Six Signs Your Manuscript is Complete

There comes a time in every writers’ life when she has to decide to let go of the book she’ s been writing. It can be ten years or two months, depending on the writer, but for me the entire process of concept to submission takes a year or two.

Sign #1 You’ve been steadily working on the book for a year or more.

The book I currently want with every fiber of my being to let go started in the summer of 2013. Eighteen months ago. It’s a novella, less than 45K, and it should not have taken that long, but life intervened. And sometimes life gets more real than others. More intense, more distracting. But I gotta say, what with all the drama, on and off the page, I have a strong feeling that not only do I want to let this book go, I need to do so in order to move on with my writing AND my real life.

Sign #2 Time to let it go.

So there I was, in the middle of my second Blue Lake novel, thinking I had found my third. Or rather it had dropped from the sky into my head. I tucked the idea away and let it brew. This is part of the process for me. I’ve published seven novels and a few patterns have emerged. One pattern I no longer fight is that I will get the idea for my next book about halfway through the one I am currently working on. Everybody knows the second half of the book goes more quickly that the first half, so bingo, time to move.

Sign #3 You have a new idea.

Some people think I’m lucky. They’re always asking me “how do you get your ideas?” Seriously folks, ideas are everywhere. It’s all about what a writer does with her idea. My idea was not original. I knew that. But what I also know is that the writer’s job is to take a common theme and make it her own. That’s a huge part of the work of writing. It might be everything. But for me, it’s fun work. It’s a pleasure to try new things, to say yes.

Sign #4 You have made an idea your own.

Another thing I have learned about this book release process is that you can’t rush it. It’s stubborn. It will have its own way. Stephen King gives this revision advice: once you’ve finished your first draft, read it straight through without marking up the mistakes. I’ve never been able to follow Steve’s advice, not exactly, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. And that’s how I revise. I keep reading draft after draft until I don’t feel compelled to pick up my pen and fix it anymore.

It’s different for every writer, but for me, the first draft is the most fun. It goes quickly. I’m never at a loss for what to write. That’s because I follow the first draft process I learned from Jennifer Crusie many years ago: don’t look down. Just write whatever and get the story to the end. Don’t judge yourself, don’t revise, don’t do anything but pile up pages. So, I can do that. I’m not worried about it. I write with glee and great pleasure.

I also write in longhand, the sweetest part of the process for me. Sara Lewis taught me to allow myself this decadent indulgence. I cannot do without the longhand dreamy draft now, which means I have to type the pages out later. And in that typing, the pages will get their first revision. (Another treasured Sara tidbit.) Then I read the last days’  pages and revise again because I have a critique group and I really don’t want them to see the first draft. So, after critique group offers suggestions, I am on my third revision, fourth draft.

Sign #5 You have outside feedback that encourages you to continue.

I try to read the next draft after critique straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and put it away for a week or two. Then I try to read the sixth draft straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and hope it’s done. Stories can go stale on a writer if you groom them too much. Here’s how I know when to stop revising: I have a draft I can almost read through, with just one more day’s work.

That happened yesterday.  I read draft five almost straight through. I have a handful of changes to make. A dozen or so pages and the fixes are all minor. The read wasn’t as good as I’d hoped (they never are) nor as bad as I’d feared. This book turned into something different than a simple reunion romance, so I’m trying to let that freshness be, not fuss with it too much. It’s a little scary to let go, but I have a process for that, too.

Sign #6 You have edited, revised, and repeated the process until you are satisfied.

IMG_1312Now let go. But, how? What if you’re wrong to be smugly satisfied? What if the book is not ready, or it’s awful, you’ve over-reached, your talent isn’t up to it, you’ve blown it big time?

David Hawkins advocates a process of releasing that goes like this: Embrace all positive feelings and surrender all negativity. Look at the thing, feel the feeling, and if it’s not serving you, acknowledge that, and Let It Go. Most of not wanting to relinquish this  manuscript is based on fear, a negative.

I feel good when I think about letting this manuscript go. Also, I live in Michigan where we currently have a couple feet of snow on the ground and temps well below zero. Which brings me to the second best reason I want to relinquish this book for now. In a week or so I’m off to sunnier climes for a bit or rest and relaxation. Before I leave, I want that manuscript off my desk and in my editor’s hands. Also, best reason of all: that next book is knocking. Loud.

Details

Still slogging through the middle of the book. It’s okay, I’m just taking it scene by scene and keeping in mind what other writers who have been here say. Just get the story down right now. Fix it later. Nobody ever has to see this shitty first draft but me. Revision is where I can layer in the details.

Because details, Stephen King reminds us in the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest, is what hooks readers, what absorbs them, what finally makes a book feel real. “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work…An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”

So while I’m slogging and not yet sweating out the finer details of my story, I’m reading what other writers have to say about the process and also reading really good books. This weekend I read Drop City by T. C. Boyle and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominque Bauby. Very different books about wildly divergent subjects, both divinely detailed.