The first time I wrote the words “The End” after completing my first book was a moment of exultation. I’d done it, finished a task begun nearly four years earlier, a feat I’d been told that many aspiring writers never achieve. While so many people open a document intending to write the Great American Novel, many write a few chapters and become discouraged by the hard work and consistent effort necessary to get the job done. But I’d fulfilled my dream. Thousands of hours writing and researching, and I had a finished book to show for it, “The End” written in bold face at the bottom of the last page.
Hoping for publication within a year (yeah, a mighty big dreamer) I shouted myself hoarse and did a really bad version of dancing. More like stomping with Peg Leg Pete. Still, it was an exciting moment, to have written an entire book. I’ve probably heard your shout of jubilation if you’ve gotten to that moment with your own work. You’ve certainly heard mine.
Thing is, “The End” never is the end, at least not the first time you write it. It’s just another pause on the way to revision. And revision is another opportunity to find the power in your vision, to clinch what you’re really trying to say. The fact that you’ve completed a book is commendable but don’t send out the queries yet.
There are two parts of revision and each is equally important to putting the gloss on your story. Now you must read your book twice with a different goal in mind for each reading. The first reading is to correct the details that might have gone on a walk in the rain. Delete or correct all the garbage that bogs down your story and makes it read as amateur. “Hi, how are you? I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” Nobody wants to read that drivel. Pull out empty words like nice, very, little, words that leave your story sounding hungry. Correct spelling, grammar, verb tense, and other mechanical errors that mimic a sixth grade creative writing project. Check for consistency and flow, making sure that loose ends connect, that changes and details are uniform throughout, and that sections cut and pasted into new chapters didn’t leave a muddy footprint in their original locations. Make a final decision about the fork in the road where the story might go two different ways. Choose one for your book and pile boulders on the other. If you lapsed into some quirky experiment with voice, character, or plot twist, this is the moment to determine its effectiveness and crush it if it isn’t. You don’t want your book to read as if Hansel and Gretel are still lost in the forest.
The next revision task is more complex and demands focused attention, the critical eye that will detect holes in your theme, or subplot trails meandering into the wilderness. All main characters should be three-dimensional, as full of woe and doubt as bravado and courage. Your story must have complexity, the quality that places your characters within a bigger circumstance of war, poverty, discovery, rebellion, tribal conflict, or national change. It must have context, the subtle but significant undercarriage that draws attention to universal ideas of redemption, love, betrayal, sacrifice, jealousy, revenge, loyalty, or coming of age. Your plot should reveal the thing your protagonist most wants to achieve, the fiery pits that deter him, and the underlying drive to transcend the ordinary to become nobler than what he used to be. This is the intuitive part of your story where you as a writer reveal substance of thought. It can’t be a single reference to a Big Important Idea because that will read as a clumsy afterthought, but must be built into the action and internal thoughts of your characters.
Work deliberately to complete these two revisions. Now when you look at those words at the bottom of your manuscript, they really mean what they say: “The End,” primed and ready to contact your beta reader, send out queries, or attach an ISBN. Ah, to earn such bliss.