As I mentioned last week, I have recently finished the third book in my new contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. This book, The Chalice Wars: Sword, will be out sometime fairly early in 2023. Book I, The Chalice Wars: Stone, is currently in production, and book II, The Chalice Wars: Cauldron, is with my editor. The art work for the first book should be ready soon. I’ll share it the moment I can. I’m excited about these books. They are filled with tension and suspense, but also with humor, and they are quite different from other work I’ve done. And I am proud to add that when this third volume is published, it will be my 30th book.
For today’s post, though, I want to focus on the mechanics of finishing a book, and precisely what that means for me in terms of work and process.
I know. It seems like finishing a novel should be fairly straightforward. We type “The End” and then we drink whisky. Right?
Turns out it’s not that easy.
First of all, I NEVER type “The End.” If we as authors have to tell our readers when a book has reached its end, we haven’t done a very good job with our ending. Just saying.
More to the point, finishing the first draft of a novel is just one step in a significantly longer process. Yes, it’s an important step, but it certainly does not mean the book is anywhere near “done.”
When I work on a book, I have a separate file open on my computer, which is usually called “[Book Title] Edit Notes.” This is a file filled with reminders to myself of things I need or want to change in the book. While writing my first draft I don’t want anything to stall my forward momentum. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Let me say that again. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Finishing a book is hard to do, and it is all too easy to retreat into edits and rewrites rather than move on toward those looming scenes we haven’t quite figured out how to write. It is also tempting, upon noticing in earlier chapters imperfections of prose or character or plotting, to fix them immediately, to make the manuscript as perfect as possible.
But here’s the thing: No first draft is ever going to be perfect. In fact, I would argue that no finished novel has ever been or ever will be perfect. That, though, is a conversation for another time. The point is, finish your book. It is much easier to edit a finished manuscript than it is to complete said manuscript in the first place. And so, when I think of changes that need to be made, I jot them down in a different file for later, thus preserving my momentum.
Fast forward to that glorious day when we actually finish the first draft. Well, now we have to deal with that file filled with edit notes. Working through my edits can take anywhere from one day to one week or even more, depending, obviously on how much work I’ve left for myself.
After I finish the edits, I next tackle my crutch words. Crutch words are verbal mannerisms unique to our writing, words or phrases that we tend to overuse or fall back on when in the midst of composing our stories. We all have them — I see them when editing the work of others, and I see them in my own rough drafts. I even see them in the published volumes of colleagues. My crutch words will be different from yours, which will be different from your writing-group buddy’s, which will be different from those of your favorite writer. But as I say, this is something all writers have to watch out for. I keep a running list of my crutch words in (another) word document on my computer desktop. And after completing any book or story, I work through this list, checking to see if I have overused any of the usual suspects. How do I know if I have overused them? I do a universal search of each word or phrase, which gives me a count of occurrences. And then I compare that number to the number of occurrences of the same word or phrase in several of my other completed, edited manuscripts, ones I know I have checked for crutch words. If the numbers are about the same, if figure I’m okay. If the number for the new book is a good deal higher, I have some work to do. Dealing with crutch words can be a slow, tedious process. It can take me several full days. Slow, tedious days . . . .
Finally, after seeing to my edits and getting my crutch words under control, I put the newly completed manuscript away for several weeks and start work on something else — short fiction, a new novel, editing projects. It doesn’t matter what. After about four to six weeks, depending on how soon the book is due, I pull out the manuscript again and read it through a couple of times start to finish, doing a full edit of the manuscript, looking for any and all problems — stylistic, narrative, structural, etc. Everything. Only after doing this, when I am convinced the manuscript is as good as I can make it at this time, do I send it on to my editor, or my agent, or my Beta readers. (At some point, I’ll have their suggested edits to deal with. And after that there will be copy edits and proofs. But that is part of the production process and is another subject entirely.)
By this time, of course, I’m in the middle of whatever project I’ve started next, so I’m no longer in the mood for celebrating the completion of the manuscript. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a wee dram of whisky. . . .