When ‘THE END’ is Only the Beginning

It’s a marathon this novel writing thing, even if it can resemble a hysterical dash and a collapse over the finish line.  What is the writer equivalent of lactic acid build-up I wonder?   My brain is just as fried, my arse is numb and my shoulders are frozen so now I look like a person who shrugs….And all is the result of my groping and spewing and cajoling myself toward ‘THE END’.

Sometimes it feels like I don’t care anymore, particularly when I’m so very close to finishing the first draft.  I want it over now, so I can amputate it and move on.  If truth be told, I also want a night out to celebrate it, drink a bit, pat myself on the back for having lasted the distance, so its complicated.  But underneath it all, I know I haven’t finished. THE END  is only the beginning.

I’ve read that many authors put their work away for a time so they can gain some perspective.  That’s very sensible, isn’t it?  I put my work away because I don’t know what I have anymore. I can’t see it.  The endings are often shit due to my need to done .  I am not sure whether I have a story and I have no idea how to proceed.  So yes, it was about perspective, but it it is also rather disappointing.

Putting the draft away is the easy part.  The thorny problem of what to do when the manuscript has ‘rested’ still remains.  I have to admit I am happy to read it again after not giving it another thought for a while.  That’s not the problem.  I download it on my e-reader, so I can get the full reading experience and to prevent myself from tinkering with tiny details.  I can highlight things as I go and write some notes if I wish, but I can’t change anything.  It’s smart.  It’s sensible, but it still doesn’t mean I know what I am doing.

It doesn’t mean, when I come to the part that isn’t working, I can easily pinpoint why.  Mostly I write ‘isn’t working’ using the note taking facility and move on.  Can you see how fundamentally unhelpful this is?  All that is left to do is to put the manuscript back into a drawer because I would need the time to forget again, so I could attempt to recapture that first-time read.

This is what I did until I decided I needed to learn some skills.  Editing skills.  This doesn’t mean I expected to replace a professional editor in the editing of my own work.  I’ve been a journalist.  I know the importance of another set of eyes.  No, I needed to learn how to edit, just to get to a point where I wasn’t wasting someone else’s time.  I needed to know I had a story or the promise of one and if this was absent, what I could do about it.

It takes a different way of looking at it to see it, to really see it.  Putting the manuscript in the drawer to ‘rest’ is still sensible.  It allowed me to become a reader, but a reader isn’t an editor.  A reader can tell me whether it works or doesn’t work, but not why?  An editor can rise above it all and look at the mechanics of the story.  An editor can diagnose.

By far the most valuable thing I have learned, with the help of a course run through my local writer’s centre,  is to just stop reading the draft line by line in a deep way each time I attempt a run-through.  If I am looking at structure and I am attempting to see if it is sound, then in order to see it, I need to go scene by scene, as structural editors do, not line by line, as readers do.  There will be time enough for that when I am at that stage in my editing.

In order to gain the perspective I needed to see the structure of my book, I was asked to create a story map.  All this entailed was to skim the book, and write a short sentence on each scene.  I placed these sentences next to their scenes in a table and could see the progression of the entire novel in a couple of pages.

It was extraordinary.  I could see the story.  I could see where it moved too slowly or too quickly.  I could see where story lines fell away and could make decisions to cut them or to develop them further.  I could follow the motivations of my character’s throughout the narrative and form an opinion about whether their actions reflected their desires.

In constructing this story map, I was able to capture an overview and hold it in my mind long enough to make a list of issues to think about and address as solutions came to me.  But there is another advantage to this process.  The philosophy of the novel made itself apparent.  As humans, story feels almost innate.  It has been with us for a long time.  Ask us what it is though and we might be stuck for words.  I learned how complex long form fiction is.  How nuanced.

That first draft is like a dream.  I feel my way through it.  I skip.  I play.  I am a spring lamb until I lose that spirit about three quarters of the way through and start to feel haunted and in need of an ending.  But the first draft is only the clay.  It can be great clay.  It is where the whimsy lives and novels need that.  In fact, it might be that I should throw myself into the first draft like every hopeful marathon runner, skip, dance and finally crawl desperately over the finish line because that is how the whimsy is made.

Novels, though, those which love their readers back are made of sterner stuff.   Find those in the editing stage.