(And be proud of your efforts)
You can’t have a book published if you don’t finish writing the book. If you want to be published, you have to write. Finishing a novel, as you probably know, is not easy. Most writers fail to be published because they either never finish their book, or give up when their first novel isn’t good enough.
Maybe you’ve got half-way through a manuscript but feel like giving up. Maybe you have a brilliant idea for a story, but can’t get the motivation to start. Maybe you think you’re not good enough, don’t have enough time or are already feeling burnt out by the whole process. All of these things are real and valid parts of completing a manuscript. How do I know? Because last week I did just that: completed an AusQueerYA manuscript that I’m totally in love with and have submitted to the Ampersand Prize. This is the fourth manuscript I have written (to varying stages of completion), but the first one I feel worthy of submission. Here’s how I got from idea stage to completed manuscript.
The idea for this manuscript arose over two years ago and began as a Middle Grade fantasy adventure inspired by reading all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books in one week. After finishing the first draft (some 20,000 words), I realised that MG didn’t suit my style of writing/desire for more mature content. I scrapped all but the basic idea of character/world and let it sit for a few months.
That was the hardest part in this journey. Starting again and reworking my entire novel into a YA story. It was very hard to let go of my original story, not because it was any good (it was terrible) but because I had spent so much time on it. From this experience I learned that first drafts are seeds. It is hard laying all that groundwork, but vital to growing a story into its full potential. I allowed these seeds of ideas time to grow within my head until I could see the shape of it forming. This concept might not resonate with all writers. Some writers plan a lot more than me. I prefer to let the story show itself to me and use my skills as a writer to shape them.
The story progressed in three stages, which translate literally to the three parts of the novel. The beginning third came easily, as it was heavily based on ideas formed in the original MG manuscript. All I had to do was flesh out the characters and the world (it is a fantasy, set in a different world). This part was fun! I was dropping plot threads all over the place, building up such great expectations for myself and my story.
The second part was difficult. This involved figuring out how to carry the various plot threads I had created across a section of the book that was mainly about inner turmoil, rather than outer action (side note: I originally typed ‘otter action’ and now have my next book idea). In this stage, there was a lot of agonising over details, a lot of freaking out (time-travel is part of the plot and I’m still not certain I filled in all the holes) and a lot of time ‘thinking’ (aka napping). I procrastinated hard here. I felt like I had such a good thing in my hands but I wasn’t skilled enough to carry it all safely across.
Turns out I wasn’t skilled enough but this wasn’t actually a bad thing. I was trying too hard to do too much and I had to let some things go. I prioritised my best ideas and let the others fall away. My story was much improved by the realisation that doing a few things well is better than doing a million things not well. This part took about a year.
Just a note on time though: I have a baby and worked full time for most of this, so depending on your situation, you might take two weeks or two years or more. My only advice is to understand your writing rhythm and roll with it. If you are on a writing high: keep going. If you’re blocked: give yourself a break. There is no right or wrong amount of time. I was aiming to have this manuscript ready for Ampersand but I also tried to have it ready for Ampersand last year, so don’t stress about time. Your story will be ready when it’s ready and rushing isn’t going to do you or your story any favours.
At this stage I had my writing partner beta read for me. The ending wasn’t written at all (not even a first draft), but I knew exactly what it was to contain. This friend was extremely helpful (and enthusiastic) and spurred me on to write the ending (and by spurred, I mean tied me to a chair and forced me to write). Find a writing buddy! If you don’t have any in real life, look online. These people are invaluable. They give you new insights, ideas and are your literal cheer squad at times. Make sure you find someone you trust and who understands your goals for your story and career.
I wrote the entire ending (7000+) words in one sitting. I think I have permanent back damage, but it came exactly as I had imagined in my head (which was a big concern of mine, see note above about not feeling skilled enough). The ending received the proverbial thumbs up from my writing partner and so began the editing.
I had been editing on and off throughout the entire writing process. I would write a section one day and edit it the next. The ‘section’ could be anything from one scene to three chapters, depending on what kind of writing roll I was on. I found editing kept my brain ticking over when I got stuck (which I did a lot). Even with all this editing, there were still SO MANY ERRORS in my ‘final’ draft. Typos, grammatical errors, punctuation errors (I like inappropriate commas, the word ‘but’, ‘so’, ‘anyways’ and to ‘burst out laughing’). Writing partner pointed all this out, added many helpful notes for me to consider like how she loves the cat and when is book two going to be finished?
Following this, I fixed all my typos (hopefully) and formatted my manuscript for submission. This involved writing a two sentence pitch, a one-page synopsis, a 100 word overview of why the story was written, and an author bio. Next post I will talk about how I wrote these things because they were almost as hard as writing the actual book. I submitted it, which is super anti-climatic, just so you know. It just involves pressing the ‘send’ button. I celebrated anyways because you know what I just did? WROTE A FREAKING NOVEL. It might never be published but I did it.
You can too. The secret to writing a novel is to keep putting words down on the page. Words you connect to. The story you want to tell. The story that means something to you, that expresses your deepest, secret desires, thoughts and feelings. Not the story you think will make you rich. Not the story you think readers want. The story you HAVE to tell. That is the secret to finishing. Make it as important to you as breathing.
Now that this is out of my hands, I need a way to pass the time until the shortlist is announced. What will I be doing until then? Book Two, of course 😉
Next week: formatting a manuscript for submission.