Just Walk Away: how to know when you're finished your novel
By Michelle Barker
Yesterday I handed in a new manuscript to my publisher, a full-length novel that has been several years in the making.
The day I finish a novel is always the best and worst day. Best, because it’s a relief to finally close a file I’ve read ten thousand times and let someone else have a go at it. Worst, because . . . what do I do now? My whole life has been organized around that imaginary world. Suddenly my real, messy life demands my attention and I can’t use my novel as an excuse anymore.
There is also the legitimate fear that after all this hard work, the publisher might not like it.
This was one of the hardest novels I’ve ever written, and required an enormous amount of research. It started as a 104,000-word behemoth, and most of those words ended up in the garbage. That doesn’t even include a separate storyline of about 100 pages that also ended up—you guessed it—in the garbage.
For a while, it was a middle-grade novel, based on a true story. Then it decided it wanted to grow up and be for adults, and the true story edged its way towards fiction. Finally I realized none of what I was doing was working. So I had a little cry, made a list of the few things I liked, and started over. And I mean, STARTED OVER.
In the end, it went to the publisher as an 81,000-word young adult novel with no relation whatsoever to the true story that inspired it.
If I didn’t understand before that revision is at the heart of all writing, I understand it now. Set the first draft of this novel beside the draft that went to the publisher and you’d be hard pressed to understand how I got from one to the other.
The novel was also an experiment in terms of planning. I tried hard-core outlining, covering one wall of my bedroom in index cards which all ended up . . . in the garbage. Not that I think this type of outlining can’t work. But I’ve come to the conclusion that (at least for me) every project is different and requires its own process. This novel required a fair bit of seat-of-the-pants writing, which made me nervous because I know how wrong that can go. (The Beggar King, my first published novel, took ten years of rewriting, mainly due to seat-of-the-pants issues).
There are a few things, however, that are common to my process with any long manuscript.
- Give it to beta readers. Weigh their advice carefully. Do some of what they say. Maybe do all of it.
- Take a (very long) day and read the entire manuscript in one sitting. It’s the best way to make sure the plot hangs together, ideas don’t repeat themselves, and characters behave in believable ways.
- Take several (very long) days and read the entire manuscript out loud, slowly, paying full attention. This is how you catch the small things (and sometimes big errors in logic, too).
Will you feel like it’s finished after you do these things? I never do. Even when a novel (or story or poem) of mine is published, I could easily take a red pen and edit it all over again.
In the novel I just sent off, there are still holes in the research. I still feel like I need to reread it with an eye to sensory detail, and again with an eye to character arc. But luckily, once the novel gets in the publisher’s hands and they decide it’s a keeper, this is only the beginning of the editorial process. There will be at least one developmental edit, several separate line edits, and then several proofreads. So the truth is, I’m still a long way from being done.
I remember when I finally signed off on my last novel, I still felt like it wasn’t ready. I finished it by walking away. For me, that’s the only way it can be done.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.