I've finished! What now?

I've finished! What now?

One of the most daunting tasks facing a writer is the actual completion of the manuscript, especially when it’s novel length. The sheer time and effort involved in producing 4, 5 or even 600 pages of story cannot be over-stated. For most people, it means making huge sacrifices of limited personal time with friends and family, of choosing the computer over play, solitude over conviviality. But most writers know that such sacrifices come with the territory.

So they sacrifice – and at some point, sometimes months, sometimes years after Page One, Chapter One, they come to The End. And pretty soon after that ask the inevitable question: What now?

Here’s my short answer: Celebrate!

I mean, are you kidding me? This is an astonishing achievement. Against all the odds, against the competing claims on your time, your emotional energy, after fighting the demons of self-doubt and despair, you’ve done it. You’ve got a whole story, with an actual Beginning, Middle and End. It just isn’t possible to emphasise enough how fantastic that is. You’d better believe you need to go out and celebrate.


Now, having said that, here’s what you don’t do. You do not, under any circumstances, while riding high on the adrenaline rush of finishing your story, print it out and send it off to an agent or an editor. Really, really, truly – don’t do it.

This piece of advice comes to you via the Do As I Say, Not As I Have Done school of Writing’s Hard Knocks.

And why do I give it now? Because there is a massively humungous difference between celebrating the achievement of having completed the story … and actually having a manuscript that’s ready to submit. Being brutal, it’s almost unheard of for a seasoned professional writer to produce a perfect first draft. And that means the chances of an up-and-coming writer of doing so are pretty much Buckley’s and none.


So the first thing you need to do is sit on that completed manuscript for a while. Get back to your life for a month, six weeks. Stop living inside your head and rough and tumble it in the real world. No writer can ever achieve a true and objective distance from their own work, but it’s possible to come fairly close if you put the story down, put it away, and fill your mind and imagination with things completely unrelated.


I can’t stress this point enough: to do your story the justice it deserves, you need to view it with a cold, dispassionate eye. Nobody who’s just finished a story can view it with a cold, dispassionate eye. There’s way too much emotional turmoil for that. Not should you ask it of yourself in the first flush of excitement that follows finishing the story.

But if you want to be published, there comes a point where you need to set aside the justifiable pride in having finished, and instead come to the work wearing your Editor’s Hat. You need to be objective and analytical, you need to be as tough on the work as you would be had you picked it up in a bookshop. You want me to spend good money on this? Why should I? Convince me.

That’s the attitude you need to transition your story from completed first draft to much much better second draft.

I believe this is the most crucial part of the process. It’s important for a writer to believe in his or her talent, while simultaneously demanding more and better of the work. In fact, you need to start with the belief that you can do this, so you can quickly move past the insecure, needing to be told how good you are phase and into the – okay, now how do I make this story really kick arse? To get there, you need to cultivate a take-no-prisoners attitude of near enough isn’t good enough, I want to know where I’ve gone wrong and don’t pretty it up.

That’s where any writer really needs some outside help. But it’s not help that can come from an agent or an editor. Being blunt again, it’s not their job to teach you how to write. It’s their job to sell the manuscript – agent to editor, editor to acquisitions team. And they can’t do that with a manuscript that’s not ready.

It’s the writer’s job to make it ready. It’s that simple.

So how do you do that? Well, you show it to people whose opinion you trust, who can read a story critically. The most important thing to look for is a reader who can tell you where and when a story isn’t working for them. You don’t want them to tell you how how to fix it – that’s your job, and you don’t want someone trying to reshape your story into the one they’d tell. No. All you need to know is that in this part they were bored, in this part confused, in this part they wanted to put the story down and walk away, but in this part they couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

So where do you find these wonderful readers? Well, sometimes you’ll find them in a face-to-face writer’s group. If you want to join one of those, check with the local library or Writers’ Centre. Sometimes a specialist bookshop will know. You can ask the local chapter of a specialist writing group, like Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers’ groups, SF and Fantasy writers’ groups. Do some internet searching.

If that doesn’t work, and you’re writing speculative fiction, I say you can’t go past the great people involved with the Online SFF Writers Group. There you’ll meet many like-minded people on the same journey you’re on. You’ll read and assess their works in progress and they’ll read and assess yours. It’s a great community. Or there might another online critiquing group that you like the look of. Again, the internet can be your friend.

What’s really important is finding people to read your work who have no vested interest in the status quo. In other words, people who can be completely honest with you, who will be completely honest, because there aren’t any tricky emotional issues in the relationship. Usually friends will tell each other what they want to hear, because the risks involved with honesty are too great. That goes double for family. Trust me, an agent or editor who hears the dreaded words: My mother thinks this is the greatest book she’s ever read will hold no high opinion of you as a potential professional. I mean, seriously – some of the most embarrassing moments on Idol have come from people whose families have told them, ad nauseum, what wonderful singers they are when they clearly can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

I firmly believe, and have said before, that the best way to improve your writing is by critiquing someone else’s. That’s why I love the online group so much. It’s a free university course in how to hone your analytical storytelling skills. But it can also help to read some good books on self-editing. Check out the library, or search an online retailer’s database. Get in the habit of thinking critically about the books you read, or the films and tv you watch. Pick the story apart, see if you can find ways to tell it better. Notice when something’s not working for you and ask yourself why. Don’t be a passive reader, get active.

And then turn your newly-honed editing skills on your own work. Don’t be complacent. Assume there’s always a way for you to do it better, then go looking for how.

Once you’ve completed that crucial second draft, give yourself some more time away from the work. Then come back, consider if it’s as good as you can get it right now, and then look at showing it to an agent with a view to getting representation. If the agent reads it, and gives you feedback, listen to it. Maybe the advice will work for you and maybe it won’t, but whatever you do don’t get defensive and abusive. You’d be surprised how many new writers do that – and it never ends well for them.

It could be that no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to make this particular story work. This could be the training piece you needed to write in order to get good enough to be considered for publication. It happens. But it could also be the book that opens the door for you. That’s what happened for me.

Good luck!