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How do we know when our book is ready to send out?


man winning a race breaking through the finish line
FINISHING A NOVEL IS GREAT. BUT DON'T SEND IT OUT BEFORE MAKING SURE YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS DONE.

As writers, we know when we begin the act of writing (it’s usually when we get an overwhelming sense of dread or excitement). We know and can feel when we’re figuring out who our characters are, what they want (sometimes), if they’re heroes or antiheroes, minor characters, if they’re happy or sad or mad (happy doesn’t usually work for an engrossing story), where they live (Cincinnati, Ohio, Boston, MA, on the dark side of Mars), what the obstacles before them are, e.g., their husband’s infidelity, their company’s nepotistic hiring practices, the twelve thousand foot mountain in the distance, the turmoil within them overwhelming their ability to just live. But how do we know when we’re done?


How do we know when our book is ready to send out into the world? To a trusted resource like a writing buddy? To a literary agent? To the printer? It’s a tough question. Here’s my process:


To start off with, mostly, I’m a pantser. That means I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline. I don’t write a list of characters. I don’t say This is going to happen in Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, etc. It’s just not any fun for me. Normally, I just open my laptop, open Microsoft Word, and start writing. The novel I’m currently working on I chose to try something new, so I did outline (this is my first time outlining prior to starting the writing process). I’m also writing with a pen and a notebook (also something I haven’t done in probably twenty years). But back to my process for knowing when I’m done done, meaning it’s time to let my baby run free.


Best advice on writing I’ve ever received. Finish.

– Peter Mayle


Once I have my first draft, I know what the story is about, or at least what it wants to be. That may change along the way as I begin the editing process. If you’re asking if I edit while writing the first draft—I do. But not much. My goal for first drafts is always to write through the first draft as fast as I can. I believe it helps keep the feel and cadence and overall rhythm of everything, including the novel’s voice, which is critical. Once I have my first draft done, I put the novel aside and start something new. I give myself space from the novel so I can return with fresh eyes later on. As I jump back into the novel, I use Word’s comments feature to address issues I know I have—issues I discover during the read through. I write so many comments that I have comments on top of comments. The manuscript can get pretty ugly.


The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.

– Raymond Chandler


During this run-through, I may try to focus on a particular aspect of novel writing. I may key in on the novel’s plot, or voice, or scenes, or dialogue, or specific themes in fiction I’m trying to communicate through the writing. Usually it’s plot that gets my initial attention. And this is where I start to understand what I’m going to have to wrap up prior to my being able to feel like the novel is complete and ready for someone else’s opinion.


So, let’s say I feel like my novel is ready to send out. I’ve done the writing, the revision, which can be dozens if not over a hundred revisions/edits—I know, I know, that seems like a lot, but everyone has their own process and mine just takes that amount of time and effort, and I feel I’m at a good point to attach my novel to an email and send it off to either a beta reader or to my agent.


THE FIRST THING I DO IS I ASK MYSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:


What’s the novel about?

I don’t know if I necessarily subscribe to the notion that a novel should be able to be communicated in one sentence. I get that a one sentence summary or one sentence pitch is common and a good way to let someone know what your book is about, but I tend to write “complex” novels, and a one sentence pitch hurts my soul. I do, however, write one, because I want to cover all bases when I’m pitching, and I know my agent will ask for one. Once I have a one sentence pitch that I like, and I’m actually confident enough to say it out loud, I’m on the right path.


Are my characters worth reading about?

Is my protagonist or hero or whatever interesting? Does she have a purpose? What does she want? How does she speak? Does she use bland language? Does she sound like every other character? Is she interesting to look at, and can I picture her in my mind? Now, there are character-driven novels and plot-driven novels. There’s also idea-driven novels that are also plot-driven or character-driven, but if they don’t have the character piece or the plot piece, they’re probably not going to do so great with readers. Either way, I have to feel something for my characters, because if I don’t, neither will my readers.


Is my dialogue believable?

Dialogue can be a difficult thing to master, if one ever masters any part of writing novels. Beginning writers tend to try to pass the reader too much through dialogue. But that’s easy to fix the more experience you gain by writing. Myself, I’m into the rhythm, the musicality of the narrative, and that includes where and when to include dialogue, and how best to alternate between short, punchy dialogue to longer sort of monologues within a scene. Beginning writers should try to stick to “he said” and “she said” as their dialogue tags. This is not to say that you can’t change it up sometimes, but those sometimes should be rare. Or they should happen only once you have a true grasp of how to use tags other than he said and she said. You don’t want to distract your readers by using flowery adverbs or using words tags like “he chortled.” Unless your goal is to annoy your readers.


Charlie Chaplin black and white photo looking sad
IF YOUR SCENES AREN'T COMPELLING, YOUR READERS WILL LOSE INTEREST, AND THEY'LL PUT YOUR BOOK DOWN.

Are my scenes compelling?

When I first started writing, I just wrote the scenes when they came into my brain. Meaning I just wrote and had my characters doing things and if they met other characters in the process and spoke to them, I’d then develop those scenes right then and there. The more experienced I got, I started realizing that I knew there were certain scenes I’d want to see somewhere in the work. So, I started writing them separately. Meaning outside of the novel I would write scenes between characters I thought should have something to argue about, or discuss, etcetera. For me, it gives me a sort of freedom to explore the conflict or the back and forth, to draw out the emotion I want my readers to feel via the interactions of my characters. I then go back and cut/paste the scene into the manuscript where I think it should go. There’s editing required afterwards to ensure the transitions before and after the scene work, but for me it feels like dropping emotion bombs where they should be so as to get maximum effect from my characters, and thus compelling scenes for my readers.


Do I have a plot?

This one may get a significant number of eyerolls, in particular from more junior/beginning writers. Does a novel require a plot? Well, that depends. Some novelists say absolutely. Others, and convincingly, say they don’t. There are a lot of novels out there, in my opinion, in particular in literary fiction, where it’s just difficult to pinpoint exactly what the plot of a particular novel may be. There’s so much going on in the novel—a love story, betrayals, a journey, perhaps subplots, battles, a lean towards character development without an obvious character want, and so on. My take is that you need to know what your main character wants. If you don’t know what they want, how can you become invested in whether or not they achieve what they set out to achieve? You risk diving into the dreaded swamp of being episodic—this happens and this happens and then this happens, without the bones of a plot, i.e., this happens AND SO this happens, and because that happened, THIS happens, and so on. Readers want that, even if they don’t know it. So, for me, I make sure I know what the plot is. It’s hard work, making sure you answer all the questions readers may have, but it’s important.


person wrapping up a present
DON'T FORGET TO WRAP ALL OF YOUR LOOSE ENDS UP.

Do I wrap everything up for the reader?

This is also a tricky one, for several reasons. I want my readers to know what happened to my characters. I want them to have the satisfaction of understanding what my characters wanted at the beginning of the novel, and whether or not they achieved their goals—did they get the girl, stop the Russians from launching their nuclear missile, reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro? They don’t have to achieve the goals they set out for themselves, but something else has to provide the reader with the reward of having read. What I mean is, there should be a lesson learned, a character realization, some form of change from the beginning of the novel to the end of the novel, ideally in the main character. It also means you can’t leave anyone hanging on a ledge without knowing if they fell or were saved, can’t avoid providing an answer to whether or not Jim shot Carl after he pulled the pistol on him at the saloon, can’t deny the reader the pleasure of witnessing Anastasia meeting her birth mother after discovering where she lives after ten years of searching. These open questions will annoy the reader. That said, I do love open endings. That’s not to say I don’t close the main questions I bring up in the novel, only that I like readers to think about my characters and what they’ve gone through after they’ve reached the end. I don’t want my readers to finish the novel and then move on to the next one without having felt something deep, something impactful. You don’t have to do that; it’s just something that I guess is part of my style.


As Chekov put it, If there’s a gun in the opening of a story, it better go off.


Is there a structure to my novel?

There are plenty of avantgarde novels out there that don’t adhere to your more common novel structures, but some readers find those type novels off-putting. Most novels follow a structure, be it Freytag’s Pyramid, or the three-act structure, Save-the-Cat, or the Hero’s Journey, and other more orthodox structures. For me, I tend to be pretty traditional, usually sticking to Freytag’s Pyramid or the three-act or Hero’s Journey. It’s just how I naturally write. I put chapters into my works so that readers have someplace they feel they can stop at a clear, defined place before going to bed or work or whatever. But like most things in writing, if you do something and it works, it works. Just make sure you’re delivering something readers can approach and handle and that they know what to expect when it comes to the structure of your book.


Have I checked for spelling errors?

There’s more to proofreading than checking for spelling errors, but if you’re using software like MS Word or Grammarly or ProWritingAid or something similar, it’s easy these days to find any grammatical errors or spelling errors that may be hiding in your manuscript. The minimum you should do is run spellcheck. Just running through your MS you’ll see redlined words and sentences that the software is highlighting for you as having something wrong with it. Fix these issues before sending out your manuscript. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that editors and publishers are just going to overlook these things because it’s “their job to do it.” You want to be as professional as you can be, and ensure that grammar and typos are addressed it a big part of it.

 


blocks that say the end
BE PROUD OF YOURSELF. YOU'VE DONE IT. NOW SEND IT OUT INTO THE WORLD.

Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, and substantive editor. If you have a novel ready for an edit, he can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com

2 Comments

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Guest
Mar 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Well done!

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Guest
Mar 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Some great points in there. I don't have the money to pay for editing, but I try to self-edit as best as I can. 😁

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