The last several installments of the “Writing Your Book” series have dealt with issues related to the end of your novel. We’ve discussed the end game, the climactic scenes, and the closing pages that come after. Now, we’re going to move beyond that, and talk a bit about what you should consider doing once you finish that first draft.
First of all, congratulations! You’ve finished your novel. That’s terrific. Seriously. I know I’m prone to snark, but this is sincere. There is no downplaying this accomplishment. Writing novels is hard. Here at MW we write a lot of posts about the pitfalls and difficulties of completing a novel. The fact that you’ve done so, or are about to, is no small thing. Faith has said before (paraphrasing here) that it’s fine to say that you write, but you don’t get to call yourself a writer until you finish something. I agree. You’ve done that now, or will very soon. Excellent.
But finishing the first draft of your novel is merely a single step in a long and difficult process. An important step, yes. But there remains plenty for you to do. Let’s do this in list form.
1. The first thing you should do is take a day or two off. Again, I say this in all seriousness. Whenever I finish a novel I give myself a couple of play days. I’ll go for hikes with my photo gear, or I’ll start reading that book I’ve had on my night table for the past six weeks, or I’ll just laze around. If you write in your spare time and can’t afford a day off from the real job, at least give yourself a treat in what would otherwise be writing time. The important thing is to acknowledge the accomplishment. We writers beat ourselves up when we don’t get the work done; we should reward ourselves when we do.
2. The other thing you should do immediately is put the book away. I mean this in a figurative sense, since the book is probably on your computer. (Oh! FIRST thing to do: Back it up!!! Put it on another hard drive, a thumb drive, a disk, print out a hard copy. Not one of these; all of them. Seriously, back it up.) But you want to get some distance from the book. You want to think about other things — work, life, love, other writing projects — and clear your head. Eventually you’re going to read through it again, and again, and possibly again, but not yet. Give yourself AT LEAST two weeks. Four would be better. Six would be ideal. You want to be able to read it fresh, and you simply can’t do that if you start your read-through the day after you finish.
3. Start to line up beta readers. Ask people you trust if they would be willing to read it for you. When I say people you trust, I mean a couple of things. You don’t want them to be so brutal with their criticisms that they leave you a useless, quivering lump of insecurity, but you also don’t want them to be so concerned with sparing your feelings that they hold back. You have to trust them to be sensitive, but honest, tactful but thorough. When you find the right people, and they agree to read the thing, tell them the book is coming, that they probably won’t see it for a month or six weeks, but that they’ll have it eventually. Give them some sense of the length, so that they’re not shocked when it arrives.
4. Start researching markets. Read in subgenres, figure out where the book you’ve just written fits in, so that when you’re ready to start shopping it around you know how to pitch it.
5. Start working on your pitch. Yes, you’re going to revise your book, but you know what it’s about, you’re learning where it belongs in the market. It’s never too early to start working on your presentation. You should be able to say in a single scintillating sentence what the book is about. The one line pitch for my newly completed book, Thieftaker? “It’s Harry Dresden meets Samuel Adams.” Or, “It’s Harry Dresden set in pre-Revolutionary Boston.” Or, “It’s a historical fantasy, with mystery elements, set in Colonial Boston.” The Harry Dresden versions are for industry insiders — agents and editors — who are familiar with Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series and, more to the point, Jim Butcher’s sales figures. The third is the cocktail party version, for people who might want to buy the book once it’s in print. You should also start working on your two minute pitch, for when someone hears the one sentence pitch and says, “Sounds interesting. Tell me more.” This second, longer pitch should NOT be a recitation of the major plot points. You can’t possibly do the book justice that way, and chances are your listener won’t be able to keep the plot points straight. Rather, it should fill in a bit more about why the book is worth buying and reading.
“The book is called Thieftaker, and basically it’s a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Stamp Act riots in 1765 Boston. My main character is the eighteenth century equivalent of a private detective, but with magical abilities, and as he investigates the murder he comes into contact with historical figures, including Samuel Adams, James Otis, Thomas Hutchinson, and Ebenezer MacKintosh. It’s the first book of a series, but each volume stands alone as a mystery.”
There is much more I could say about working on your pitch, but Faith has covered this before (see the link above) and will again, I’m sure. This, at least, is a starting point.
6. Start writing something else. I know, I told you to take time off. And I meant it. But then you have to move on. You finished your novel; you’re a writer now. Writers write. You can start working on the next novel in your series or story arc. I often do. But you will be making changes to the manuscript you just finished, and those changes might have some impact on the next book. So you should think about writing something completely unrelated. Write a short story. Start a new novel. You’re using the time off to clear your mind and create some distance between yourself and your completed novel. Writing other stuff is a great way to do that.
6a. Sometimes, after finishing a novel, I simply can’t bring myself to write anything else. I don’t like to cater to this impulse, but occasionally I have no choice. In fact, when I finished Thieftaker, I had just recently written Robin Hood, rewritten my urban fantasy, and completed a couple of short stories. I was on the edge of burnout, and so instead of taking off a few days, I took a break of several weeks. If when you finish your book, writing is out of the question right away, do other things that will let you feel productive — jump into the market research and pitch work I mentioned earlier, work on your web site (that’s what I did), do some research or worldbuilding or background reading for another project. The important thing is to get that distance from your book, but keep yourself in a creative mindset.
7. Did I mention that you should make sure the completed novel is backed up . . . ?
I’ll go into greater detail about the read-through in my next “Writing Your Book” installment. In the meantime, let’s discuss the items on this list.David B. Coe