Finishing What You Started

Last month, fate and a friend gave me an ultimatum: finish my novel, Beautiful Losers, or lose the opportunity to see it published by a prestigious press.

As much as I say I don’t care about being published, the confrontation was a reality check. Was I going grab opportunity by the balls and get this book out there, or let it wallow in the digital swamp forever? Was I a competent writer or just a pretender?  It seems, to my surprise, that a deadline is my friend.

So I finished it: the four final chapters in two weeks.  Admittedly, I had known how the book would end for over a year (come on, you KNOW how it ends), but the motivation to sit my butt down and write it had eluded me.

I suspect I’m not alone in this strange hesitation to close what’s been opened.  Some writers fervently create and cling to outlines as a way of making sure they push themselves to the last period.  I sequentially put my inability to finish down to a lack of planning, a fear of saying goodbye to the characters, a lack of discipline as a writer, etc.

It turns out that none of these were the problem at all.  My problem was a fear to revisit a level of writing that I believed I had surpassed. I didn’t want to spend time in the pool of my own earlier inadequacies.

But when the two-week deadline forced me to get my head back into the work, I found a vibrant, optimistic, and charming voice there. Perhaps a little over-exuberant, perhaps a little addicted to adverbs, but nothing that a stiff bout of editing could not cure.  I made peace with the fact that this was a younger writer.

So here, for what it is worth, is the recipe to how I edited and finished the book:

  1. Chapterize the objectives
    I knew how the story would end, but I knew I would lose interest in doing the job if I thought about it to much.  So I didn’t really outline the ending. I simply typed sentences of WHERE the story needed to be at that point.  That would allow me to be creative about how the characters got there, but still forced me to get there.
  2. Revise and Edit.
    I knew one of the challenges was going to be getting back into the headspace, storyspace and the voice of the story. I spent one whole week revising and editing the first 50,000 words.  When I say ‘one week’, I don’t mean a 40 hour week. I figure this phase took me about 70 hours.a.     First read through with a pen in hand, noting every time I winced or shuddered and why.

    b.     First edit to fix discontinuities or plot issues that needed earlier strengthening. I used my notes from the first read-through and would jump back to shore up character traits, reactions, settings.  I fixed any discontinuity issues, and sometimes I added nuance. Dialed down foreshadowing in places, strengthened it in others.

    c.      The second edit was all about language: grammar, punctuation and style. I have a propensity to over-use certain words, phrases and sentence structures.  I used http://www.writewords.org.uk/word_count.asp to identify repetitions.  Then I’d search for the word and fascistically decide if it really needed to be there at all, or if a synonym might do (‘very’ and ‘really’ are two of my sick addictions). I also searched the whole document for *ly . I looked at every adverb. Did it need to be there? Was there a better verb?

    d.     Read-through again for fluidity.  I work on a mac, so I use the read-aloud function, but you could easily just force yourself to read aloud.  I listened for jarring rhythm, overly long sentences, and anything that interfered with smooth reading.  It also is good for listening critically to dialogue.  I corrected as I went along.

  3. Write the final chapters.
    By then, I was deeply into the zone. I felt comfortable about the tone of the writing and wasn’t so worried that the last chapters would sound too different, writing-wise.
  4. Repeat step 2 a, b, c and d with the new writing.
  5. Last read-through.
    At this point, I knew I wouldn’t recognize a good novel if it crawled up my nose and took a bite out of my brain. All I was concerned with was ensuring it held together fairly well.
  6. Other eyes.
    I sent out a call for beta-readers. Luckily, because I had serialized Beautiful Losers on my blog,  there were many people willing to read the draft, because they wanted to know the ending. In exchange, I asked them to note down any typos, grammatical errors, and anything else that really jarred them storywise.
  7. Went through all the crits, reader by reader, and corrected any errors they found. Thanked the readers profusely.

This did not make the perfect novel. And, had I had the time, there were some plot structure things I would have liked to change, but my two weeks were up and my deadline loomed. I sent the MS in to the publisher.

In an even midly sane world, I would have really liked a professional editor, but I knew I didn’t have the time to work with one.  I would have received great feedback and been unable to incorporate it. And I knew that would make me feel like shit.

I’m pretty sure there is a better way to finish a novel. But this was the way I did it. I hope there is something of value in my experience for other writers.

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