Writing a book is hard – mentally, emotionally, physically. It means digging in and sticking at it until you get to the final line of that story. For most of us, it’s more a marathon than a sprint.
And now you’ve finished!
Hooray for you!
Stop. Look around. Celebrate (champagne never goes out of style). Congratulate yourself on your achievement – lots of people with the ambition to write a book fall by the wayside and never reach the point where they’ve got a complete manuscript under their belts.
You’ve climbed Everest.
So what now? Is it time to have a nice cup of tea and enjoy the view?
Well, yes, you can have a bit of a break. Refill the well. Watch some TV. Read someone else’s book. Go out and remind your friends you’re still alive.
I always have a couple of days downtime after finishing a book just to get my head back into a normal space – or what counts as normal space for a writer – and to let the adrenaline of that last dash to the top of the mountain drain away.
But don’t avoid your writing for too long. In my experience, the longer you take without getting back into the saddle (I should have called this article ‘Mixed Metaphors’), the harder it is to return to your working routine.
You’ve climbed Everest. Guess what? There’s another Everest next door. Time to put on the crampons again and write another book. With a few rare exceptions, careers are made from more than one book, however marvellous that one book might be.
I’ve got a couple of pieces of advice for moving from a finished project to the next one. So here are my top 6 recommendations for what to do when you’ve finished one book and you’re looking at a new piece of work:
1. Once you’ve finished your first draft, put it away for a while. I can hear shrieks of horror here. “I’ve just created this masterpiece! I need to edit it and get it out to my adoring public.” But stop and think before you do anything rash. Your best editing tool is detachment from your writing, and one of the only ways to achieve that is taking time away and, ideally, working on something else. When you come to the end of a piece of work, you’re just too close to see its flaws (and sometimes its qualities too). If you can bear to put the finished manuscript under the bed for six months while you write your new story, it will really pay off when you come back to fixing the problems. Obviously contracts don’t always allow the luxury of a long fermenting time, but even now when I’m on tight turnaround dates, I put the rough draft aside for a couple of days before I start polishing it. Particularly for writers at the beginning of their career, writing something else while your previous manuscript rests will help you develop new skills that you can then use to make that first manuscript shine like a diamond. One of the great things about the writing game is that you never stop learning, wherever you are in your career.
2. This is more about polishing the finished manuscript than starting the new one, but I always print out the manuscript and read it straight through as a reader not an editor, once I’ve let it rest and I’m about to start cleaning it up. It gives me a sense of the overall shape of the story and helps me to see the forest when I start picking at those pesky trees like word choice and pacing and characterisation.
3. My third suggestion is another hurry up and wait piece of advice. For most of us when we’re working on one manuscript, at least one brilliant new idea is whispering in our ear begging us to drop our current project and turn to this sure-fire winner. DON’T LISTEN! Remember what I said about the marathon? If you’re running a long race, you don’t turn off and meander up a side track just because it looks pretty. You keep your eyes on that finish line and you persevere, however difficult or boring or painful it is. When I started out, I used to listen to this voice, so take it from me – that side track turns into just as much of a slog as the track you’re on now. Not only that, you’ll find at some stage (usually around the 100 page mark for me), another brilliant new idea will whisper in your ear telling you to turn away and play with the fairies and unicorns. And the rewards of forsaking your project are about as real as fairies and unicorns, sadly. However, don’t ignore that voice altogether. Jot down the idea and promise yourself you’ll return to it once you’ve come to the end of your current race. If you really can’t shut it up, write the first chapter/scene, but then stop. I repeat – STOP! Often telling the new idea that it will get its turn will shut it up. A nice benefit of about having the new first chapter up your sleeve is that you don’t have to face a blank page when it comes time to write your next story. Blank pages can be pretty scary.
4. My fourth piece of advice is hurry up and hurry up. It’s likely that you’re really excited about your new story – and so you should be. That excitement is the spark that inspires you to set out on the marathon journey of bringing it to life. It will linger and push you through the sagging middle and the parts you just don’t want to write. So start your story while you’re red-hot to write it. Words on a page will make that new project real in a way nothing else will. Perhaps your writing process involves intense planning or research – that can count as starting it, or perhaps you can research as you go. Because I write historical romance, I know how fascinating research can be, but beware, it’s a black hole. If you’re researching as issues come up, you’ll be more inclined to stick to what is relevant for your story instead of getting lost in the endless rabbit warren of interesting things that might be useful. I’m a pantser – this piece of advice may not work for dedicated plotters – but after doing a lot of writing, I can say that excited first burst of creativity offers definite benefits.
5. Be kind to yourself. The sad reality is that your work will almost never match the shining masterpiece that you had in your head when you came up with your original idea. Even worse, you’ll be inclined to compare your difficult, rough, unfocused new work to what you’ve spent a lot of time and trouble on in your previous manuscript. Just remember, the new manuscript was a similar mess when you started it – before you had a chance to work your creative magic. Don’t worry if your first draft is dreadful and confused and shapeless. That’s what first drafts are for. Nobody ever needs to see this mess, except you. And the beauty of getting a first draft down is that you can then set about fixing it. As the great Nora Roberts said, “I can fix a bad page; I can’t fix a blank one.”
6. My last piece of advice is have fun! A new story idea is a challenge and an opportunity and a fresh start and, yeah, can be glittering with fairies and unicorns, should you so wish. I love writing the early chapters where everything’s a discovery and writing the book hasn’t yet turned into a marathon. At this stage, the potential for writerly brilliance is endless and if you manage to bring even a fraction of that potential alive on the page, you are a writer indeed, my friend.
Writing a new book is always an adventure. New people to live in your head. New situations to explore. New emotions to dive into. New ways to tell a story that’s yours alone.
I wish you all the best as you set out on your fresh challenges. And here’s to many fresh challenges in the future. Finished your book? Get out there! Write another one!
This article first appeared in WQ, the magazine of the Queensland Writers Centre, in February 2016