Friday, March 13, 2020

Are We There Yet? How to Tell When Your Book Is Really Done

Each book I write, I struggle with this question.  And I'm not alone.  Even with many publications behind me, it's incredibly difficult to tell when a book is really done.  

There is an end point.  Truly.  Part subjective, part objective. But it can be confusing or depressing en route to that place.  One of my students recently questioned whether her book could ever be ready. "Some ideas may not be worth the effort or the money," she told me.

I find it helpful to back up and assess where you are, right now, in the five stages of writing a book.  Knowing these stages makes the process--and whether you've arrived at the end--less mysterious. I think of these stages as gateways.  Some writers--and some book ideas--may only get through a few of the gateways.  That's fine.  No painter assumes that every painting is going to be exhibited or sold.  No musician carries such a myth about their compositions.  Even if years go into them. 

If a writer can pass through all of these gateways, their book is probably done.  Or at least ready to submit to an agent or publisher.  If the writer or the book idea peters out sooner, learning has happened which will fertilize the next book.  

Five Gateways

1.  Gathering stage:  When you start a book, you have an idea.  You sketch out chapters, or scenes.  You research.  You freewrite.  You do a rough storyboard, if you're into structure like I am (saving tons of time).  You may outline instead, or in addition to the storyboarding.  This is only a gathering stage, but it's essential to the process.  It allows you to explore, to really decide if you have enough for a whole book (maybe the idea is just a short story or essay or article).  A big gateway exists after the gathering stage, and not many writers make it through.  Structuring shows you whether you have a book--or not.  And some of us would rather not know.   

2.  Structuring stage:  At critical mass moment, when your gathered material becomes overwhelming, you either learn to structure or you hire an editor to help you see through the morass. It's what takes your writing, however good, into a logical shape that a reader can follow.   

3.  First draft:  Once the material is shaped, you create your first draft.  Some writers do a draft as they structure, or even before.  All fine--as long as you know that draft may resemble a polished freewrite until it structure is refined.  I usually structure early in the game, to save time.  Sometimes I storyboard then outline before drafting too much.  The final first draft will be rough, but it should accumulate 60,000-90,000 words, depending on your genre.     

4.  Revision:  Moving into revision involves what Robert Boswell calls Transitional Drafts.  I find revision the biggest and hardest gateway for most writers to pass through.  We aren't trained in developmental revision, or taking the lessons learned from structuring into revamping the architecture of the draft.  Many of us need to hire an editor or coach.  Revision is not just refining sentences, like we were taught in school.  Successful revision double-checks your structure on three levels:  outer story (plot or information), characters' narrative arcs, and the sense of place.  You may be good at one or two of these, weak at the third.  Even though I've worked as an editor since the eighties, I still hire out revision help.  It costs too.  What you're looking for is a careful read-through, structure analysis (if you can get it), and suggestions for revising those three areas.  Your editor might come back with suggestions like:  (1) your plot falls apart in chapter 15; (2) I don't believe this character's motivation; or (3) I don't know where we are in time or place--your setting is not anchored yet.  These are hard to hear!  I know, I've been there for every book I've written.  Editors are gold, though, because they see what you can't see.

Many writers take an intermediary step before hiring an editor.  They attend classes on revision, to learn the basic craft skills (writing better dialogue, developing characters, etc.).  They also might join a writer's group or get a writing partner and "workshop" their chapters.  Again, you rarely get whole-manuscript revision help, since your groupmates read only chapters or scenes each time.  You can, however, make great writing connections in groups and classes, and from these, if you're lucky, come beta readers: early readers of your whole manuscript.  Beta readers are helpful in ways that writers groups and classes can't be.  You exchange manuscripts with them.  I always go through this step with my own manuscripts before hiring an editor; beta readers often catch problems I can fix before I spend money.

Revision can take years.  Depends on your skills, depends on the complexity of your book.  At some point, like the student who emailed me above, you have to decide if you're going to take the manuscript one more step, into submission.  You may not be sure, which is why I recommend both beta readers and a paid editor who will help you with structure and whole-manuscript review in the three categories mentioned above.   

A word about magical thinking:  Many writers, especially first-time book writers, believe that an agent will help them with this revision stage.  Why go through all that work when an agent is going to tell you what to change?  Wake up and smell the new decade, folks.  No longer do agents accept works-in-progress (unfinished, unpolished) except if you have a hot nonfiction proposal.  Agents will often ask for revision, as will your editor to be at the publisher's, but only after you've done your absolute best.
Unless the writing is tight, bright, and clean, it doesn't even get past an agent's assistant's desk these days. 

5.   Submission:   Why do writers decide to submit to agents or publishers?  Maybe you want validation that the book works and someone else can see your genius.  Maybe you desire fame and fortune.  (I'm laughing a little at that one, because although I've published thirteen books, I've never made a living from any of them.  The advances were good for some, but not living-worth.  I won awards but I didn't get famous.)  Mostly, the reason I go through the agony of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers is that I believe in the book.  I wanted it out there, in readers' hands, helping and inspiring others.  This has been my go-to reason for every book I've published.  

I also want the book to be the absolute best it can be, before I start this process, because it's a glorious feeling to read one of your published books, ten years later, and still love it.  So loving your book, given the incredibly tough publishing industry right now, might be s the most valid reason to approach this final gateway.  
Many writers, even well-published ones, are looking at self-publishing or partner publishing now, instead of traditional publishing, and using a publicist to help market the book.  This is less painful.  It requires an investment of money and time and energy.  But so does traditional publishing, these days.  You'll be spending your own energy to get your book read, no matter which avenue you choose.   
But bottom line:  Is the story worth it, to you?  There's an axiom in writing circles about the first book being the one that you learn on.  I understand this, because you might get to this fifth stage and decide, No, it's not worth the energy, the rejection, the cost.  That's fine.  You've learned a lot, you've come far.  But it's a very individual choice, not one another can make for you--not even all the agents you query that say no thank you.  

Because agents aren't the final word as to whether your work is worthwhile.  You are.

I guess this would be my answer to the student who wrote me asking how to know if you're done.  Is the book something you'd like out there, in readers' hands, as it is now?  Would you be proud of it in ten years, if it were published?  If not, then scroll back to earlier steps and ask yourself which would be logical to consider.  

Which you may have skipped over, telling yourself you didn't need it.  Or consider this book is your learning curve and you learned a lot.  And now you can move on to the next project.

The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business.  Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish.  they'll take everything you got.  But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your book.

If you accomplish any of the stages listed above, congratulate yourself.  You've achieved something that few writers have.  Consider the next stage, what skills or stamina or tools you need to approach it.  Consider your belief in your book--is it still strong enough to carry you through? 

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