Congratulations! So What Are Your Next Steps?
If you’ve finished writing a novel, then you know the great feeling that comes with typing THE END, making sure the file is saved (and hopefully backed up at least a couple other places), and pushing back from your desk with a smile.
You did the work and you finished it, so I hope you took a moment to celebrate with those closest to you. But then what? What should you do next with your story?
Whether you hope to publish traditionally or to self-publish (or somewhere in between), here are some ideas to keep in mind once you’ve completed a novel:
Don’t Let Your Readers Lose Their Way in Your Story
In the past few months of reviewing and editing novel manuscripts, I wrote “You’ve got to set the setting” so many times that I actually started to feel like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas:
“No, no, no! Listen, all of you! You’ve got to take direction, you’ve got to have discipline, you’ve got to have respect for your director!”
So, after flagging this issue in several authors’ manuscripts in recent times, I figured I should take a look at yet another common pitfall I come across in my daily work as a fiction editor: neglecting to set the setting.
In its most basic sense, the setting of a story scene is the environment the characters inhabit. The setting for a particular scene can include the more obvious markers: time of day, date, season, geographical location, etc. But it can also include items often forgotten but equally or even more important: which characters are on stage right now, the emotional atmosphere of the scene, key pieces of clothing the characters are wearing, the direction the wind is blowing, the constellations visible in the night sky, and the list could go on and on depending on the specific story.
Stay Organized to Stay Focused as an Author
Most likely, you’ve heard the famous line “Mind the gap!” in relation to the warning given to railway passengers. It’s a warning for people to watch that short distance between the railcar and the platform. It’s such a small thing, but potentially disastrous if someone isn’t minding the gap. In the same way, many novelists fail to “mind the gap” when it comes to the seemingly small thing of staying organized.
I understand we all have different personalities, and one author may not lean toward being organized as much as the next. Yet, doing even a few simple things can help you stay more focused and avoid wasting time and creative energy.
So here are a few organization basics that can help you be a more productive author:
Making the Most of Your Time between Writing Novels
You’ve just typed “The End” on the last page of your novel—maybe your very first finished manuscript. Way to go! Treat yourself to a piece (or two) of your favorite cake or pie (or both) and maybe some ice cream on the side … or perhaps a night out for dinner and a movie with your special someone. It’s worth celebrating, because it takes some grit, tenacity, and perseverance to finish a writing a story—and writing isn’t quite the glamorous job some people think it is. It can surely be enjoyable, exciting, and invigorating, but it’s still work. Thus, kudos to you for unleashing the muse in your heart!
So, after finishing your novel and celebrating that evening, the next morning arrives—and you can’t even imagine sitting down at your computer to write the first sentence of a new novel-length story (if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants author) or to start a chapter outline and/or character charts for your next heavyweight (if you like having all your ducks in a row before writing a word). What to do, what to do?
Don’t Lose Great Story Ideas in the Depths of Your Imagination
Novelists seem to be able to come up with great story ideas at any given time and in any given situation: morning walks, feeding the baby, staff meetings, sitting in traffic, discussing politics with a friend, etc.
So you have all of these story ideas that bubble up in your imagination, sometimes perhaps at not exactly the most opportune times. How can you make sure these wonderful ideas don’t get lost in the depths of your fertile imagination?
Well, it comes down to what a story idea is worth to you. As a novelist myself, I know from personal experience that when a great story idea strikes and I think for certain that I’ll have no trouble remembering it, the idea typically slips away unless I am intentional about saving the idea in some fashion.
My first method of saving ideas was to carry a pen and small notepad with me so that when a story idea (or an idea for a current work) came along, I could jot it down. This method worked quite well, and still does when the situation calls for a quiet, discreet way of making some notes for myself. But then something better came along.
Avoid Passive Sentences for More Engaging Stories
If you’re a serious novelist, then you’ve likely heard the maxim, “Write active sentences and avoid the passive.” It’s a popular recommendation from editors for one simple reason: It’s true.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of passive sentences:
The dolphins were watched by the kids in the stands.
The house was painted and let to dry by the newlyweds.
The ball was hit by Joe into left field in his last at-bat.
From a grammatical standpoint, these sentences are okay. Yet from a reader’s standpoint, they’re, well … weak. When it comes to crafting stories, weaker sentences equate to less engaging writing, and that means disengaged readers who will be more apt to put a novel down if they run into enough snags like these.
To see the weakness of each of the examples above, now take a look at the sentences revised in the active voice:
Don’t Get Caught in the Trap of Writing for the Market
I recently had the opportunity to speak by phone with the publisher/owner of an indie publisher that specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. During the course of our call, he mentioned something that got my mental gears cranking. To paraphrase, he stated that he cannot believe the number of sci-fi/fantasy manuscript submissions he receives from authors who clearly have no understanding of either genre.
After hearing this and then bringing our call to a close, my mind went to a quote by Stephen King in his book, On Writing:
“What’s … wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky…. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”
Now I can’t say for sure why all these authors were submitting to this sci-fi/fantasy publisher, but the fact that they have no understanding of these genres leads me to believe that at least some of them chose these fiction categories because they saw market potential, especially given the extraordinary number of recent and current Hollywood movies that feature these sorts of stories.
Lay Aside All Other Goals and Simply Aim to Tell a Good Tale
Hearing fingernails dragging across a chalkboard has never really bothered me. However, I can imagine how many folks feel about that particular sound every time I hear someone say something to the effect of, “Well, what’s the point of the story? What’s the novel’s message or moral?”
I think what gets me most is that these people assume that a novel has to have some “higher” goal than simply being a good story that engages and entertains readers. (Please note: I am still more than happy to give such individuals plenty of kindness and grace, because fiction just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s thus hard to connect with someone philosophically if you’re not at least somewhat a kindred soul with the person.) But can I say plainly that if you’re a novelist, the point of your story is THE STORY. To wit …
The point of your story is not to make sure people clearly understand some message you want to share with the world, perhaps about the dangers of deforestation in the Amazon, for example. If you have a passion about that subject, then by all means write a nonfiction book on it and let your passion emanate from every sentence you pen, finishing with a bold call to action for the reader.
Keep Yourself Accountable by Establishing a Personal Metric
You may already be a published author, or perhaps you’re an aspiring novelist at the moment. Either way, you likely wear any of a number of other hats in your life: husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, father, mother, employee, employer, president of (fill in blank) club, soccer coach, church volunteer, etc. In other words, being a writer is only one of many things you are doing with your life, which further means that your wordsmithery needs to find a place on your schedule just like everything else you do.
Does this mean you need to have a daily writing goal? Maybe so many words or so many minutes (or hours, if you have them available)? I believe it does, because if you are serious about being a writer, then you’ll want to hold yourself accountable by clearly establishing some type of daily personal metric for yourself.
The Little Things Do Matter in Finishing Your Book
A close friend of mine recently told me he wanted to get serious about writing again, with the ultimate goal of finishing his nonfiction book. So I sent him some basic tips that come from an author I know personally, because my years of experience as a wordsmith have taught me that the little things do matter, and you’ll only find success if you give those little things due diligence.
So here are the tips I shared with my friend, via an author friend who lives by them:
- Whether it’s writing the actual text, brainstorming ideas, smoothing out plot snags, etc., try to work on your book in some form or fashion every single day, unless perhaps you choose to take off every Sunday as a day of rest.
- Create some kind of daily goal, whether it’s a fixed amount of time to work on your book or a target number of words to write for the day. Remember, even fifteen to thirty minutes a day is more than zero minutes a day. Same with words: you can’t go back and rework a blank page, so get those words on the page, even it’s a hundred a day.
- Get rid of distractions, because even if writing may be a passion of yours, you still need to take it seriously. In the words of my author friend: