25 Things You Should Know About Your Completed Novel

Writing Advice

So. You wrote a book. There it sits before you, whether on the screen or printed out: a city sculpted from the face of a raw and ragged cliff. Epic, I know. Dizzying, even. It’s okay if you want to throw up. Go ahead. Nobody’s watching. HA HA HA HA WE ALL JUST SAW YOU THROW UP HA HA HA — ha, er, oh, sorry.

That was cruel.

You’ve got a book and it’s time you ask: “Now what?”

Consult this list of 25 and maybe you’ll find the answer.

1. You Have Gone Where Other “Writers” Have Failed To Go

Failed writers — “failure” being only an indication of never having finished a fucking thing — are everywhere. Kick over a log, rip off a panel of drywall, open the trunk of a long-forgotten car and there they are. Like swarming roaches or starving raccoons. Already you’ve separated yourself from them just by the dint of having completed a novel-length work. You’re not done, of course: this is just the beginning. But find comfort in the fact that you just leveled up. Ding!

2. Welcome To Novel Club

If this is your first night at novel club, you have to write. …no, wait, that’s not it. If this is your first novel, as in, you’ve never ever written a novel before, it helps to have your expectations in check. One’s first novel threatens to be a “trunk novel” — as in, a novel best kept in the dark and not dragged out into the light for all to see. Realism is unpopular, and cheerleading is easy, but trust me: not every book one writes demands a place on the stage. I say this as a guy who has six completed novels (and an infinity of unfinished ones) shelved away in some dark murky corner of my hard drive where all the creatures have gone blind and pale. I sometimes hear the sentiment that self-publishing obviates the existence of the trunk novels, that we can all barf up our half-digested literary meals into the marketplace, but that’s a level of insane I cannot quite parse. Just because I can sell any jizz-caked gym-sock on eBay doesn’t mean I should.

3. Trunk Novels Need Extra Love

That said, trunk novels don’t need to be relegated to the burn pile — but, in my experience, they need a lot of extra attention and TLC. No, not the pop trio starring T-Boz, Left-Eye, and The Other One. They cannot help you with your novel. Point is, a first novel is no different from the first time you do anything: build a chair, bake a cake, go to an orgy. Unless you’re some kind of prodigy, you’re not going to nail it the first time out of the gate — you used the wrong hammer, the wrong cake flour, the wrong industrial-grade sexual lubricant. If you really believe in a trunk novel, then just know you’re likely to pump a lot of extra work into it. Don’t worry: the next novels will be easier. Probably. Shut up.

4. It Ain’t A Batch Of Brownies, Pal

The mindset you have about your novel matters. It’s best to view every novel (or script, or any story) as a work-in-progress. This isn’t a batch of brownies: you make those brownies and they come out of the oven, you’re done. Game over. You can’t keep working on them. Best you can do is cover them in extra icing and hope that stops them from tasting like asbestos shingles. A novel, however, is always at only one stage of its evolution — you the author are as a god, helping urge forth the little trilobite to grow fins and then lungs and then legs and then learn how to use iPhones and make funny cat videos. The novel is always able to change, always able to grow new limbs and see its organs spontaneously rearrange.

5. Cool Those Heels, Flash

A writer who is impatient is a writer who probably has health issues, which explains why I’ve had seven blood-squirting aneurysms since beginning this career. Just the same, embrace patience. Novels, like wine, need time. It’s easy and understandable to finish a novel and want to see it Out There somehow — but you need to chillax. Do people still say that? Chillax? Maybe they should say “rechill” instead. Just rechill, homeslice. Anyway. Resist the urge to close the book on your book and consider it done. Don’t send it to agents, publishers, or into the marketplace. Let the bottle breathe.

6. If You Love Something, Set It Free

Also: if you hate something, set it free. You need distance from this novel. You need to remove yourself from its presence long enough to discard your love of certain part and your distaste for others until you can approach the book as if… well, as if someone else entirely wrote the damn thing. You need to reach that time when you can look at the book and say, “I forgot I even wrote this part.” That may be a week. That may be two months. For me it’s like, four hours, because I have a brain like a colander.

7. Discover Why It’s Your Book

You wrote this book. So it needs to feel like you wrote it. That’s what a lot of revision is secretly about — yes, yes, of course it’s about confirming quality and creating sense out of nonsense but it’s also about discovering why this is a book no one else but you could’ve written. This is the time where the clay is soft and your hands make deep prints. This is when you own the book. Because if someone else could’ve written it, then what’s the fucking point?

8. The Answer: “As Many As It Takes, Motherfucker”

The question: “How many rewrites do I need to do?”

9. Written By The Shaman, Adopted By The Tribe

The writer is the shaman. He’s the whackadude goofed up on funny jungle mushrooms who steps behind the curtain that separates worlds and there he does battle with ghosts and ideas and returns to our world with the story of what happened in that secret space. That’s what you’ve got now: the result of your battle with invisible entities. But now the tribe must adopt your story, and it’s the tribe that improves your work: beta-readers and buddies, agents and editors. A novel that exists all on its own is not as strong as it could be: your novel should be the product of many eyes and many thoughts. It takes a village, not a village idiot.

10. Criticism Is A Conversation

Criticism is good for your book. Tumbled rocks are polished by agitation, and so too will your tale be sharpened and shined by the rough stone and hard grit of criticism. Criticism is a necessary conversation to have. No criticism is absolute, and many pieces of criticism combat one another. But that’s why this is a conversation and not writ law: you the author must consider and respond. One thing I can say about criticism is, even when you don’t agree with the solution, often you should look for core problems. The true power of criticism is not when it gives you answers but rather when it helps you understand the questions.

11. Spare Change

Writers who are afraid of change are writers who will trip over their own ego and fall into a mud-walled pit where they are eaten by muskrats. Once again, this is a mindset issue: be ready to take what you have and smash it apart. As it runs the gauntlet, it is beaten by batons and whipped with willow branches and drubbed by double dildos. Each step the book takes a beating and with each beating its flesh and bones change. That’s a good thing. That’s a proper thing. You must be willing to embrace change from behind. You must give change a gentle and eager reacharound.

12. Novel, Thy Name Is Legion

When going into the “edit cycle” of your novel, it may be easier to view the story not as a single entity but rather a series of moving parts. A house is not just a house: it’s hinges and pipes and floorboards and water heaters and restless ghosts and sex swings and fiberglass insulation and hungry mice. You don’t edit a giant hunk of word-meat called a novel: you butcher it in pieces and parts.

13. A Tail So Long You Might Trip Over It

A novel is also not a short-lived creature — the very act of creating a novel is way more than the month or the year it took to write that first draft. Time invested now equates to, ideally, readers earned later.

14. How To Edit Your Shit

I won’t bludgeon you with the reiterated details, but I’ll just point you to this: Edit Your Shit Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Make with the clicky-clicky and whip out the hatchet and the scalpel.

15. Interface With Your Intestinal Flora

When is your book done? You’ve no test. No way to objectively say, “Ahh, here we are, this bird is fully-cooked and heated to an internal temperature of 666 degrees.” You can certainly listen to others, but at the end of the day the one voice you have to listen to is your own: check your gut. Use your instincts.

16. As A Human Person With A Book, You Have Options

It’s easy to see the doom in the publishing realm: lowered advances and no more bookstores and the fact that they now take writers out to pasture and shoot them for their meat (so I hear). But you merely need to peel back the pessimistic subdermis and see that things are changing fast. Often for the author, not against the author. Self-publishing is only one small part of that equation. What I’m saying is, that book you just finished? It has options now that did not exist for it five years ago. That is a feature, not a bug.

17. The Value Of An Agent

An agent is, ideally, a shepherd for book and writer. The agent helps the manuscript cross the deadly savage territory of our ruined earth and, at the end of its journey, helps it get the best seat on the rocketship to Mars. An agent does more than just sell the book — the agent helps identify opportunity, maximize one’s earning, and help push the book into other realms by pimping the book’s rights. Do you need an agent? No. Will an agent help? A good one will, mos def.

18. A Meh Agent Reps The Book, A Good Agent Reps The Writer

Some agents are, simply put, feculent turd-heads. They don’t respond, they jerk around authors, they mock writers and act every bit the vile gatekeeper. But that doesn’t mean agents are bad. No group is without its malefactors: whether we’re talking hotel maids or astronauts, some amongst them are shitbirds. That doesn’t mean it’s time to disavow all hotel maids or astronauts. Here’s, for me, the line between a good agent and a ennnhh-one: the *poop noise* agent wears blinders and cares only about a single book, but the good agent sees a single book as one part of a writer’s overall value. The good agent cultivates the writer.

19. The Value Of A Publisher

A publisher will do all the things for your book that will get it ready for the marketplace — and, to be clear, the marketplace puts commerce above art, for better or for worse. Somebody needs to handle cover design and marketing and all those critical book-whore duties. Don’t want to do those yourself? Don’t feel equipped for such tasks? Then your book needs a proper publisher.

20. Stop Punching Yourself In The Face For Our Entertainment

Some writers are so eager to have their book Out There that they will do anything — and that means signing raw deal contracts, contracts that might as well be rolled up into a baton and used to smack the writer across the bridge of his bad-doggy nose. I’ve heard horror stories of unscrupulous publishing entities playing havoc with a writer’s rights and even that writer’s career. Eff that in the ay, emmer-effer. Protect yourself. Don’t sign away your book without knowing what you’re getting out of the situation. Oh, and by the way: once again the value of an agent is made irrevocably clear.

21. The Value Of A Smaller Publisher

A smaller publisher does what a bigger publisher does, though often with a shorter reach — but also with a more personal and less corporate touch. Bigger publishers are cruise-ships: big behemoths that have great power but are slow to turn. Smaller publishers are smaller boats: less power, yes, but can turn on a dime and respond to changes far more swiftly.

22. Any Good Partner Helps You Cultivate Your Vision, Not Theirs

Whoever you choose to partner with, from agent to editor to publishers big and small, know that the value of that partnership is best expressed by how much they want to help bring your vision to life rather than bringing to bear some external vision. They are on your team: you are not on theirs. Also, they should give you candy. Because candy is awesome. In other news: I’m kind of hungry.

23. The Value Of Self-Publishing

Relative freedom, that’s the value. The gate is open. You’re a free range creature who has the pick of the pasture. Of course, you’re out there potentially all by your lonesome, too — a fox wants to come up and turn you into a pile of blood and feathers, that’s his right, because hey, no fences, no gates. But it’s your life, little chicken. The cover, the content, the quality — it’s all up to you and nobody can tell you otherwise.

24. Self-Publishing Is Not Your Own Personal Flea Market

Just the same, the freedom of self-publishing should not be interpreted as a wide open marketplace where you can just march into Target and start selling your crummy ill-cobbled wares next to brand name items (“I MADE AN ANTLER LAMP YOU SHOULD BUY IT”). Self-publishing is about competing and surpassing, not about confirming everybody’s worst inclinations and ensuring that self-publishing is just another word for “a very public slush pile.” Your book isn’t second-hand goods. Treat it with respect and give it the time and effort it needs no matter what form of publishing you choose to embrace.

25. For Now, Take A Moment, Bask In Your Awesomeness

Hey, fuck all this waffling white noise, forget all this badgering buzz — you just wrote a book. Holy shit. No, wait, let’s do that in all caps: HOLY SHIT. You just took a great big unformed hunk of intellectual rock and carved it into shape, into form, into the very face of story. That’s incredible. The fact you can create a whole new world and brand new people inside it — and you can create them out of, uhhh, ohh, I dunno, NOTHING — is no small ordeal. That’s epic business and you should pat yourself on the back and have a cookie and drop acid and do the Snoopy dance until you pass out. For now: celebrate. Come back to this list later. It’ll be here when you need it.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

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And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

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Or the newest: 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER

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23 comments

  • Having finished another round of revisions on my sparkly ‘completed’ novel, this is very apropos. Sometimes the anxious desire to have it rescued from the depths of query hell overtakes the reality that I should pause and bask a moment in the awesome of ‘I wrote a book!’

    On a (somewhat) related subject, I’m curious about your thoughts on if self-publishing first ruins your chances with traditional publishers? Big successes often end up with future contracts, but is it different if you end up with moderate or meager results? I’ve heard horror stories about deals being cancelled because someone had published stuff on their own before. Though I will say, I find stories on the internet end up a bit like a game of telephone when it comes to this sort of thing. I don’t think I’d self publish anytime soon, but I always think things out ridiculously far down the road.

    • @Linds –

      This is my understanding of self-publishing, re: trad-pub. This may be a moving set of goalposts but here it is:

      If you self-publish badly, you hurt your chances.

      If you self-publish well, it has little effect on your chances.

      If you self-publish and *sell* very well, it has a positive effect on your chances.

      If your goal is trad-pub, then my thought is to just go that direction with it.

      – c.

  • What is this “completed” thing you speak of. I thought all novels were works in progress? Even the published ones can be due a revision, or, if you’re Raymond E Feist, several.

    @Linds, Christopher Paolini self-pubbed Eragon before it was picked up by conventional publishers, so it’s not always the kiss of death.

  • I finished a major rewrite two days ago that I am really excited about. But I’m trying to contain my enthusiasm because I know there are still a few holes that need filled before I send it away to my editing friends. That being said, having 64,000 words written in one story feels like a huge accomplishment right now, and I’m enjoying that feeling. I started 12 weeks ago and I literally rewrote the entire book over the past six or so because I started in a pov that ended up feeling so wrong as I finished my first draft.
    I think I’m going to have to refer to this list a few more times throughout December so I don’t get impatient about getting my book out there too quickly.

  • If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that concrit is the best thing since sliced bread. I’ve never had a problem with it, and I am absolutely baffled by how many people just don’t want it. Literally yesterday someone who is also doing NaNoWriMo showed me a snippet of her story, and I asked her if she wanted concrit. She said no, she just wanted to know if word X was correct.

    That kind of shit makes me want to burst at the seams. I have all this possibly useful advice, like hey, use a comma when writing dialogue with a tag, not a period, and they just don’t want it. WHY? I don’t understand it. I take concrit from even the most dubious of people. Hey, I may end up ignoring everything they say, but you never know when there will be that gem that will make you look at it another way.

    I miss concrit. I don’t get it often anymore, since lately I’ve mostly written fanfiction, and the fanfiction world is apparently allergic to concrit. But damn it, I WANT IT. How the hell else am I supposed to get better? Which was kind of the whole point of writing fanfiction for me in the first place (though I love it, I still want to be an authentic published author, not just some fanfiction girl with some fans). I used to get some seriously good concrit when I was publishing original stuff on forums from a friend of mine, who was not a friend of mine at the time and was genuinely shocked when I latched on to him like a freaking lifeline after he tore my work to some serious shreds. I loved it. I thrived on it. Sure, I’d get that flash of ‘YOU SAID ANGRY THINGS ABOUT MY WORD CHILD!’ anger, but on the heels of that came ‘Oh holy shit, I never even thought of it that way’.

    So… ramble ramble, people need to learn to take some fucking concrit. And dish it out. Otherwise, why fucking write? I don’t give a crap if you’re writing fanfiction with a fucking crayon and then scanning it to a blog. If you’re putting it out there for the world to see, learn to listen to what the world has to say about that. Otherwise, keep the shit in your secret closet. Which I imagine is behind the regular one, or something. Writing is all about conveying something to the reader. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or even who you’re writing it for. If you could convey your message better, even if just to yourself, why wouldn’t you? Do people enjoy not knowing what the fuck is going on? I don’t get it.

  • @Alisha – totally. Anyone who can’t (or won’t) take constructive criticism is doomed to wallow in their own fecal pen-dribblings (as Chuck would probably put it). Good critiquers are like gold dust. Cherish them.

    Me, I thrive on feedback – and I LOVE editing. Right now I’m prepping my WiP for major, up-to-the-elbows-in-blood surgery, and anything that looks even vaguely useless or unhealthy is going straight in the Hazardous Waste bin…

    There’s a fine line, admittedly, between fiddling needlessly with a finished work and trying to make it that little bit better – eventually you run foul of the law of diminishing returns and have to say “enough” and send it out into the world. But very few writers ever reach that point.

  • I have about 51k words. It’s been since the first of the month.

    This thing? It is not done. 50k words does not a novel make, regardless what the ‘YOU WON’ people at OLL are crowing to everyone who has a purple bar. I’m sure some people have a completed novel.

    A friend retweeted this from an account called @FakeEditor: “I have no fewer than 15 obvious #NaNoWriMo books in my Inbox. All are just over 50k in length, all clearly unedited. #thisiswhyIdrink”
    Sad, but undoubtedly true. There are numerous people, right now, aqueeing that they’re a Real Writer Now and packaging up their ‘works of genius and dedication’ to ship straight off to some poor bastard of an agent or editor. This is bad. It probably means the genuinely finished novel that just landed in Inbox Slot #15 will get shot down by some poor bastard who just went through 14 unedited, horrific afterbirth piles of debris and just wants to end the travesty of a day.

    That 51k of mine? That just means there’s about another 30k to go before I finish the first draft.
    Then there’s a week or two off while I let it sit and stew, probably working on a Pathfinder adventure or just mucking around on Minecraft or something.
    And then? Rewrite. Take the scalpel and cut away the dead tissue. Suture the gaping plot holes. Graft on some fresh branches to the plot tree. Make it less of a horrible pile of yuk and more of a presentable draft.

    Then do it again, if need be, and again and again, until it’s reasonably intact and I can hand it to beta readers. “Tell me what sucks and what’s great.”
    And then rewrite it some more, ad nauseum, until it’s something I can submit to a publisher.

    /Then/ I’ll be willing to say it’s complete. Not a second sooner.

  • I am in deadline hell/heaven/purgatory/champagne room. I love/hate it. I have to remind myself that I am lucky to have a publisher, and that someone out there thinks people may not only want to read my drivel, but actually PAY for it. Then I get wasted and press on.
    -WTYM

  • I did NanoWriMo, 50K words in November, but I had 18K words done, and will need another 20 or 30K to get to “The End”… but my last novel was 96K words and finishing it was quite glorious. This book will be much better (not the trunk novel). Nanowrimo helped me get off my ass and start busting this thing out.

    I may forego the acid for some good boomers- but I will definitely be doing the Snoopy dance around some sort of hedonistic campfire- (remember, Snoopy is naked)

    Finishing a book is awesome, having a story you love is awesome, especially because it takes more effort than others could ever realize, and is immensely gratifying.

    After all the things I have learned, I am going to go back to the trunk novel and fix it. I have had excellent reviews, but it has some amateurish elements. Maybe I will leave it, so that we can all have a good laugh one day after I’m all famous and stuff.

    Whether I become a household name, or barely make 7 bucks for my efforts, it will have been highly worth it. I’ll be sipping the celebratory champagne with my characters when I am finished. (they don’t like boomers so I’ll wait till after they leave for that)

    Your contributions have been highly valuable to me, Chuck. My readers will owe you thanks, for helping me write more better.

    haha

    cheers

  • The people who write the “Any schmuck can write a book” how-to guides mislead a lot of new writers and at times discourage them. The say that the first draft is like a hippie drum circle where ‘real’ writing just effuses out of you. They often dismiss the 2nd – 10th draft edits that bring out the real writing.

    As for concrit, being able to measure its value is an altogether new skill set. I’ve belonged to writing groups, great, bad and worse. You have to find a group devoted to your genre, because a chick-lit group may not connect with your SF novel. And stay away from groups that deliver critiques in insulting language. There’s a big difference between being brutally honest and being an a-hole.

  • I finished a novel after years and years . . . and the editor said nice things and then told me to rewrite it. I was nauseated for a couple of days, angry for a couple of weeks, and now I’m elated. Because I’ve buckled down and I’m fixing the damn delicious thing, and it’s gonna be great, and I’m gonna be happy. I already am happy.

    That whole shaman/curtain/tribe thing? That’s how you figure you can get away without pants, isn’t it? Feather loincloth, is it?

  • I am endlessly perturbed by the extent to which good writing advice for fiction maps almost directly onto good academic writing advice.

    It’s like… surely this has been spotted before now? Someone should have said?

    Anyway, thanks Chuck.

  • “If you self-publish well, it has little effect on your chances.” So very true, but I hope indie writers don’t use that as an excuse to put out anything less than they feel is their best. That relative freedom argument is true–but the expectation of the public isn’t any lower.

    Good words. Thanks!

  • Highly polarizing, often offensive and always entertaining! “Just rechill, homeslice.” I’m crying over here! Whether I agree with you or not, you approach issues in a way that makes me think and, in doing so, makes your opinion highly valued. This is the case now.

    I’ve punched out 50k words and I’ll only halfway done with my tale. There’s no way this raw word dump is ready for prime time. It’s validating to have my suspicions echoed in your post. Keep calling it like you see it.

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