Join Prism Book Alliance® as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins today.
Ah, that legendary, golden moment every author dreams of, the satisfying, successful conclusion of writing a novel. Who doesn’t picture themselves at their noisy typewriter (it’s more fun to imagine all the keys are noisy and clacking), typing those momentous words: The End.
I’m not sure it’s necessary to type the words “The End,” anymore. I think that tradition went the way of the typewriter. We all know the story’s over because we read the author’s acknowledgements and see the links to their other work.
But symbolically, of course, it’s still hella important to the author.
I made it!
I finished writing a novel last Sunday, the last day of our (America’s) Fourth of July weekend. I declined weekend picnics to make this happen. I sat on my back porch tapping keys until wee into the hours to make this happen. I avoided cooking, house cleaning, and lawn mowing to make this happen. (Though to be fair, I may not have done any of those three anyway.)
The feeling of finishing—of at least symbolically typing the words The End—is not to be underestimated. No, it’s pretty powerful stuff. On Sunday, I wished I were a smoker so I could hear the crackle of a lighter and feel the satisfaction of a cigar igniting. Watch the smug cloud of smoke rising from my desk.
Instead, I celebrated by ordering Italian food from BiteSquad and watching Netflix.
And yet, finishing a novel comes with its own complications as well. Not all of my feelings were euphoric bliss. Knowing this cool Outside The Margins opportunity was approaching, I paid greater attention to the subtleties of what I felt, trying to understand the conflicting, jagged emotions. I isolated four strands of sadness or resistance, some form of non-joy.
Huh. Who knew?
A. Are you Sure?
You know that nagging feeling when you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep and you’re pretty sure you forgot to do something important? Turn off the back light. Put the milk back in the fridge. Well, imagine that feeling but you’re responsible for the entire world.
You wrote the novel, so you’re responsible for every word within. Did you describe the steakhouse enough for readers to understand it was decrepit? Did your portrayal of the sexually-active teen come across as slutty or eager and confused?
Reviews on goodreads will make sure you understand your novel’s every flaw. Even though the words The End convey you finished the experience, truth is, you’re never done. There’s always a character who deserves sharper adjectives, sentences that could stand to be rewritten. Maybe the scene at the gas station should explain more about the character’s relationship with his mom?
Even if you’ve done all you can, you’re never quite sure you’re finished.
My novel, King John, takes place in the desert. How many ways can you describe sand without boring readers? How many times can you have gusts of desert breeze blow sand into their faces without readings thinking, OKAY, WE GET IT. LOTS OF SAND.
Plenty of good wonderings to keep me awake at night.
B. The dreaded edited
Writing a first draft can be exhilarating, especially when you give yourself the freedom to just let it be. It’s a wonderfully Hippie approach to writing. Everything is cool in that frosty, first draft. Every awkward sentence is welcome, brother. Come in and smoke a paragraph!
The first draft doesn’t have to make perfect sense. You can leave all sorts of disquieting gaps and promise to return later.
King John takes place at Burning Man, the temporary city that arises in the desert every August since 1990. As the characters wander the city, I have them turn down XXX road, and then wander down XXX street. No seriously, I really do have them wander down XXX street. The exact street name is not important to the first draft, a small detail to be inserted later. I didn’t want to remove myself from the flow of the story to go research a street name. As a result, the manuscript is peppered with XXX’s.
That’s fine. It’s a first draft.
The problem is, after typing The End, I must now return to the novel and face all my little shortcuts and ‘this can wait until later’ situations. Swiss cheese is exhausting when you know you’ve got to fill in all those holes.
I know many writers who hate the editing process. Absolutely hate it. A friend once told me, “I always feel like an amazing writer during the first draft. Then when I reread what I wrote during edits, and I feel like a shitty writer.”
Facing your edits, your shortcuts, the things you promised to ‘get back to later,’ can be daunting. Sometimes I feel envious of poet friends because to reread their work for consistency and clarity, they have only a few handfuls of words to review. We novelists have 100,000 words. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
I know, I know. Poets don’t get off that easy. I shouldn’t compare. They might read a poem 400,000 times searching for the exact right inflection, and perfect-sounding word. So, it really is comparing apples and oranges. Still, I make that point only to highlight the challenge in reviewing 100,000 words to make sure they flow together with consistency, illustrating and supporting the thematic structure perfectly. Not to mention making sure sentences are correctly punctuated, common words like ‘just’ and ‘like’ are not overused, as well as addressing dozens of conflicting grammar rules, all of which the writer probably repeatedly violated before Chapter Four.
I myself happen to love the self-editing phase. I really do. I create a spreadsheet listing my many writing flaws and cheap dependencies. I search and replace passive verbs in my manuscript, making them all hot pink in a 16 point font so I can more easily find them to scrub out. I search and replace overused words, conventions, verbs on which I rely too heavily, and other lazy habits. Editing takes me a long time. But I like it.
Still, beginning the editing phase is like gearing up for a marathon run. It can be frustrating for novelists who just “finished the race” of writing a novel to learn that the next race, the real marathon, begins in thirty minutes. Get yourself a glass of water, a red pen, and go find your starting mark.
C. Great Expectations
How many of us writers thought we would write The Great American Novel? It’s a pipe dream, of course. There is no one Great American Novel, well, unless you count Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, in which case, they already wrote it, so why should you bother?
But we dream.
When we start out writing a novel, we drag our great expectations with us. These two characters will be epic! They will change the genre! Their love, their ridiculous, hilarious, challenging, endearing, sensual, mad-making, risk-taking, soul-kissing love will change everything!
And then you finish.
What you have in your hands may be a great novel. It might be fantastic. But chances are, it’s not that Great American Novel you thought would end up in your paws. Don’t get me wrong. It might be a delicious piece of writing. That’s not the point. The point is, you probably didn’t create the Great American Novel.
I love what I wrote in King John.
I worked in all the character bits I needed to explore with the narrator, Vin. I discovered John to be a hilarious, complex man who regularly challenged me as a writer. I think their Burning Man love is all those crazy adjectives from two paragraphs earlier! Vin and John race to save a runaway sixteen-year-old from the unsavory types at Burning Man who would very much like to take advantage of a lost and confused runaway. The story rushes headlong into sexual danger with a surprising, compelling resolution. I don’t like taking the easy way out.
But it’s not the Great American novel.
When you finish writing your novel, you must stand and stare at your creation, evaluating it honestly for what it is and what it is not. This may be amazing. It may not be your best work. Hopefully, as an author you feel great pride and satisfaction in the story as it was told.
But that moment of truth can be a hard one to face after the exhilaration of the first draft.
D. Saying Goodbye
One of the hardest parts to ending a novel, writing those final two words, is saying goodbye to the characters you’ve been exploring. Yes, you will revisit them plenty during the editing phase. Sure. But writing that first draft together is like taking a cross-country road trip together. You’re in the car singing to loud music, not sure what conversations will unfold or where you will stop next. Windows down, hair blowing in the 75-mph-breeze, the open road beckons, calling you to adventure! Finishing that first draft is like ending up at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, hugging each other and crying out, “We made it!”
At some point, the hugging ends and all the selfies have been taken. You have to move on. Sure, you can meet for coffee once in a while and say, “Remember that time in Chapter Eight where we…” You can revisit the characters. But the road trip is over.
I struggled a great deal to write this novel, the one I just finished. The main character, John, was a tough guy for me to get to know. He was secretive. He held back. He presented a different face. I didn’t always trust his motivation. On our ‘road trip,’ the novel broke down a few times while I tried to figure out who he was and what would get us back moving again. John has many qualities in common with the narrator, Vin Vanbly. That makes their particular dance jumbled, energetic, and messy.
Now that we’ve reached the point of taking selfies and hugging, I’m keenly aware that my time devoted exclusively to John has come to the end. I know him now. I know him very well! We went through some crazy shit together.
I feel a sense of loss. Yes, there will be new, fascinating characters to explore. Some of whom won’t be as challenging to write as John. John. I like saying his name in my head. But when you spend 106,000 words obsessing over a single individual, trying to make him loving, challenging, multi-dimensional, unique, and yet someone others can relate to, it’s hard to let go.
I really had fun with you on this road trip.
Right up until…The End.
About Edmond Manning
Edmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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