With the blank sheet of the new year spread before you and the bustle of the holidays mercifully in the past, now is the time to dig into that novel and run it through the ringer.
You remember that manuscript, right? The one saved in a misleadingly named folder in your Dropbox, or perhaps disguised as a ream’s worth of scrap paper in your bottom drawer? The one you showed to your best friend but received so many line edits that you couldn’t bring yourself to look at it again? The one that you love so much—that you want to share with the world—but whose next steps seem uncertain? That’s the novel I’m talking about. It’s time to take it out of the darkness of the draft ages and into the light of the published world. Maybe you’ve abandoned it only for a day, or perhaps quite a bit longer than that. Or possibly you’re working on it now. In any case, at any stage, the question lingers, Is it ready? Am I ready?
You’re not alone. Many brilliant works go unfinished for the simple reason that it is hard to know when to stop. True, a novel could continue to evolve forever and still be a masterpiece. It could simply continue to grow and age through life with its author. As the author’s writing style changes, so do her revisions to the work. As the political or socioeconomic status of her country changes, so do the plot lines. As relationships change in the author’s life, so too do the relationships within her story. While this sounds like a wonderful piece of performance art, this ever-changing novel will never be published within the author’s lifetime.
If your goal is to see your book published, it’s important to set concrete, achievable milestones for yourself and your novel that can act as a litmus test for deciding when to finally declare victory. I asked our very own Kim Bridges, a three-time NaNoWriMo veteran, for tips on assessing a project and determining when to call it complete. Here’s what she said:
1. Reverse Engineer Your Plot
Writing a true outline of the work you’ve created will help you spot timeline discrepancies, plot holes, character inconsistencies, and loose ends you missed in previous drafts—and it will help you gain some needed distance from the intricacies of line editing. Whether you wrote an outline before you started your book or you embarked on your novel without a structured path forward, once you think you’ve reached the end of your story, review it from the beginning as if you were a student assigned to outline a novel for a book report. Referencing your original ideas is optional.
2. Go Through the Motions
Are there sword fights? Intricate crimes? Games of any kind? Sex scenes? Are there costume changes? Does anyone make a sandwich? All scenes should be reviewed with the physical constraints of your book’s reality in mind. Most human beings have two hands and two legs and can’t move from the kitchen to the bedroom without taking a few steps (or removing a few items of clothing, if necessary).
3. Polish Your Prose
Move through your book paragraph by paragraph and polish your writing. It can seem easy to gloss over or breeze through ho-hum descriptions of simple actions or transitions in time or place, but if you craft everything equally, your whole book will benefit from the attention.
4. Clean Up Your Text
It may sound boring, but if you’re still not sure you’re done, running spell-check and conducting a straightforward line edit to find the simple mistakes can reveal bigger errors or lead you to conclusions and closures you didn’t see from afar. Leave your characters alone and just focus on the grammar on the line. Further, having a clean manuscript free of d’oh-level errors will help avoid distracting your early readers—especially agents and editors.
5. Put Your Novel (and Yourself) to the Test
Share your work with someone other than your writing group, best friend, or mom. Feeling confident enough in the work you’ve done that you want to share it outside of your workshopping zone is a good indication that you’re ready to publish. This usually means that you’ve erased any known errors, created a drum-tight plot, and brought life to characters you feel have a worthy story to tell.
After all this talk of finishing novels, I asked Kim what her New Year’s resolution is. Her response was simple: “Write more. Revise more.” While Kim’s resolution certainly shows her dedication to the craft, it also allows me an opportunity to check in with her at the end of the year to see if she’s followed her own advice. (You can do it, Kim!)
If, after running your novel through steps one through five, you’re still not ready to let go, consider this moment of Zen from a simple little bear:
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
Happy New Year, and good luck assessing your book! If you’re ready to take the next step and talk to a professional editor, we’d love to hear from you.