I ONLY THOUGHT I WAS DONE

Why did I think that? I wasn’t done. I knew I wasn’t done. Did I just forget I wasn’t done? Did I wish I was done? Did I want so badly to be done that I convinced myself, however briefly, that I was done?

Whatever the reason, I went out on Twitter and told everybody I was done with my urban fantasy novel, which I’ve been nattering about here and on Twitter for a while now. I was about to send it off to an agent, even, but then I was dragged out of the house by my wife and daughter for some sort of Frappucino sale or something, which we had to take advantage of right then, and we didn’t end up getting home until after 5:00 pm, and it was Friday, so I put it on my to do list to email the file to the agent on Monday.

Then, somewhere over the weekend I thought, Wait, did I write that scene that sets up the climax that I thought of on the fly but was otherwise entirely unsupported by what had come before so that if I don’t go back and add a key scene to set it up the whole ending of the book will come across as “What? What was that? What just happened? Is it over? Why would that make it over? How did they do that? Why did they do that? How is that possible? Do I, the reader, have some sort of dementia? Did I miss something? Where am I? Who are all you people?”

Yeah, I really needed that scene.

And then there was the note from more than one early reader about the relationship between one of the heroes and his girlfriend which begins with the hero actually coming across as borderline abusive, and why do they have to be naked all the time? I needed to fix that early chapter, which I did, but then I didn’t keep going and fix the rest of their relationship so that there were scattered references to them being naked when they weren’t naked.

I had gone through the annotated manuscript sent to me by a trusted reader and embedded little notes in my current “final” file, addressed those notes, then convinced myself I was done having forgotten (at least for that day) the two pages of notes in my little silver notebook.

What’s the point of all this? Well, aspiring and working authors alike, what I’m trying to tell you is that this myth of a writer sitting down and just typing out a book from beginning to end, in order, then finishing with THE END and immediately sending it off to the publisher to be typeset is just that: a myth.

It was E.B. White who said “The best writing is rewriting.” And he’s mostly right. It helps if you start with good raw material, but make no mistake, your first draft will be just that: raw material. Then you have to go back and fill in the gaps in logic, add the scene that strengthens the ending, rethink the relationship between two characters, and so on. This can be a difficult process, and one best done with some help.

Before you send your manuscript out to an agent or editor, please have at least two people, preferably three, but no more than five, read the thing and give you notes—and real, detailed, considered notes. If you give it to your mom so she can tell you it’s wonderful, that’s not actually helping you. Most people, from what I’ve been told, have mothers who tell them everything they do is wonderful. That’s not helping. No first draft of any book is wonderful, per se. So you need to give it to someone you trust will tell you stuff like: “I didn’t get this whole thing about the monkey.” Or even passive-aggressive notes like: “When you write the ending, I’d love to read it.” And embarrassing stuff like: “I think you’re using the words ‘throbbing member’ too often—alternative?”

You don’t have to agree with every note, but here’s a rule I’ve said out loud in front of people and try to live by myself: If one person tells you something is wrong that person may be a total idiot who doesn’t know shit. If two people tell you something is wrong, something is wrong. If three people tell you something is wrong, you should already know that from the first two people. Your job then is to believe them and think about how to fix it.

More than one person told me this relationship was out of balance and that my hero was coming across as a user. I really didn’t want him to be that guy, so though he still has to keep a big secret from his lover, and he still needs to access her magical powers for purposes she’s not permitted to fully understand, he’s doing it from a place of respect and affection now, which I hope will make him more likeable, at least to me.

This morning I’ll get to that scene that explains the ending—a note I gave myself because I knew I was adding a layer when I wrote the climax but forgot (how did I forget that?) that I needed to go back and shore it up.

What I’m doing now could be called a “final pass.” I started reading the book from the very beginning, slowly and carefully, word for word. I’ve already found a few misspellings and clunky sentences, and of course I’m fixing those as I go. I’ve also discovered some bits that needed to be more clear, like how the villains knew about the old man . . . and I’m de-pornofying and balancing the relationship between that hero and his witch girlfriend (that’s witch, literally, by the way—I said this was an urban fantasy), and I’m a bit more than halfway through and will probably find a few more problems I’ll have to do my best to fix before I get to the end.

But when I get to the end, this time, I’m as done as I can be until it gets to the next level of reader: the experienced professional. The agent will likely have notes. I will take this notes seriously. Fingers crossed, it gets to an editor who likes it enough to offer notes, too, and I will take those notes just as seriously. A copy editor will have some queries, too, I imagine. So there are stages of done in this business, and I’m only at the second one.

The first “done” is a completed rough draft. That’s when you have the whole thing on the page (or, more accurately, in the Word file), and today I will get to the second stage of “done”: I will have turned the rough draft into a first draft. Based on feedback from the agent there will be a third “done,” which will mean the book is ready to be read by editors. Only after an editor has had his or her say will I get to the very nearly final “done,” which is when it goes to a copy editor. After that it will be at the generally widely considered to be final stage of “done,” and will actually be made into a book. Maybe, some day, though, some sort of revised anniversary edition or something like that will be released, which can be described as the post-final stage of “done,” or “over done.”

That last stage is optional, but none of the other stages are.

—Philip Athans

P.S. And one of the last things I’ll do today is run my manuscript through a spellchecker. This is a powerful tool that you should use. I did, just now with this blog post, and discovered that I had misspelled the word “misspellings.” Why did I think it only had one s?

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to I ONLY THOUGHT I WAS DONE

  1. Been through this too…not always fun, but definitely good you caught these things before calling it a final pass!

  2. I think we’ve all been through this, but I know your book will be better for it. I constantly rewrite to the point where it can be hard to let my work go out into the real world. I guess this is better than no revision at all though.

  3. Brian says:

    I think the following quote is fabulous. I have read dozens of indie books and the one thing I think almost all of them need to get through their heads if they ever want to have anyone in the writing industry or even readers to take them seriously is to follow your example in this quote.

    “What I’m doing now could be called a “final pass.” I started reading the book from the very beginning, slowly and carefully, word for word. I’ve already found a few misspellings and clunky sentences, and of course I’m fixing those as I go.”

    I would love to see this advise in an article on smashwords or goodreads. This is the place a lot of indie writers are coming up short, and until they understand this they will continue to get three star reviews and remain in obscurity.

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