally, and only when absolutely necessary, agreeing to that final punctuation mark? Cut some of the sentences into two. Mix up long and short ones – break up the tedious rhythm of endless phrases and clauses. Is your writing brusque and abrupt? Short sentences, each much the same? Practice mingling some of your short sentences into longer ones. Appreciate the value of variation.
9. More reading. Read some writers you admire – or would like to emulate. See how they lay out their work, the ways in which they use long and short sentences, description and dialogue, clarity and obfuscation.
10. Pick out a chapter or event in your book and have a go at rewriting the whole thing, taking into account what you’ve learned from reading all those other authors. It might give you ideas to improve your work as a whole, or you may even decide you need to rewrite your novel from the beginning. My first novel went through three complete rewrites, including a change from the third person to the first, before I was happy with it. Then my editor got hold of it. Cue lots more change. A university thesis or scientific paper will be rewritten tens of times before it’s ready to be submitted to a scientific publisher or magazine. We need to lavish the same care and attention on our fiction. It deserves only our best.
11. What do you think is still needed? By this point, you haven’t just given birth to this creation – you know it, inside out and back to front. Still think it says what you need it to say? Are your characters happy that you’ve told their story just how they want you to? Have you managed to find any beta readers? (Beta readers are friends, family or strangers who agree to read your book and critique it. Their job isn’t to tell you how to write – it’s to tell you whether they understood and felt and realised what you wanted them to. In other words, whether you did your job.)
If your answer to all these questions is yes, then you’re ready. Get your work out there, self-published or off to agents. It’s ready for your readers.
Good luck and fair sailing.
Yvonne Marjot was born in England, grew up in New Zealand, and now lives on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. She has a Masters in Botany from Victoria University of Wellington, and a keen interest in the interface between the natural and human worlds. She has always made up stories and poems, and once won a case of port in a poetry competition (New Zealand Listener, May 1996). In 2012 she won the Britwriters Award for poetry, and her first volume of poetry, The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.
Her archaeological romances The Calgary Chessman and The Book of Lismore are published by Crooked Cat Publishing.
She has worked in schools, libraries and university labs, has been a pre-school crèche worker and a farm labourer, cleaned penthouse apartments and worked as amanuensis to an eminent Botanist. She currently has a day job (in the local school) and teenage children, and would continue to write even if no-one read her work, because it’s the only thing that keeps her sane. In her spare time she climbs hills, looks for rare moths and promises herself to do more in the garden.
You can follow her work via the Facebook page and group The Calgary Chessman, @Alayanabeth on Twitter, or on the WordPress blog The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet.