I Finished My Novel Manuscript – What’s Next?

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

I’ve been asked a couple of times over the last week whether I’ve finally hit that stage of great relief since finishing my novel manuscript. The short and surprising answer is no. Years ago, when I thought about that moment, I envisioned grand elation, perhaps even a fancy celebratory dinner. But back then, I was still wrestling with the fear of finishing and the belief that I may be incapable of doing so. Reaching “The End” was simply an imaginary ideation. But this year, determined as I was, typing “The End” was no longer imaginary but inevitable. I got there because I decided I would. Maybe that’s the reason for the missing sense of accomplishment. Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel the need to stop and celebrate or even pause to take a breath before pushing on to the next step.

If you’re wondering what that next step is, here’s a quick overview:

My goal in writing this novel has always been to pursue publication. For any writer in this day and age, that can happen in several different ways. My first choice is to go the traditional route. For a detailed definition of traditional publishing along with the other available pathways to book publishing, you can check out industry guru, Jane Friedman’s, super informative chart here.

But the nutshell version is this: traditional publishers pay an advance to an author in exchange for their work and assume the financial risk in the book’s print run. The author earns royalties (a percentage of sales) only if/when the book sales climb over and above the advance paid to the author. This is called earning out. These days, the likelihood of a book earning out is fairly low, and since the author is not required to return the advance either way, that is the risk absorbed by the publisher.

Although it is possible to publish traditionally without first acquiring a literary agent—an industry professional who acts as a liaison between the author and publishing houses—the benefits of having such a valuable and knowledgeable resource on my side seem too great to pass up. So, I’ve decided that my next step will be to seek literary agent representation.

How do I do that?

First thing’s first: Research with a capital R. Depending on your perspective, the plethora of available literary agents can seem both fortunate (lots of options) and unfortunate (an almost overwhelming number of options), but however you look at it, the list needs to be pared down. Since not every agent/agency represents every novel genre, I was able to strike from my list those whose interests don’t include women’s fiction, which is the category where my novel fits. Beyond that, armed with the most recent edition of the Writer’s Market, the Internet, and a subscription to Publishers Marketplace—a handy, dandy website filled with all the latest industry news, deals, and agent info—I am compiling data on the hundreds of other agents remaining on said list.

I feel a little bit stalker-ish as I peruse agent websites and social media pages, looking for background information regarding their experience, searching for books sold and authors represented, and trying to determine if our personalities might mesh well based solely on their online presence. It’s a daunting and immense process, one that is going to take me much longer than anticipated. But diligence at this stage is oh so important because the author/agent relationship is often compared to a marriage, so finding a good match is as vital to creating a happy writing career as it is to forming a blessed life union.

Once I have my completed research in hand, I will compose a query letter and synopsis (more on those in a later post), which I will then submit in batches to the agents on my list (with breath held and fingers crossed that one of them might be interested). But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so here’s to the next step . . . onward and upward, as they say.

My Christmas Muse

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Now that it’s December and Thanksgiving has come and gone, I feel as though I can safely broach the C-word. Christmas. My Christmas muse to be exact. For centuries, many writers have claimed that a certain person, force, or source served as the inspiration for their work. Although a good majority of these motivational muses tended to be women—Dante had Beatrice, T.S. Eliot had Vivienne, John Keats had Fanny Brawne—mine is a conglomeration of both human talent and joyful spirit. An uplifting, creative spark generated by one thing and one thing only: instrumental Christmas music. (That seems logical, right? Christmas Muse-ic.)

While I most often prefer to write in silence, there are days when the words become lodged in the recesses of my too-busy mind, unclear and inaccessible, and I must coax them out. Next to journaling, music has always been my go-to for clearing the muck, but lyrics and writing are not a good mix for me. Any boost I may experience initially is lost when my train of thought tunes in to the words and I start singing instead of scripting. I decided I needed to find another avenue to open the floodgates. That’s when I stumbled upon the instrumental Christmas music channel on Pandora.

Aided by a Pandora-produced random blend of uber-talented artists such as Jim Brickman and Tim Janis and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (as well as Lorrie Line and Kenny G, whose holiday albums grace our CD player on a regular, rotating basis), the chatter stops, my breathing slows, and my fingers float across the keyboard as though dancing along with the gentle, moving melodies. After a few minutes, my focus sharpens, the music fades into the background, and my writing, which had moments before been stilted and stagnant, transforms into an easy and elegant flow. And that is the essence of a muse.

I will admit that this is a tactic I rely on regardless of the time of year. Yes, I am THAT person. I’m also the person who celebrates the arrival of Hallmark Christmas movies in October (shamelessly filling the DVR with all her favorites . . . sorry, honey!) and the crazy neighbor lady who refuses to skip over the Garth Brooks Christmas songs when they pop up on shuffle—even on speaker—while she’s working in the garden in July. What can I say? Apparently, my phone has it figured out. Because, really, when there is something so simple that inspires such joy and creativity, why would I want to limit it to just a handful of weeks out of the entire year?

So what about you? Do you have a muse? A specific person or spirit or source that elevates, enlivens, and encourages your creative side?

How I Made It To The End

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to direct your attention to the two words shown in the photo above. Do you see them? Those are magical words, my dear friends. They’re magical because, by definition, they are the mark of completion; however, today, they indicate a new beginning. They’re magical because, although short and sweet, they bear a tremendous amount of significance, for in the midst of those six letters lies the power of persistence, the pride of completion, the proof of progress. They’re magical because the moment I typed them, I transformed from someone who is writing a novel, to someone who has written one.

At the very same moment you’re reading it, that two syllable phrase is resting nicely in its place of honor at the bottom of a 289-page, 88,755-word document that I have spent three years molding and shaping into its current form. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than it was a year ago? Absolutely. As am I. A better writer, a better editor, a better person for having accomplished that which I set out to do.

This journey has required more of me than I ever thought possible—more resilience, more commitment, more effort, more vulnerability—and although the process has been mottled with toil, tears, and the temptation to quit, I persevered. Despite the days and weeks and months I spent analyzing the calendar and creating word-count and completion goals that went unachieved; despite the years that began with the dogged resolution to finish my novel manuscript and ended with a sigh of regret and defeat; despite the hours I wasted hoping and praying that this attempt would be different only to fall into the same self-sabotaging habits, this time around did, indeed, turn out to be different.

As I sat at my computer staring at the two words I’d dreamed of writing for a very long time, I wondered why. Why was this year, this time, this go-round different from all the others? What kept me going even when the going got tough and my natural inclination to quit kicked into high gear? My initial thoughts were too numerous and lengthy to mention here—though I have expounded upon many of such subjects during The ABCs of a Purposeful WIP series I started back in May—but as I pondered it further, I realized the simplest, yet most substantial addition to my life over the last year and a half was the element of accountability.

Life coaching, as well as a website, blog, and Facebook page all provided for me a sense of responsibility. Whereas I used to hold my goals and doubts and fears close to my chest so no one could see them, I began to share them. With my coach, with my Facebook followers, and with all of you. Holding on to an even remote possibility that my words could reach just one person who needed encouragement, who needed inspiration, who needed to believe that she/he, too, could trade in the habit of inertia for the push of progress, I determined to keep going.

But that accountability was only the beginning. It led to a personal vow to build a purposeful and consistent online presence. And that blog and Facebook-posting consistency bled into my daily routine, forcing me to create boundaries around my writing time, which, among other things, contributed to self-discipline, growth, and progress.

I have been touting the phrase “progress is possible” for months and now I am living proof of it. People, if there is a dream you’ve been chasing, a goal you’ve been aspiring to achieve, a seemingly out-of-reach desire that you hold and hide in a secret place, I am here to tell you that you can do it. If I, a self-proclaimed quitter, could finish this novel manuscript after a lifetime of unfinished stories and unfollowed paths, then you, too, can do that thing God has put on your heart to do. If you believe it, you can achieve it. So believe it. And then go do it.

A Book Sale Self-Reflection

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

I walked into the basement meeting room area of the local public library and like a kid on Christmas morning, my heart leapt with a mixture of joy and anticipation. I stopped for a moment in the doorway of the first room, the biggest, and breathed in the sight with a slight smile playing on my lips. The surface of every table—those lining the perimeter, as well as those huddled in the center—were covered, edge to edge, in cardboard berry flats. The border of each box, once responsible for encasing those plastic containers of raspberries and blueberries en route to a local grocery store, now surrounded what are probably my most favorite things ever: Books.

Yep, it was time for the semiannual Friends of the Library used book sale and as I perused the myriad titles (nicely organized and displayed spines up by a group of wonderful volunteers), I thought about how much has changed, how much I’ve changed, since the last sale I attended about year before.

Back then, I had just finished the first draft of my manuscript, had just received feedback from a reader for the very first time. I had a lot of work left to do. A lot of revamping. A lot of rewriting. I was anxious, unsure, doubtful of my ability, my stamina to see it through to fruition. So as I arrived at that book sale, I headed straight for the fiction section. I picked up best sellers and classic novels and works by timeless authors such as Shakespeare and Melville and Dickens with the hope that simply having the lyrical prose of these successful writers gracing my bookshelves would be enough to ignite my own creativity.

It didn’t work. For the next many months, I toiled. I wrote crappy sentence after crappy sentence while glaring at those still unread masterpieces and laboring under the delusion that writing—good, authentic writing—came from somewhere outside of myself. But then, with the help of coaches and authors and teachers whose wisdom surpasses mine by leaps and bounds, I discovered that the hard work, the real work of writing—even fiction writing—starts first with finding the truth within.

So, for the last many months, that’s what I’ve been doing. And as I shopped the book sale a couple weeks ago, rather than prioritizing those who I consider to be masters in the art of fiction, I searched for those who are experts in matters of the heart, purveyors of spiritual guidance, and fellow writers whose autobiographies mirror so many of my own struggles that I could cry with gratitude for their courage in sharing their vulnerabilities.

When I had run out of time—as a bibliophile, I must limit myself at these types of events or else suffer the consequences of too many purchases—I glanced quickly at the fiction section. My eyes immediately landed on several notable names whose work I greatly admire—Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Emily Giffin—but instead of feeling hopeful that the tales of these masterful storytellers could somehow offer me some sort of osmotic burst of inspiration, I found myself filled with a different kind of optimism. I had done the work, I had a nearly completed novel manuscript in my possession, and for the first time since calling myself a writer, I considered the very real possibility that maybe, just maybe, my book might one day be nestled among them in a recycled berry flat.

The Anatomy of a Writer

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Wonder. Most story ideas begin with a little wonder and a simple two-word question: What if? What if a great white shark terrorizes a small New England beach town? (Jaws by Peter Benchley.) What if a man stumbles upon a time-travel portal through which he is given the opportunity to prevent the assassination of JFK? (11/22/63 by Stephen King.) What if there is a Santa Teresa P.I. whose mishaps and misadventures span several years? (The Kinsey Millhone series—aka the alphabet mysteries—by Sue Grafton.) A writer’s wonder creates a tough—and sometimes strange or seemingly impossible—situation, throws a few characters into it, then sits back and sees where all the wondering takes them.

Resilience. Writing a novel is often compared to running a marathon. Having experience tackling both—well, technically I’ve only run a half marathon, but I did do it twice and two halves equals a whole, right?—I will say they do have a lot in common. They both require a ton of preparation, training, self-motivation, and a whole lotta time. But the biggest requirement for both novel writing and marathon running is resilience. Stamina. The fortitude to keep going even when there is no one but yourself to hold you accountable.

Insight. The nuts and bolts of the human condition are super complicated. How are we wired? What makes us do what we do? Becoming astute, insightful, and tuned in to answering these questions is essential for a writer to develop realistic characters with genuine motivation and emotions.

Truth. Whether writing stories about average people, aliens and vampires, or superhero characters with abilities far beyond typical humans, writers have the added challenge of instilling in them elements of truth. Themes like the tenacity of love, the power of good versus evil, the need for connection and compassion and understanding, these are simultaneously simple and complicated truths that create the backbone of nearly every story.

Emotion. Talk about a challenge! In order to pull readers into the story, writers must draw on their own emotions to create relatable characters. They must convey believable, well-rounded feelings—anger, sadness, enthusiasm, etc.—using literally only flat words written on a two-dimensional surface.

Resourcefulness. This is the side of writers that gets down and dirty with details, finding out everything they can about the important components of their story—settings, character professions, etc.—so when readers pick up the book, they feel as though they are transported to another world even if they’ve never been there. It’s the curiosity that takes an author to a real-life jail cell just so she can write an authentic portrayal about the experience of being imprisoned. (I read somewhere once that Jodi Picoult did this…now that’s dedication!)