The Process of Finishing Up a Book

As I write this post, I am in the process of trying to finish up a draft of a book. There have been some potholes and speedbumps in the process involving health and life issues, but it’s almost done and I’m feeling relatively good about it (relatively because usually at the end of a book I think it’s all a big steamy pile of . . . well, you get the idea).

So anyhow, I wanted to talk a little about the end process. Which is always the same it seems, even though I try to circumvent it. I know how the book will end. Which is to say, I know what major events must happen to finish things out. But I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to get those done. Always I think the ending will come sooner than it does. Always I get to the 100K mark and find that instead of one or two more chapters, I have more like five or six to write. Part of that is because getting to the very very end is a longer process than I have planned for, even though I know how it works for me. (File it under reality check). Part of it is because I want to offer character resolution along with plot resolution, and it always seem to take more time for that to feel satisfying than what I’ve allotted.

For the last five books, I’ve written an outline to try to get me to the end in a way that seems logical and complete. I do this so I feel like I’m in control in the beginning and can allow myself to just write. Otherwise I start feeling like the proverbial deer in the headlights. And as always, I reached a certain point in the book and realized that while yes, I was still going to the same ending spot, I wasn’t getting there by that road. Too many things had changed, too many characters had gotten their own ideas about what they wanted to be doing, and that plot road was full of plotholes and collapsed bridges. So toss it out the window and now pants it. Happens every time, yet still I’m vaguely surprised.

So where am I now? I’m chasing the ending and it’s getting further away. And I don’t have a map to get me the last few miles. So I’m feeling my way. Thank goodness I know this is part of my process. Because otherwise I’d be tearing my hair out.

So I’m wondering, you other novelists out there published or not, what happens when you get near the end? Do you already know what needs to happen? Or are you still figuring things out?

Filed under featured posts, For Novelists, learning to write, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 22 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. domynoe

    Before I respond, let me say that I don’t have a novel published and, in fact, can’t even say I have a novel “finished”. It took me 16 years to get a complete rough draft because I kept writing the way everyone I knew was telling me I needed to write to be a “real” author (yes, I’m slow on the uptake). I finally realized I couldn’t write that way (after tossing aside at least 3 unfinished books), picked up the first book I ever tried to write again and used it to develop my control phreak process I call novel plot building.

    The short answer to your question: I know what happens at the end of the book long before I get there. The long answer to your question is here:

  2. 2. Joe Iriarte

    I’m currently at 90,000 words in my WIP, and very much closing in on the ending. I do outline, and I do deviate from my outline, but not to the point where it’s unrecognizable–but then, I also change my outline as I go to reflect changes in the plot. I do my outline on Excel (actually, on Open Office, but it’s the same idea). It’s basically a list I came up with at the beginning of scenes that would get me from point A to point B, and in another column I put numbers, and use the sort feature to put them in the right order, once I figure out what that is.

    (I actually have other columns for time elapsed in the novel, chapter, POV character, and running word count.)

    Like you, I also tend to go longer than I anticipated. To keep my book closer to the 100,000 word point, I decided last week to throw out a character who was only appearing near the end, and to find ways for my other characters to accomplish the stuff he was going to accomplish. There is one plot point I still haven’t figured out that I am rapidly approaching. I also drastically reduced the size of another character’s role.

    So am I a plotter or a pantser? Or a little of both? I consider myself a plotter, but I don’t stick to the outline slavishly. I’ve reworked it multiple times, in some cases drastically. Does anybody really stick to an outline all that slavishly?

    I couldn’t do a completely seat-of-the-pants approach, I don’t think. When I have tried that, I wrote stories that didn’t go anywhere. I need to know where it’s going so I can write it.

  3. 3. Kate Elliott

    I posted mine before I realized you’d posted!

    What’s funny is I had intended to write about how a major plot change in the last 4th of the story has just made my current WIP explode in my face, but then I decided to write about something else.

    However, I am expunging a secondary character due to this change, for length reasons; her actions will be folded into a different pov’s plot.

    By strict outlining standards, I’m not a plotter. By strict seat-of-pants standards, I’m not a pantser. I guess somewhere in the middle.

  4. 4. Karen Wester Newton

    I’m more of a pantser but I create supporting files (time line, characters descriptions and back story, geography, culture, etc) as I work, so I can refer back to them. Keeping it all in your head is harder once you have details on the page.

    I usually know the ending well before I get to it, but it can be a very different ending that I planned when I started the book.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    Like Karen, I usually have an idea for the ending but I can’t be sure that’s how things will really be resolved. I’m always open to better ideas, especially when they just click.

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Domynoe: The good thing is you’ve discovered *your* process. And every process is different and hopefully gets each writer to the end of the book.

    Joe: Wow. You are organized. I am terrible about redeveloping my outline. And mine are never so organized as to be in a spreadsheet. I am daunted by the idea. The best I do when I’m working is to put notes at the end of the chapter that I am writing about what I think is going to change, and then copy and paste it ahead of myself in each chapter until I get to where it takes effect. Not particularly efficient, but it does keep it on the front burner of my mind.

  7. 7. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kate~ Yeah, mine was supposed to go up yesterday, but I forgot the publish button. Sigh. Sorry about that.

    I’m a middle of the road person too. I think part of it is once I get involved deeply in the book, I don’t want to go back and plot. I just want to drive forward before I lose momentum. I hate it when the plot explodes like that. I mean, yeah–good thing for the book. But not so good for the sanity sometimes . . . .

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Karen: I do the same thing as I go. Largely so I don’t make huge gaffs. This book I’m wrapping up had a weird time jump in the the narrative and I had to diagram it out to make sure I was on target. I’m really hoping it isn’t confusing to readers.

    Simon: Yes! Exactly.

  9. 9. Eliza

    I know where I’m going, and I know where I’m starting from; what happens on the way is just up for grabs.

    Right now I’m about two-thirds of the way done with my first rewrite of a novel I’m looking to publish. Some characters have surprised me, some really deviated from my outline, some deviations come back to me after romping about for a time (like a wayward pet). Some add completely new twists and loops to my plot, and I have to go restructure parts of the beginning to support them. I wrote a basic outline for my 0-draft, which was done in a hurry. I wrote a detailed five-page outline for this one, and a quarter of everything has been changed. I’m going to rewrite the book again, and I’m hoping that it won’t complicate itself further, that the unexpected twists can be worked in and polished in my next draft.

  10. 10. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Eliza: You said “I hope it won’t complicate itself further.” Ha! If wishes were horses and all that. In writing if I know where to begin and where to end, I’m comfortable plowing through the unknown. It’s when I don’t know one of the other two that I start getting uneasy. I’ve never tried re-outlining before. Okay, that isn’t true. In The Black Ship (not published yet–due out on November), I got about a 1/3 of the way through and realized that the big macguffin I’d hung my ending on, couldn’t possibly happen. It was physically impossible. I just somehow forgot that when I was plotting. Oops. Had to go back and refigure what might happen and come up with a new ending. So that meant a new outline. Or really it was a rambley conversation with myself on paper.

  11. 11. Kate Elliott

    Di, I was just worried I had gotten my date wrong. I think it’s good there are two posts in a day.

    Yeah, I have spent most of today sighing and moping, because now I actually really know what I need to do, and the plot’s shape is really awesome now, but but but . . . I have to go back to the beginning when I thought I was close to the end, and ring the changes back down through the entire manuscript.

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    I know, but I’m a compulsive outliner. Here’s the relevant portion of a pair of posts (1 and 2) I did on the variety of outlines I use a while back:

    Working: When I actually start in on a new project I take the sketch outline and expand it to something that gives me a good idea of the first third of the story, a rough idea of the middle bits and a good handle on the ending. How much work this is depends on how fully fleshed out the sketch outline was. This will typically run around 3-5 pages and include notes to myself along with the narrative paragraph blocks–things like “establish ruthlessness in dialogue here,” or “she will return in book two as a ghost.”

    Ongoing: As I’m writing, I constantly update the working outline with ideas for upcoming bits of business, plot points, character nuggets, and magic system chunks. At some point, generally when I hit the point where the working plot goes all sketchy I will sit down and lay out a chapter-by-chapter scene-by-scene outline for what happens from there to the end of the book. This can run as much as 30 pages single spaced.

    Length: This is a specialized form of ongoing outline. By the time I move to the ongoing outline I generally have a very good idea of the book’s natural chapter length which can vary widely depending on all sorts of factors including number of POV characters, type of POV, and target audience–I generally write shorter chapters for YA. What this allows me to do is take my ongoing outline and figure out how long the book is likely to be based on chapter length and how much material needs to go into each chapter and scene. More importantly, it allows me to add or subtract story elements to help me achieve a target length–I’m usually within a thousand words of target length when I finish a draft. Since writing to length can be very important to editors and for specific markets, this is an enormously valuable tool and simple to use. Do I have too many chapters? Collapse some scenes and ideas together. Do I not have enough, open some scenes out into full chapters or add others to achieve effects I hadn’t thought I’d have room for.

  13. 13. Kelly McCullough

  14. 14. Jessica

    Yeah, know the beginning and the ending – and sometimes I just have to give up on the middle until I’ve gotten the ending worked out (which makes people you workshop with a little crazy: to come to the middle of a story and find a zig-zagging line to indicate that I just skipped some stuff. Fun times).

    I like Joe’s idea about spread-sheet for plot/scene. I use tables copiously to keep track of character details, but I’ve never done more than the ‘rambling conversation with myself’ sort of outline for actual plot. Which, I guess makes me a pantser. But I’ve met some true pantsers, who ascribe fully to Bradbury’s ‘footprints in the snow’ philosophy (i.e. Rachael), and watching their process is a bit crazy-making for me.

  15. 15. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kate: And even though you know it’s for the better book, still you have to keep kicking yourself for not dragging the idea up from the primordial ooze sooner! Gak.

  16. 16. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kelly: For one of my books I’d reached a point where I just didn’t know where to go and I remember being on a long flight so I sat there and outlined the scenes (something I never do) to the end. I still ended up tossing that out, but the act of writing them down made me think through the plot on a different level and helped.

    But I am so impressed that you and Joe both update your outlines as you go. I mean . . . I’m too lazy I think.

  17. 17. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Jess: Yep the zigzag thing is something I can’t do. I must write through it. Wen Spencer does this thing where she writes a lot of pieces like quilt squares and then stitches them together. I don’t know she does it. I love her books though. It’s a process that definitely works. But my head refuses to cooperate with that one.

    Yeah–you’re a semi-pantser. Half-pants? Half-assed? Anyhow, me too.

  18. 18. Kelly McCullough

    In my case it’s not so much virtuous as obsessive compulsive.

  19. 19. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kelly: Well, yanno. If you can make a virtue of your compulsions then they aren’t compulsions anymore. (sort of like the fact that ice cream doesn’t have calories because calories are a measure of heat and ice cream is cold.)


  20. 20. S.C. Butler

    I’m always surprised when I get to the end. After all those 1500 word days when I tell myself to keep on slogging and not expect to finish any time soon, there it is! Biting me suddenly on the backside.

    And then it’s over.

  21. 21. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Dammit! I wish mine would bite me already! (that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?)

  22. 22. David Lee Jones

    …from a Di Francis fan…

    Through High School and College, I found that my weakest subject was English. When it comes to mechanics, grammar and technique, I am possibly the worst person to ask advice from. The one thing I have had in me since my childhood is that I am able to tell a story.
    I just finished my first novel length story three years ago, but until recently have not set in motion to publish it. I call it “novel length story” until it gets published, only then will I call it “novel” or “book.” Call me superstitious, but I do not want to jinx it!
    In the past three years it seems my story writing has shifted into overdrive and I have written more in this span than I had in the previous fifteen years.

    I have tried writing outlines, they do not work for me. Everytime I try to adhere to one I lose my enthusiasm and creativity and sputter to a dead end. My ideas do not flow by a map. Maps tend to provide roadblocks or there is simply no road to get to the destination I am seeking. So, instead of a network of roads (structured outline or map) I think of a story as an open field. You see your destination on the other side, but you do not have to take a direct path to it. You know you are there when you get there.
    To put it in simplier terms. Listen to your story as you write it. Do not think of typos or runons, you can go back and fix those. When your story comes to the end, IT will tell you, if you are listening close enough. It will just feel right.
    This is how it works for me. As long as I think with my RIGHT BRAIN and do not restict the flow of my idea with an outline, I find a dynamic theme always finds a clear stopping point that just FEELS right.

    …there is my two cents, anyone have change?

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



Browse our archives: