Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Novel Finished; What Next?

The question caught my eye on the forums: I've finished writing, now what?

At first, it seemed a silly question. How could a writer not know what to do next? Are there no classes, no instructions, no innate knowledge gleaned from hanging around and reading and hearing other writers complain, mention, howl and talk about what happens when the rough draft is finished? Then I remember back to the first romance novel I started writing. I never finished the book, not with all the how-to books and critique sessions did I have an idea how to finish the novel. I chose romance because I was told it was the hottest market and more new writers could get published there than in any other genre. It was a bad choice for me. I don't like reading romances and writing one was harder than I thought.

I had a great premise, great characters, snappy dialogue, back story and a plot in my mind, but it would not come together on the page. I never finished it. It's on a floppy disk and on a hard drive in storage. I don't think I'll revisit it. Instead, I worked on writing nonfiction: books, articles, how-tos, interviews, profiles, etc. I didn't revisit the novel until eleven years ago when I got a great idea, having just ended a relationship because the guy wouldn't commit. I turned back to romance. Imagine. Me, writing romance.

I started and finished the novel in two weeks, the first rough draft. What came next was obvious; I moved on to something else. I knew it was too fresh and too raw for me to be objective and I was not ready to face the characters again. A break was in order. Can't edit or rewrite or proofread something that has taken so much energy and time without winding down a bit beforehand.

That's what I told the novelist on the forum who asked, what next? Put the novel away and start something new. Don't even think about the just finished novel. Think about new characters and situations. Take a vacation from that situation and find a new one to concentrate on. Write something else. In a week or two, when you have some distance and objectivity, go back and read.

Print out the rough draft. Pick up a red pen, or whatever color works for you, and begin making notes, marking errors in spelling, syntax, grammar and punctuation, and tightening up or fleshing out wherever it is needed. This is the editing, rewriting and proofing part of writing a novel.

Unless you are the Mozart of prose, there will be blood on the page and plenty of editing and rewriting to do. Go through once, take a breather and work on something else, and then go through again and again until the prose is perfectly polished and ready to send. Anything less is a waste of time.

I also told him that before he begins any work on the novel to celebrate. He started and finished a novel. That is grounds for a really good celebration. Writing a whole novel is a major accomplishment, whether it sees print or not. Few people, me included, have been able to master the craft and, in mastering any craft, there will be mistakes and things that have to be done and redone, but completing a project is a big step in the right direction. The first novel may not be the best, but writing is a process that gets better with time and practice.

That first novel I didn't finish gave way to the second novel that I did finish. It was light years better than the first and I learned a lot along the way. I learned even more when the publisher got hold of it, but that's a tale for a different time. The third novel was better than the second and my fourth novel shows the scars and marks of everything I've learned to date. Each successive novel will be better for the lessons learned before. At least, I can hope and believe and keep writing to find out.

I don't know whether the guy with the first draft of his novel will take my advice, or the advice of several other writers who told him about the same thing, but I hope for the best. If he does nothing with his book and sticks it in a drawer, he has still accomplished more than most people ever do. He started and finished writing a novel. Whether it is good or bad only reviewers and readers will know. Right now, all he knows is that he has earned his typing spurs and will never be the same person -- or writer -- again.

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