When To Call Your Novel Finished

As I move into the last stages of writing my latest novel, I've been thinking a lot about what it takes for me to call a manuscript finished.

I don't think I'll ever be an author who releases a novel a month as some indie authors do. At the same time, I don't want to release only a book a year.

The book-a-year schedule leaves a long time for readers to forget about my characters and their stories and makes marketing harder. It's also frustrating creatively because it feels like I'm working hard but not getting a lot done.

So I've been transitioning.

In my first series, it was two and half years between the first couple books, then a year. With my new series, I'm aiming to release two novels a year.

The Deck Chair Method

In the days of traditional publishing, I'd rewrite multiple times before querying agents or editors. And I'd rewrite again if any of them asked me to rewrite and resubmit or sent personal comments or suggestions that resonated with me.

That was a good learning experience.

But looking back, I spent far too much time simply rearranging or making minor changes. Basically, to use a cliche (I know, I know, I'm a writer, I ought to be more original) I didn't feel finished until I was doing the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

My other way of knowing I was done was if I felt like I'd throw up if I had to look at the manuscript again.

Finishing Faster

Instead, in the last book and my current one I've been trying to look at the separate parts of the manuscript to see if it's working well. If it is, I make myself stop fiddling with it.

I look at what each scene is doing or not doing, the characters, the dialogue, and the line editing.

Scene By Scene

To call a novel finished, each scene needs to move the plot and/or develop a character.

Because I write suspense and thrillers, I try very hard to have no scenes, though, that are only character development. A literary novel can do much more of that, but most readers of commercial fiction–which is largely what I love to read and write–want the plot to move quickly.

Any scene that doesn't move the plot, I cut.

Caveat: All my books have an element of mystery. Because of that, some scenes are moving the plot but that's not obvious on first reading. For instance, a small detail about a character may be revealed that seems insignificant but that later provides a key to what's really happening.

I try to work those revelations into another scene that also clearly moves the story, though, so as not to lose reader attention.

Characters: 3D Or Not 3D

In my first outline of a novel, and in my zero draft, some characters are there simply to serve a plot purpose.

When I wrote the first draft of The Worried Man, for example, a couple of the alternate suspects simply walked on, said their lines, and walked off and I knew next to nothing about them.

When I rewrote, I picked out the characters that needed to be fleshed out. I developed back stories for them, some of which I worked into the novel, some of which remained only in my mind.

Some of those characters ended in being reader favorites.

To call a novel finished, I need to feel I know each character well and that each is distinct.

Caveat: How much character development is enough varies by genre.

Book 1 in The Awakening Series

The Awakening, Book 1, a supernatural thriller, on one day got back-to-back reviews with opposing views. One praised the characters as being so well-developed, the other said the characters were all flat.

When I looked at other books the reviewers read, the first one read a lot of thrillers and suspense and the second read more general fiction and literary. Because the first fell into my target reader category, I felt the characterization was sufficient, but I did in later books further develop two side characters the critical reviewer mentioned.


In a final draft, the dialogue should sound real but not actually be realistic. To achieve that, I do my best to cut lines that people say in real life but that don't move the story or reveal character. (Such as: “Hey, how are you?” “I'm fine, how are you?”)

Also, ideally, each character's voice is distinctive.

One of the side characters in my current novel is very dramatic. Her bus ride in bad weather is “horrible” not “annoying.” Another woman's shoes are “stunning” not “pretty” or “cute.” Another character has a verbal tic where she describes people as “little” regardless of their actual size.

Other differences are more subtle. My protagonist's best friend tends toward light sarcasm. My protagonist has a wry sense of humor. When I'm close to finishing, I look for those types of distinctions and revise the dialogue to try to make it fit each person.

Caveat: I do my best to make most characters' voices unique, and in a perfect book, you'd know who was talking without any dialogue tags.

But doing that for every single character could both take forever and would probably read like a spoof on bad writing. In real life, not everyone has a quirky way of speaking or sounds that different from someone else with a similar background or experiences. You need to decide how much time and effort and how far you want to go to differentiate dialogue.

In my favorite book of all time, Pride and Prejudice, some characters are completely recognizable in how they speak. For others, it's sometimes difficult to tell one from another. Yet the book remains popular hundreds of years later.

Line By Line

Line editing is also key to finishing a novel. I used to do it only at the end. Now I try to line edit as I go if I can do it quickly, and then do a pass again later.

For me, this process involves:

  • Ensuring sentence length varies
  • Splitting most sentences over 3 or 4 lines into two sentences
  • Varying paragraph length
  • Not starting more than two sentences in a row with the same word
  • Checking for typos and grammar errors
  • Avoiding passive voice unless there's a reason for it (such as that's how that character talks or I'm trying to deemphasize the subject of the sentence)

Caveat: Good line editing is vital. But it can be a little too easy to spend endless hours line editing if you like to do it, as I do.

Many books with a strong plot do well despite clunky writing. (In my view, several James Patterson novels fall into this category and no one can argue with his success.) I don't aspire to clunky writing. Yet sometimes I need to stop because the changes I'm making may, to me, improve the writing but will make little or no difference to the reader.

That's all for today. Until next Friday, when I'll talk about 6 Reasons To Create An Author Video

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're looking to improve your characterization, you might find my Free Character Creation Worksheets helpful.

More Ways To Rewrite Your Novel

I've always been more of a rewriter than a writer.

In a lot of ways, that's a good thing. I write first drafts very fast because I know I can fill in gaps or fix whatever's not working in rewrites. For the same reason, I rarely get stuck. If you're not sweating over the perfect word, line, or plot twist, it's a lot easier to get words on the page.

But it also means I spend a lot more time at the keyboard.

So lately I tried a new way to revise. Comparing it to my previous techniques, it gets me away from the keyboard more and helps me work faster.

First Drafts Are Different

When I first draft, I use dictation software or dictate into my iPhone. I love dictating for several reasons:

  • It helps me write faster
  • It makes my tone more conversational
  • I'm more comfortable standing while dictating than while typing so I break up my many hours of sitting
  • My neck and shoulders ache (and eventually I have serious pain) when I type a lot

But I've never found a good way to dictate revisions.

Rewriting At The Keyboard

My first rewrite is typically at the keyboard. I read on screen and correct as I go. These changes include errors from the dictation as well as obvious plot issues, changes to character names, and other problems I noted as I wrote.

This rewrite usually goes very fast. I consider it part of the first draft process, as I don't feel my initial draft is done until I've gone through it once on screen. (I talked about this more in Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel.)

After that I print, and here's where I've started varying my process.

Looking At Manuscript Pages

After letting my complete first draft sit a week or two, I print it and read it. I note big picture issues separately and I handwrite in changes.

Over the years I've dealt with those handwritten changes two different ways. I've entered the changes myself, doing further revising as I go, and I've sent them to an off-site assistant.

The last time I sent the manuscript to an assistant it cost me $200 for half the manuscript. While she worked on first half, I entered the handwritten changes myself for the second half.

I'm not sure which way is more efficient timewise.

It was nice to be able to work on my half while she did the other, but I feel I lose something not making the edits myself.

And for both, I found it difficult physically. It amounted to a lot of time in front of the keyboard because for the assistant's changes, I did a second pass through of my own as well on screen.

A Different Way

For what I hope is my last major rewrite of my current novel, The Charming Man (Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series), I tried something different.

I printed all the pages and rather than mark them up by hand I read them on paper but typed the changes I wanted directly into the Word version.

Here's what I liked about this process:

  • Reading on the page rather than on the screen altered my posture, leaving me with almost no neck or shoulder pain despite typing the edits
  • I saw errors on the page that I would have read right through on the screen
  • I saved time because I didn't need to first handwrite changes and then enter them

What I didn't like:

  • Nothing

The real test will be what I think of my novel after I set it aside again.

For now, though, I'm pretty sure this rewrite process is one I'll continue using. It seems easier on my body and my budget (both in a time and money sense) and I feel pretty good about the changes I'm making.

That's all for now.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about figuring out when your novel is finished

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Still working out the plot for your novel? The Free Story Structure Worksheets from Writing As A Second Career might help.

Writing And Missing Teamwork

The last few days I’ve been thinking about teamwork. As in, not having it.

These thoughts started a couple weeks ago as I finished my six-article series on things to figure out before you shift to writing full time. The feeling that I was overlooking an issue of my own kept nagging me.

Yet as I reviewed my articles it seemed like I’d covered everything major.

Fun With Podcasting

The feeling that I was missing something came to me most when I listened to podcasts. I felt envious.

For a while I thought it was because I wanted to start a podcast. I even had an idea for one.

Writing about women protagonists matters to me, and it bugs me that so many movies relegate women to little more than walk on roles. Also that women are usually shown in isolation from other women, interacting only with men.

But when I looked seriously at what was involved in producing a podcast, my enthusiasm waned. Already I have more on my plate than I want. I’m looking to scale back so I can focus on finishing novels and non-fiction books faster and spend more time figuring out what marketing and advertising is effective.

So I kept my idea but turned it into a blog series Women, Men, and Movies on my author website.

Doing that killed two birds with one stone. I enjoy what I’m writing about, and it gives me a built in, consistent topic every week for the author site.

Yet I still felt envious of the podcasters.

Too Much Time Alone?

I also thought it might be about spending too much time alone.

As I wrote about in 6 Things To Figure Out Before You Start Writing Full Time (Part 2 – Mental and Emotional Health), having enough contact with people impacts emotional well-being. But I feel like I’ve done all right with that.

I’m teaching two legal writing classes this semester, so I see students 2-3 times a week and have a faculty meeting every other week. I make a point to get together with friends often, and my brother just visited for a weekend.

Most days I’m pretty happy with my balance of hanging out with people versus quiet, peaceful solitude. So that didn't seem to be the issue.

Working Together

As I listened to Jim and Bryan bounce ideas off one another on the Sell More Books Show, it finally came together. It’s not that I spend too much time alone, it’s that I miss working with people.

As a lawyer, while I wrote and researched alone, overall I worked as part of a larger team. We talked through arguments with each other. We called to analyze the ramifications of a new decision by an appellate court. We traded our written briefs back and forth and commented on them. We had strategy meetings.

Now, though, almost all my work is on my own.

No one else weighs in when I decide where to advertise a book or whether to rewrite my manuscript another time before sending it to a first reader. And there's no one to go out for a drink or coffee with and talk about the day's or week's progress. (Or lack of it, which is when you need the wine.)

My friends will listen (more or less) if I talk about my writing or the business side of it, but those who aren’t writers don’t feel they understand what I’m doing well enough to comment.

And those who are writers can empathize but we don’t actually work together.

What To Do

It’s not that I couldn’t work with another writer.

Some authors cowrite books or articles. But that’s never appealed to me. I appreciate outside feedback from a seasoned editor or critic once at a certain point in the process, but I love writing my books and don’t want to share that task with anyone else.

And while I’d love to have someone to share the business decisions with, my writing income contributes something toward my bills, but it doesn’t support me yet. So there’s not enough for a partner or an employee.

But I’ve only just become aware that I miss teamwork, so I don’t expect to know what to do about it yet.

It might be getting my writing career in better order and more focused so I can add volunteer work or a board position where I’d work with others.

Or it might be finding a way to grow a writing-related business so that it eventually requires a team. Maybe six months from now I'll know. Or a year.

If you write and miss teamwork, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Opinions, solutions, questions, concerns, what have you.

Until next time, when I'll talk about rewriting your novel

L.M. Lilly

Writing The First Lines Of Your Novel

Readers often decide whether or not to buy your novel based on its first lines.

No pressure, right?

As a writer, it feels unfair for so much to ride on a very small number of words. But your own book buying probably follows the pattern. If you like the cover and the description on the sales page (or the back of the book or inside book jacket in a book store), you open page one and read a line or two.

If you like it you may keep reading and buy. Otherwise, you'll click away or walk away.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve the odds that your first page will draw the reader in.

Rewriting Your First Lines

It sounds contrary to what I just said, but try not to worry about the first lines in your first draft.

Throw something on the page, get your first draft finished (and perhaps a second draft, too, depending how many rewrites you generally do), then look at whether your first lines do what they need to do.

The main reasons for that are:

  • Struggling to write perfect first lines in an initial draft can keep you from getting the book finished
  • Even if you plot or outline beforehand, what you want to convey in those first lines may change as you finish the book
  • You will get to know your characters better as you write and will have a better sense what tone to use

After all, if you never complete the novel, you’ll never need to worry about drawing readers in. So first things first, and in this case that means finishing the book.

Conflict Not Info

It’s tempting to include a lot of information in your first page.

You may feel your readers need it to understand the scene or story. But when you share a lot of background—known as an info dump—it can easily bore readers.

For one thing, they don’t yet know why that background information matters, so they have no compelling reason to keep reading it. Also, while a few readers may simply be interested in the subject matter, they picked up a novel for story. If they primarily wanted to learn about a topic, they’d likely grab a non-fiction book or watch a documentary.

So focus on story, which means focus on conflict.

You can hint at the major conflict of your novel or start with a more minor clash. Either way, though, someone on your first page must want something that’s hard to get or be confronted with a problem that’s hard to solve.

And if your reader needs information to understand what’s happening, look for a way to weave it into the conflict.

I did my best to do that in the first lines of the first book in my Awakening series:

Tara folded and unfolded the pink referral slip. Her fingers made sweat marks on the paper. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t had sex.”

These four lines introduce the main conflict for the entire book.

They show the main character’s nervousness–she's folding and unfolding paper and her fingers are sweating. And they hint she’s in a doctor’s office, as she’s got a referral slip.

Had I started instead with a paragraph about Tara’s many younger siblings, or her plans for med school, or her boyfriend, I likely would have lost a lot of readers. They wouldn’t know what the story was about or if there was a story at all rather than a character study of an upbeat young college student.

See Some Plays

The best rule I ever heard for how much backstory or information to give the reader is to share whatever the reader needs to understand at that very moment.

Reading or watching plays is a great way to see that done.

That's because playwrights don’t have the luxury of including a paragraph of exposition in a first scene or any scene. While a few plays have narrators who tell the audience information, that tends to bore audiences or take them out of the story, so typically everything must come through in character action or dialogue.

Pay particular attention to the first scene.

Think about how long it took you to understand what’s happening and whether the questions you had made you want to keep watching or left you frustrated and confused.

First Line Looks Matter

The appearance of your first page and first lines affects how likely a reader is to keep reading.

Dense text, long paragraphs, and long sentences put many readers off, particularly if you’re writing in a genre that’s known for quick reads or that’s meant to be light and fun.

Take a look at books you think are similar to yours.

How many sentences are in most of the paragraphs on the first page? How long are the sentences? Does the first page include only one or two paragraphs? Or five or six?

Also, keep in mind that readers’ preferences have changed over the years. Gone With The Wind, published over eighty years ago and still popular, started with two long paragraphs. A current popular book in a similar genre broke its text into five paragraphs:

None of this means you need to do exactly what everyone else is doing. But keeping in mind how your first lines look can help ensure you don’t turn off readers who might otherwise love your work.

Convey Your Genre

Finally, your first lines also should hint at or clearly signal your genre.

The first lines of The Awakening suggest suspense, fantasy, horror, or science fiction. (I’ve drawn readers from all three categories). I lose some readers with the lines, but they are readers who will never like the book because they don’t like speculative fiction, so that’s good.

Had I started with a conflict between Tara and her boyfriend over him flirting with another woman, that would suggest a different type of book.

Look online at examples of first lines from books in your genre. Focus on what elements signal to you that it’s a book that tells the type of story you prefer.

You can also ask a group of friends who don’t know what type of book you’re writing to read your first few lines only. Ask them what they think the book will be about. It’s a fun exercise, and most people enjoy doing it.

That’s all for today.

Until next Friday—

L.M. Lilly