Hey, I finished writing a novel! Now what?

Alright, after months of silence I’m back.  Today is actually a pretty momentuous day for several reasons, and not just because I finally got off my lazy butt and started blogging again.  I also…<cue the music>…finished my third draft of my current WIP (work in progress)! Exciting, I know.  And while it still has another half dozen drafts to go (probably more than that, if I want to be entirely honest), I now have what I refer to as a “readable draft.”

A “readable draft” means that the plot makes sense throughout and the story is basically finished, so I can now have someone else read through it.  I don’t like to share my WIP with anyone until it gets to this point because honestly, my first drafts are just a confused jumble of words, full of inconsistencies and terrible dialogue.  Now, at least, these plot fails are surrounded by bits of story that makes sense.  Yay!

What happens now, you might ask? Well, first I need to con someone I trust into reading this draft and giving me some good feedback.  Actually, I like to get two people to read it at this point so I can get a good variety of criticism.  The list of people I will let read a first readable draft is very small, which is how I think it should be.  All you prospective writers out there, don’t let just anyone read an unfinished piece because it’s really not going to be your best work yet.  Find someone who reads a lot and can take a look at your story as a reader and let you know what works and what doesn’t.  It has to be someone who knows you well enough to be brutally honest, but who’s opinion you trust enough not to get angry and take it personally.  These are tough qualifications, which is why my own list is so small.

Another thing I’ve learned is to give my first readers plenty of time.  They are doing me a huge favor, so I don’t want to rush them, but I also find it’s helpful to give them some sort of timeline.  Most people operate much better when they know they have to get something done by a certain day.  Otherwise, your manuscript might just sit in a corner of their rooms for the next three months.  Generally, I give them a month, which accomplishes two things.  First, that’s more than enough time to read a manuscript and give some general critiques on it, and two, that gives me a month away from my story so when I do get it back, along with their suggestions, I can look at it with a fresh set of eyes.

When I hand over my glorious manuscript, I have also learned to be clear about my expectations.  I don’t want any line editing, or paragraph by paragraph notes, or anything ridiculous and hugely time-consuming like that.  No, these kinds of critiques should come later from your writing group.  Don’t have a writing group? Join one! I’ll talk more about why in a later post.  But getting back to this topic, what I want from a first reader is just this: Is my story interesting? Why or why not? Does it make sense? What doesn’t work in it? Any suggestions to make it better? Those are pretty much the only things I ask at this point.

When I get back my feedback, that’s when the real work begins.

The Heart in Conflict With Itself

The other day I listened to an interview with George R.R. Martin on iTunes “Meet the Author,” and it had a lot of good advice for aspiring authors.  Granted, this was an old interview that came out on 11/07, but the advice he gave was still very relevant.  Since he’s one of my favorite authors, even if he does have a disturbing habit of killing off main characters, I listened carefully, and these were the three main things I took away from it.

  1. Persistence: When George R.R. Martin first decided he wanted to make a living as a writer, he realized he’d have to produce a lot more stories, so he organized his time in order to write for half a day every day.  This enabled him to finish a story about every two weeks, which is impressive by itself, but he also used the same mentality to get his work out there.  Whenever a story was rejected, he would just put it in another envelope and send it on to the next place, never stopping, never looking back.  Some of his stories were rejected many times, but he just kept sending them out until they found a home somewhere.
  2. Keep Moving Forward: When one of his stories was rejected, George R.R. Martin didn’t waste his time going back and tinkering with it.  If it was done, it was done, and there was no use going backwards.  Instead, he kept producing new work, which is what a writer needs to do in order to succeed.   Meanwhile, he’d still be sending out the old, but his focus was on the new.
  3. Appreciate your fans: He said there were times early in his career when he’d be doing book signings at the mall, and only five people would show up in an hour and he was happy because he thought maybe no one would show up.  So now that he is so popular, he really appreciates his fans, and therefore he makes the time for them, and keeps a blog in order to keep them informed of his work and appearances.  This extra step is important, and remembering who is effectively supporting you is important as well, and something I’ll definitely keep in mind if I ever have fans of my own.  Someday, hopefully.

George R.R. Martin also made a comment about the nature of stories that I really liked.  He said the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”  And yes, he said he borrowed it from Faulkner, but it was good to hear this from a man who writes sci fi and fantasy.  Too often genre work is considered somehow lower than literary work, which is frustrating because it’s just another way of expressing the same themes.  Personally, I love the freedom inherent in fantasy works; you can do anything, as long as you follow the rules you set up for whatever world you’ve created, and if you do your job right, your characters feel just as solid and real and important as any “literary” characters.  But that’s just a personal grudge of mine, so I won’t rant about it too much here.

Anyways, if you’re looking for some really excellent epic fantasy, you should check out “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in his Songs of Fire and Ice series.  George R.R. Martin doesn’t believe in black and white characters, and you’ll get to see a land torn by political intrigue and war from all different sides, until you’re not sure who you want to win, or if there even can be a winner.  Great stuff.