How great would it be to have a device to stick into the pages of your book to tell you when it’s done? It’s the same for new, inexperienced writers and published authors alike: sometimes it’s hard to gauge when your manuscript is truly finished.
Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it. —Truman Capote
Now that’s what I call starting your writing journey off with a bang. But Capote was only expressing the thoughts of many authors who feel a sense of tangible loss at the end of their story. The prospect of this sudden void in their lives has led to far too many books being “overcooked.”
I’ve used that metaphor deliberately to help illustrate my point. When I venture into the kitchen to cook something for the family, my kids often laugh at the slavish way I follow each and every line on the recipe. Most importantly, I pay close attention to the instructions that tell you when the food is actually “done.”
Want that steak medium rare? I’ve got a special thermometer that tells me when it’s reached 155 degrees. Are the brownies done yet? Stick a toothpick in. If it comes out clean, they’re ready.
Most authors probably wish they had a gauge of some kind to stick into the pages to tell them when their book is done. It’s human nature to want to constantly improve and tinker with your work. Most authors say that, if allowed to pick up their work again six months after finishing, they’d find more than a few things to change beyond some simple typo corrections.
Some signs pointing to the finish line
We’re trying to get your book in shape for the editing it richly deserves (and, frankly, needs). This isn’t about fixing those typos or repairing sentence structure. It’s about making sure your book is telling the story you want told, in the way you want it told, and in a way that can make sense to thousands of potential readers. For that to happen, you need to be ready to put down the pen. To give you some assistance to determine if your work-in-progress is actually finished, here are some toothpicks and thermometers to help you gauge the doneness of your book.
From red to white
One author I interviewed for this book uses color to illustrate the progress of his books. After what he calls his “last draft,” he prints out the pages and does some serious self-editing. He uses a bright red sharpie and lays into the pages. After a first, ruthless edit, he says the pages look like they’re hemorrhaging — a sea of red. A draft later it’s just a few red slashes. Finally, he says, he’s looking at pages with only the occasional slashes of red. He says to see the progress before his eyes is a satisfying way to know that the book is finally turning into the story he intended to tell.
So obvious. So boring! I’ve encountered this myself. Authors tell me how sick they get of their precious book. They get to a point where they know more about the plot and storyline of their fictional characters than they do of their real-life family and colleagues. That’s as it should be — you’ve been living with these characters for untold weeks and months. Long ago, when you embarked on this book project, you thought your plot was marvelous. It still is! You have the curse of knowing where the story leads and ends.
The truth is: The jokes in your story ARE hilarious, as good as the first time you typed them. The plot IS spellbinding; the twists and turns are sure to please. The information I’m relaying here IS solid, professional self-publishing advice. We writers are just bored with our content, which is a sure sign that it’s time to move on.
Changing for change’s sake
Look at the last few changes you’ve made to your book. Did you improve it, or did you just change it? You’re not adding value to your book at this point. You’re not making it more interesting or richer in content or even more readable. You’re delaying the inevitable. There comes a point when the longer you revise, the less return you’re going to get for your effort. You’ve reached a point of diminishing return.
A new story
Every writer has ideas for that next book. Maybe there have been big changes in your life and you’re not in the same emotional place as you were when you started writing. Whatever the reason, your enthusiasm for this current project may be waning. For you to simply say, “I don’t feel like writing this story anymore” is an important sign you can’t ignore. When you lose interest in the book, you’ll stop caring. Your reader will know. Who hasn’t read a book where it felt like the writer just lost interest in the project and wrapped it up in an unsatisfying manner?
You’re about to enter into a new relationship with your readers. The reader has entered into the relationship with optimism and interest in your prose. You’re obligated to honor your commitment to entertaining, informing, and delighting your new BFFs. They’re very excited about reading your book. If you aren’t as excited about adding any more to the story, it’s a sure sign that you’re actually damaging your book rather than enhancing it.
Put your book to the test
It’s always good to get some second and third opinions on your book, just as long as they’re not people you share a house with. You should pretty much ignore the comments and less-than-critical critiques from your close friends and family. Beware the praises or critiques of your great-aunt Edna! Few friends or family members can honestly offer you objective feedback. If they CAN, count yourself lucky and listen to what they have to say.
In most cases, you’d be better off joining a local writers group. The authors in these groups can provide tremendous feedback, inspire new ideas, and give great moral support. Writing is often a very solitary pursuit, and these groups can be your lifeline. Digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off, and revise if necessary.
Read your book like its brand new
You’ve spent hundreds of hours looking bleary-eyed at the characters on a screen. Take it offline for another look. Find yourself a bright highlighter and sit down to read it as though you’re a reader. Whenever you find a phrase or sentence you want to change or fix, make a mark and move on. Do not stop to do an edit. Once you get to the end you can go back to your file, start at the last page and work backward, making changes and corrections.
Print a second hard copy, but this time change the font to something visually quite different. If you work in Times New Roman, try printing in Calibri. You’ll see it looks very different and you may be surprised by how many new typos and errors you manage to catch.
Last comes first
On the next run-through, read your manuscript backwards — not word for word, but a chapter at a time. Read the last chapter, then the next to last, and so on until you reach the first. This serves to take things out of context for you and you won’t be as likely to skim over what you expect to be there. It might feel uncomfortable, but it works.
Read it. Write it. Speak it.
When my kids were slogging through high school, I used to tell them, “The best way to master a subject is to learn by the power of three. Read the material, write notes, then speak it out loud.” Get some throat lozenges and find a quiet room. Reading your book aloud can help you “see” it fresh and let you more easily identify awkward phrases or sentences.
Be the reader
The last trick of the trade I’ll share with you is courtesy of Dani Shapiro, the critically acclaimed author of Slow Motion and Devotion. She has also written for magazines such as The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Vogue; and ELLE. Shapiro helped put things into context during a keynote address at a Writer’s Digest Conference a few years ago as she described the simple process of sending an email. When you’re composing the note, the words and thoughts express a certain position or point of view. Everything looks right and so you hit “Send.”
As the electrons fly through the ether, you see it: that obvious typo. The one you looked right past 10 times as the author. But what really happened is that the minute you hit the “send” button, you read the message as a completely different person: the recipient.
This is the approach Shapiro takes with that final, critical examination of her book. She actually reads the book as if she’s someone else. She’ll read chapters as if she’s a kindly, caring person on one day. On another she reads it as an angry, critical person. From the readings of these and other personas, Shapiro is satisfied that her diverse audience is ready to read her next book.
Time’s up. Pen down. You’ve got a deadline.
Maybe the best test of all that it’s time to move on has nothing to do with the words on the page. Maybe it’s the ticking of a clock. As I sit here typing this on a Sunday morning, I’ve put myself into a self-imposed deadline to have this finished by tonight.
Time’s up. Got to bake some brownies.
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