As a writer, how do you know when a book is finished?
It’s question I’ve been asked many times, and lately it’s a question I’ve asked myself. A lot. For me it’s not just when all the chapters are written and the plot holes are closed. It’s when I get that excitement in the pit of my belly that this is a story that holds together, a story that surprises me even though I know it intimately.
Sometimes The End is just the beginning of something better…
Je ne sais quoi
After a few hurdles, my current work in progress Ashes to Ashes has been progressing well. Perhaps ‘well enough’ would be a truer assessment. Twice now I’ve written ‘The End’. Yet something hasn’t gelled. There have been a few Eureka! moments—thankfully—but I’m yet to feel that gut-churning excitement you get when you’re onto something good.
Until recently I hadn’t figured out what or why.
The outline for this book was completed three years ago. Thanks to a couple of very productive writing retreats, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft just a few months after that. My first drafts are always full of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, there are usually a few plot issues that need teasing out or tying up, and often I’ll cut characters or a sub-plot to make sure the pace keeps up and the twists are surprising yet still make sense in hindsight. That usually takes a few rounds of edits. That’s my process. That’s what works for me. I know that. So why didn’t I just stick to it?
If I had just stuck with that process on Ashes to Ashes, The End would have happened back in 2014.
I’m someone who likes to fall into the story. It’s only when I’m deep enough into the character that I can find their voice and really let the words flow. Usually I’m okay with distractions. This time I have really struggled.
The disruption of publishing my other two books, Pieces of a Lie and All That’s Left Unsaid, working with editors on each, setting up Fractured Press and learning all the extra skills that go along with those choices while trying to write became too overwhelming. So I quit writing the new novel to focus on the more immediate goals. It wasn’t until the middle of 2015 that I got back to Ashes to Ashes. By then I had a host of new ideas, and a good dose of self-doubt about that original story.
Instead of sticking to the outline and refining what I already had I began revising, re-structuring and re-writing. I got stuck in a kind of continuous loop where I never seemed to get ahead. Along the way I lost sight of the original story. Every time I got close to The End, I made more changes and away it slipped once more. The more determined I was to stick to a deadline (and a storyline) the worse it became.
In the end I took a time-out.
The Main Storyline
For the last month I’ve binge-read my way through suspense novels, historical and contemporary women’s fiction, romance novels, classics and non-fiction. Mostly I read fiction. It was then that I realised what my problem was with Ashes to Ashes.
There was too much going on.
The protagonist had too many goals. The antagonist had too many related but distinct reasons for what s/he did. In fact, there were too many antagonists. No wonder I couldn’t get to The End. There were too many to choose from. And because I’d doubted my original storyline it had become lost in everything else that was going on. How could my protagonist solve that mystery when I had thrown too many conflicting goals at her?
A Larger Puzzle
I had to be clear about the inciting incident. But to do that I had to be clear about her ultimate story goal. So I worked backwards from that goal and from there I teased out the storyline. In doing this I realised what I had was not one story but three. Three distinct mysteries for her to solve with one overarching goal driving her forwards.
As usual, I’d made it far too complex. I spent a week or so working out the knots and now Ashes to Ashes is a series. The titles are still to be refined and some further character development is required, but so far it’s all looking good. I’ve been through each outline to ensure the plots are twisty and pacey and that each wraps up a mystery. There is also a major storyline that holds them all together.
Now I have three outlines. The subplots have been reassigned to their relevant stories, the chapters have been refined and notes made on improvements. My original storyline has become Book Two; it’s the most complete, so I’ll keep going with that and then knuckle down and get book one finished.
I can’t wait to have all three completed to share them with you.
Wish me luck on the road to The End3