So You Want To Write A Book, Part 3: This Is The End

Wow, you guys. This is it! This is the column in which we discuss completing our novels. We've come so far together, talking about research and planning, getting started, and the daily grind of writing our words. 

But what about ending our books? What about those final moments? How do we know when our stories end? At how many words? And what should we do once we've typed that exhilarating phrase: The End? What comes next?

I'm here to talk about that and more today, but first I owe you my final status update. Because that book? That Holocaust book that's been in my head for seven years and has been KILLING me to write? 

I FINISHED IT LAST WEEK!

It was a surprise, the end. I thought I had a good two weeks worth of work left, but last Thursday I got on a roll. Instead of my normal 2,000 words, I banged out 5,000 over the course of the day. That got me to a juncture where I was able to say, "If I write these five scenes....that'll be it!"

This I believe: after finishing a book, you need to let it sit before you start editing.

On Friday morning, as I sat down to write, I suddenly knew: I could write ALL those scenes in a single day, so long as that was the only thing I did. I emailed my husband, saying something like this: "I'm close to the end. I can finish today, but it'll mean I do nothing else all day." And with a house that needed cleaning, and laundry that needed laundering, and groceries that needed purchasing....that meant ignoring all my mom-jobs just to write. That's big for me. I never ignore my mom-jobs. 

My husband's response was exactly what I needed to hear. "Finish your damn book," he said. The smiley face emoticon was missing. He was serious. 

So I finished my damn book.

I wrote and I wrote, and the scenes poured out of me. Characters found their final words, and an entire setting burned to dust. I lost track of everything but the story, becoming that stereotypical writer with wild hair and glassy eyes. My messy house faded to the background, trumped by an old woman with a knife-sharp need to survive.

I found them. I found the final words.

I found the end.

And then I cried.

I've never done that before, never felt so full and depleted and insane at the completion of a novel. But I think, with this particular story, so much of my heart was wrapped up in it...I just exploded. The crying lasted about 15 minutes, during which I was a snotty, blubbery mess, and then I pulled myself together to go for a run. I got on the treadmill, still hiccuping and choking, and turned the speed up and up and up. I needed to. I pounded out the rest of my basket case-ness on the belt of that treadmill, and 45 minutes later I finally felt human again.

And so it goes. The book is done, and that's all I have to say about that.

Let's spend the rest of this column talking about some of the mechanics of finishing a novel, and see where it takes us. 

How many words = being done?

We've discussed this a little before. The basic definition of a novel-length work tends to be "over 50,000 words." 50,000 words, however, is a low count for an adult novel. It's even low for a young adult novel. 50,000 seems fairly appropriate for an upper middle grade book, though, so if that's what you're writing, 50,000 will do it.

For me, the end came at about 80,000 words. Actually, if you want the official count, it's 80,437 words. It's short, for where I expected to end up, but for me, it's enough. For me, as soon as I start editing, my word count will skyrocket. I tend to rush first drafts. I like to get the bare bones of my story out before I make it right. I leave scenes not quite fleshed out, and characters not fully drawn, so I know I still have a ton to write.  I'm guessing by the time I'm done I'll have added another 20,000 words. That said, the story is there, and I'm a much better editor than a writer, so the second draft is where my work really begins.  

Your process may be different than mine. You may need everything completely done and wrapped up in a pretty bow before you can close your file. If so, that's great. We've already established over and again that you and I don't need to match. Our processes are our own, and that's the way it should be. 

How do you know you're at The End?

Some stories start with a definite ending. J.K. Rowling says she knew the end of Harry Potter's saga before she wrote a single word. 

Me? This go-round was the first time I had an ending in mind before I got started. I knew the final scene, and I knew what needed to happen to get me there.

But sometimes you have no idea when your book's going to end. Maybe you want to end with a battle, and leave the future of your heroes in limbo. Or maybe you want some kind of wrap-up afterword that gives everybody closure. Maybe you have no idea and you're just writing until it feels right to stop.

All of these are possibilities, but that being said, I do think it's a good idea to have a concrete(ish) goal in mind. A specific word count can work (I will be finished when I reach 90,000 words, no matter what is going on when I get there), as can a particular scene (Once x, y, and z happen, I will be done). If you don't give yourself a goal, you run the risk of never ending a book. Don't forget: we writers can write, and that writing can go on and on and on and on.

And who wants to never finish their story?

What comes next?

Now that you've reached the end, what do you do? Do you dive right in and start editing? Do you share it with all your friends and family? What do you DO???

Well, first...take a deep breath and say to yourself, "Congratulations, self!! You finished a book! Not everyone can do that!" Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Trust me: you deserve it! You wrote a book! It's a big deal, no matter whether it's your first or your fiftieth. I bet even Stephen King feels good when he finishes a book.

I'm here to say, with vigor and insistence: resist the urge to share your first draft!

If you want, have a drink! Eat a special dessert! Celebrate! This is a big deal! You finished a BOOK! 

On the day I finished last week, my husband brought home champagne. He knew how much the story meant to me, and so we celebrated that night. I think you should too!

But then, after you've celebrated, I want you to do this:

I want you to close your notebook or your Word document, and I want you to walk away from it. I want you to do something other than write for a few days, and then, after that, I want you to work on something else for a little while. I want you you to take a break from your book for as long as you can stand it.

I don't often say, "Do this" as part of these columns. You and I both know you have to find your own path, but this I believe: after finishing a book, you need to let it sit before you start editing. If, upon writing "The End," you turn around and go back to page one immediately, you'll be doing yourself (and your story) a huge disservice. You need distance from the story in order to really edit. You need fresh eyes. The only thing that can provide those things is time.

Me? I'm taking two or three weeks to work on freelance projects. Then, in December, I plan to start work on a YA novel idea (I know, right?). That should take me two months to write, so maybe, maybe by February I'll be ready to look at this Holocaust novel again. Maybe then I can start editing. Maybe that's when I'll start an editing column here.

Maybe. 

Maybe I'll take more time, though. I invested so much of myself on this rough draft; maybe I need more time to heal, to let the scars it left on my heart begin to fade. 

No matter what, I know I need time, and I'm going to take it. I hope you do, too. 

Resist the urge: don't make people read your first draft

This is my last piece of actual advice. It's good advice, I promise.

If you've just finished a book, especially if it's your first book, you're going to be on an emotional high. You're going to feel good. Like I said earlier, you just finished a BOOK! It's a big deal!

With the taste of champagne still on your tongue, it's probably going to happen: you're going to get the urge to share your words. It happens to me every time. I think, while sipping my celebratory drink: OMG THIS IS THE BEST BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF ALL BOOKS AND IT'S MINE! MINE! I WANT EVERYONE I KNOW TO READ IT RIGHT NOW.

RIGHT NOW!

You're going to feel that way too. I'd bet my favorite pair of boots on it.

But I'm here to say, with vigor and insistence: resist the urge to share your first draft

Trust me. No matter how great you are, your first draft is ugly. It's got typos and errors and plot inconsistencies and characters with conflicting motivations. Your first draft is not a reflection of what your book will become. A first draft is an ugly lump of clay, which you, with your sculptor-editing tools, can turn into something gorgeous. But right now? It's still ugly. It's dirty. It's unfinished. So keep it to yourself; don't hand it off to your loved ones.

Here's what would happen if you did. I say this with the knowledge that comes from experience. If you hand off that first draft to your mom/boyfriend/brother/spouse, they will read it and say supportive things. But they won't say these supportive things because the book is stellar; they'll say them because they love you.

Then, when you sit down to edit, you'll see the typos and errors and plot inconsistencies and characters with conflicting motivations, and you'll be humiliated and confused. "They read that? And they thought it was good?" You'll regret sending it to them in such a horrific state, but what's worse is you'll doubt their opinions on what actually worked in the book, because they neglected to point out all the ugliness. So then you're screwed. You hate yourself, your book, and your readers.

I don't want you to feel this way, so don't let this happen. Be strong now so you can get real feedback later. Resist the urge to share your words right away. Give yourself time to make something really beautiful.


Wow. I think that pretty much wraps things up. If you've stuck with me through all these crazy columns, I can only say thanks. I'd love to hear how your book is going, so feel free to leave a comment to fill me in. It would make my day.

Thanks for sharing this process with me. I've loved every moment, and now I've nothing left to say but:

The End

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Comments

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk November 25, 2014 - 9:20am

Hi Leah, 

Really great article again, really enjoyed the series and glad you've got to the end!

As for my first novel....well still plugging away. The work rate has gone down but I'm currently on chapter 22. Just hitting chapter 20 felt like a major milestone so I can't help thinking what it's going to be like at the finishing line! Seeing as it's my first attempt at this and I've started it back at the end of August I don't think I'm doing too badily. 

As for ending I have the story jumping between two characters, one I have an ending for the other I have no idea as of yet but that will come to me as I go ( I hope! )

As for the next draft I think it's going to be a bit of a killer as I going to have to type up my handwritten first draft, no idea how long that will take, ( and the draft after that ) 

Thanks again for giving me the kick up the butt to get this done :)

dave

 

Scott Williams's picture
Scott Williams from Brooklyn, NY is reading 11/23/63 November 25, 2014 - 10:24am

"That said, the story is there, and I'm a much better editor than a writer, so the second draft is where my work really begins."

I'm so glad you've emphasized that everyone has their own process, because the above sounds like a recipe for madness to me.

Based on all the advice I got when I was just a beginner ("Just get it out! Don't worry about it being good!") I vomited out my first draft for my first novel: 100,000 words, about half which are utter nonsense. 

BUT WHICH ONES!

Every time I open this file to try and edit, it's such an ungovernable, monstrous mess that I despair of ever hacking through it to the great story that lies within. I pat it on it's woolly, misshapen head, put it back into its dungeon, and go back to working on my current project.

All of which is to (melodramatically) say: writers! Heed Leah and her advice! What works for some may not work for you, and you may kill a great story aborning if you go against your natural tendencies. 

Sofia's picture
Sofia from London, UK is reading everything November 25, 2014 - 11:00am

Hey, Scott Williams, hhave you tried writing a retroactive scene-by-scene outline of your monstrosity? That will help you edit it on a structural level, and you can leave tweaking the words for later.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. November 25, 2014 - 2:49pm

Dave - to say that your comment made my day would be teh understatement of the century. Thank you so much!! If I was able to help in any way, then I'm thrilled. I'm so happy to know you've taken this journey with me - PLEASE let me know when you've finished (you can email me here or I'm super-easy to find via my personal web site). 

And Scott - I've heard so much advice through the years that goes against whatever works for me, so yeah - I had to stress that we're all so different in our processes. I love Sofia's idea of breaking it down, outline-style, to see if you can fix that story (assuming you want to). I hope it all works out for you!

Thanks for stopping buy, all three of you. It makes me do a funny little happy dance.

Ben Amberg's picture
Ben Amberg November 25, 2014 - 11:18pm

I think it's hilarious, i've been constantly a step ahead of the advice you've been giving, and i eagerly check back every month. I'm writing my first book. Well technically i just finished writing last night at 102,411 words. I'm pretty stoked. I'm going to take some time away to get a fresh perspective before i start editing, but for nowhere near as long as you. It's amazing that you can step away for so long, i've had my world developing for years now and to finally see it complete is amazing. My book is fantasy, so the word count is a bit high and will only rise when i edit. Thank you for all of the advice, i found the first part when i was about halfway through a month ago and got caught up on reading it in time to finish with you here. Congratulations on your finished work :D

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. November 26, 2014 - 7:12am

Hey Ben! So glad to know you've been hanging around, and congrats on finishing your first book! That's fantastic! I think I'm only able to step away for so long because I've got too many other damn projects to juggle...and I have this new book I'm already stoked to write. So it's easier to be apart from the world I just left. I think with my first one I dove back in pretty quickly because of that "OMG I WROTE A BOOK!!!" excitement. :D

Congrats again, and thanks for journeying with me!!

Roger Kilbourne's picture
Roger Kilbourne from Massachusetts is reading The Word Exchange November 26, 2014 - 7:38am

Great advice. Can't wait until I'm at that point, only about halfway there now. 

One thing above all definitely struck home:

      Resist the urge: don't make people read your first draft

This I know from sharing first drafts of shorts with my spouse and sister early on. Oh, the shame...don't do it!

Ben Amberg's picture
Ben Amberg November 26, 2014 - 9:55pm

i've heard that advice about resisting the urge to share before but... I honestly can't. Mostly it's to do with the fact that my cousin is an editor for a living, and secondly i only talk to brutally honest people so there is no chance of them misdirecting me. I have other projects but they all exist cronologically after this one, i don't really have plans outside of this world right now. Thank you for sharing your journey with us :D i know a lot of other people who want to write but they're all really uninspired. It's really nice to see someone as inspired as i am at this point. Hope to see your book in the future.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 27, 2014 - 9:49pm

I tend to end my work in a book ends fashion. But with a definitive arc of change. The situation doesn't change, how the main character feels about it does. A ignoranc to wisdom arc.

Congrats on finishing your book, look forward to seeing it in print.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. November 28, 2014 - 6:09am

Roger: Ha!! Yeah, I've definitely done it. I cringe at the memories! :D

Ben: THANK YOU!! You're the sweetest!

LW: Thanks, let me edit it and see if it's printable, first! Hahahaha. And it sounds like you're being productive, too, so congrats! :D

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami December 1, 2014 - 8:09am

I actually think after some distance, the hard part has only began. Rationalizing all the decapitations (even in fantasy lit) is going to be a bit hard to swallow. No joke intended right there.

Rob Duffy's picture
Rob Duffy from London is reading Chasing the Scream' by Johann Hari and by James Ellroy; 'The Black Dahlia January 7, 2015 - 7:12am

Hi Leah,

Thanks again for these columns, they're really inspiring and helpful. I'm currently wrestling with making a second novel work while actually my first one needs some surgery I think. Both seem like mammoth tasks to me and I'm trying to find a way to get inspired, motivated and create some meaningful daily output.

Your columns really help with that! Would love to see more.

Cheers

Rob