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What To Do When You Finish Your Novel Manuscript: 7 Steps, by Jane Johnson

So, you’ve written THE END on your magnum opus: what next?

Everyone will have their own rituals for coping with this momentous and (be honest) traumatic time.

Conflicting emotions converge: relief (at last, at last!), triumph (I’ve just written the best book in the world!), doubt (or have I?), terror (oh no, now someone else will have to read it)… And that odd sense of being uprooted out of a place you’ve inhabited for months or years. The world yawns out into a void before you. What am I going to do with myself now? How can I escape all those chores I’ve been putting off? Empty hours stretch forbiddingly ahead – well, they did for me this weekend. Last weekend, I wrote those two little words at the bottom of the 493rd page of my epic manuscript and sat there staring at them, feeling… well, if truth be told, a little bleak.

As a publishing editor as well as a writer I know only too well that THE END might as well read THE BEGINNING. Because ‘finishing’ your text means there are a whole lot of other things that don’t have much to do with the white heat of the creative process but a great deal to do with professionalism and the business of being a writer.

As I say, everyone will have their own rituals when finishing a novel manuscript, but here are the ones I’ve settled on after finishing 15 of them now:


By God, you’ve earned it! Treat yourself, mark the occasion somehow. I work during the week so I only write at weekends: it can take a long time to complete a project, and this particular epic has taken the best part of 3 years’ researching and writing. However, in the Moroccan village where I live for half the year and where I happen to be at the moment, there are not that many opportunities for frivolity. I can’t nip out and buy some nice shoes, or go out for a meal, or a bottle of champagne, or visit the cinema. So I had a large glass of red wine and settled down to watch Homeland on DVD, which I’d been saving for just such an occasion. It was a disappointment, actually, but don’t get me started.


Give yourself a couple of days of not writing anything at all. Yes, your story-brain will be chattering away trying to catch your attention; all those other ideas that were stashed away and told to wait while you finished this beast suddenly think it’s their turn at the head of the queue. Tell them to shut up and leave you in peace, because this novel’s not finished yet. Those two little words – THE END – are just sitting there, mocking you.


By now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be feeling revulsion for your text. It is, quite clearly, fit only for the Trash icon. Or, if you’re not like me, you’ll be thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread and congratulating yourself on the tumultuous reception it’s going to achieve, taking the book world by storm. Neither of these emotions is useful to you at this stage: get rid of them. Because now it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts.


Yes, it’s boring. You think you’ve been doing it all the way through, that there’s nothing left to catch, but you’ll be wrong. It’s boring but it’s necessary. Good impressions – on your agent, your publisher, your readers – are crucial, and nothing makes a worse first impression than sloppiness. So go through with your spellchecker: you’ll be amazed at what you catch. Keep a piece of paper at hand and jot down things that catch your eye as you go. There will be plenty. Did that character really have brown eyes? Didn’t I spell that name differently in Chapter 9? Is that date correct? Did I make that up or is it actual history? Oh, no, didn’t I kill that character in the battle on page 276? Don’t worry: all these things can be caught and addressed in…


That bit of paper kept at your elbow is a very handy thing. I keep mine there through the writing process too and jot down things I need to fix but can’t afford to address at the time for fear of breaking the flow. So now’s the time to catch the beggars and sort them out.


This is the Big One. The read-through and final edit. If you’re going to do this properly it takes time, so set a weekend aside, because reading it properly means reading it aloud to yourself, and then fixing the million-and-one vexatious repetitions, clumsinesses, unnecessary adjectives, adverb and general frippery we are all guilty of. It’s a horrible, painful, cringe-making business. You will castigate yourself as the world’s worst writer. You will despise anyone who ever saw anything worthwhile in your work. You will feel, again, like consigning it to the Trash.


By the time you’ve done this you’ll have the entire book in your head in its complete and shaped form. For the first time ever. Now’s the time to walk around it and really appreciate what you’ve made out of nothing but your own great big beautiful imagination. Cherish this moment: it’ll never come again. At this point you could go on Mastermind with your novel as your specialist subject and win. But there will come a time, maybe even days hence, when you will forget the reason you kept a vital piece of information up your sleeve, the date of a crucial battle, the need to have the material in Chapter 5 separating that in 6 and 7, even the name of a key character.


Not literally, of course. Go to sleep instructing yourself to have a last gentle think about your book. If your brain is suspiciously quiet in the morning, ie. that it isn’t screaming at you that you forgot something vital, I reckon you can consider your novel finished.

And that’s when the really tough stuff begins. But that’s a subject for next time…


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Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. My advice – put the thing in the bottom drawer for at least a year. Go and write something else. Then come back to it.

    March 18, 2013
  2. I love this. I have almost finished my new one but for details and the words “Celebrate!” popped out at me. I forget what you pointed out…here is this huge thing, all out of our imaginations, begun with a few words a long time ago. I tend to gripe “It isn’t quite this or that” instead of shouting, “It’s here! It’s born! Hurrah!!”

    March 23, 2013
  3. Mine is a long way off being at that stage, but I will try to remember all this excellent advice – especially about getting rid of the emotion. I know I will despise every word I’ve written by the end!

    March 23, 2013
  4. I like how you ended on a cliff hanger:
    And that’s when the really tough stuff begins. But that’s a subject for next time…

    At least it is a cliff hanger for me, for the starry eyed woman who pitched her novel to you at your book signing last Autumn at the Toronto Writer’s Festival, who had just printed THE END on her first manuscript, is now little more than a zombie, blind sided by the reality of just how difficult and teeth-pulling painful the process is of trying to get your book published!

    As much as I love all this wonderful advice so far about the process of writing a historical novel, which I found BTW to be a magical experience, I need advice on getting this piggy to market!

    March 27, 2013

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