I remember when I finished my first novel. I mean, really finished. I’d written a thousand or so beginnings in my life. I’d even written a dozen or so middles. But until I tapped out that final scene of that particular book, I’d never in my life made it to the end.
A funny thing happens to you when you reach the end of a novel. For a moment, as you come in for a landing and write those final paragraphs to tie everything up, the world seems suspended. You’ve just spent months devoted to these characters, this world. And then, with that last proverbial “and they all lived happily ever after”, your time with that story is done. A great, whopping silence follows. You stare blankly at the screen, amazed that nothing more needs to be typed. It’s done.
Of course, in reality, that moment of ending is actually only just the beginning. Revisions have become more important to me than writing the first draft. And before I even get to that last scene, I already know what I need to work on to take my story from the messiness of the first draft to something I actually feel comfortable showing off to people. Unfortunately, for me, that’s kind of the hardest part of the book.
In my process, The Final Stretch is usually about the last two-thirds of the book. By that point I’ve developed my characters, thrown some plot at them, written all of the things I planned to write when I started out, and now the book has taken on a life of its own. For the last few books I’ve written, this has meant more or less completely changing my mind about what the key issues of the plot are. I mean, total turn-around.
Ah! There’s no feeling in the world quite like having slapped 60k words on a digital page only to have it dawn on you that they might just be the wrong words. That moment when the minor detail that you threw in back in chapter 6 suddenly becomes the crux of the conflict…and where it dawns on you just how many continuity errors you’ve created because of it…is a very special moment. It can be the make-it-or-break-it moment for a writer.
Maybe this is why I started but never finished so many books in my past. It’s more than just a matter of running out of steam after you’ve lived in the world of a book for a while. It’s rounding the top of one hill only to discover that a mountain range lies beyond. All that work that you’ve put into writing something suddenly pales in comparison to all the work that you still have left to do.
This is the moment that separates the winners from the also-rans, folks! Being a professional writer, being someone who takes your craft seriously and treats it as a business instead of just a hobby, requires staring all of the work you’ve created for yourself right between the eyes and deciding to blow through it instead of running away. Writing may be the love of your life, but love is hard sometimes. Think of it as tough love.
When I find myself entering The Final Stretch of a book, I know it. Those are the times when I begin to wonder why I was foolish enough to come up with this story idea in the first place. It’s also the time that I put my big girl panties on and dig in for the rest of the run. One key indicator that I’ve reached this point is when I start plotting the story backwards. I don’t plot out every twist and turn of my stories in advance, rather I make notes as I go along and write long-hand about where I am in the story now and where the next part is going to take me.
When I hit The Final Stretch, I suddenly feel the need to explicitly write out the final scene, and then the scene that leads to that scene, and then the scene that leads to that one, and on and on until I get to the point where I am. I don’t necessarily stick to that outline, but I find it invaluable as a reference. It may be the only thing that keeps me typing and typing as the hugeness of the task I’ve given myself rears its ugly head.
It also ends up being the time that I get the best ideas…for the chapters I wrote two weeks ago. Yes, The Final Stretch is where I start making an inventory list of all the overhauls the first half of the story will need and all of the work I will need to put in to make the changes. But you know what? As depressing as that sounds, knowing what I need to deal with has served me well. I personally think it has made me a better editor of my own work. And that’s a skill I believe all writers should cultivate.
So here I am, running down The Final Stretch of Somebody to Love. With any luck, by this time next week the first draft will be done and I’ll be well on my way to recrafting a truly wonderful book for you all!
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