THE END – the most elusive words in the novelist’s lexicon

So you have finished the first draft of your novel. This is a wonderful and exciting achievement. You know, now, that you CAN do it. You are ahead of 95% of people who ever declared, ‘I’m going to write a novel.’ The Muses are having a party on Mount Olympus in your honour, and if the whole thing has killed you, you can down a glass of ambrosia with them. As you type THE END in triumphant block capitals, remember that whatever happens now, you will never, ever, regret the time, the energy, the blood, the money, the tears this novel has cost you to write. (I know it has, unless you are a successful published author earning enough to support a lifestyle that makes you happy. And even then…well, if I’m ever in that position, I’ll let you know. Small steps.)

You are allowed to stop there. Really, you are. Open the champagne. You wanted to write a novel, you’ve written a novel. That really can be THE END.

But the chances are that it’s not. It’s not even the beginning of the end. When you reread it, you’ll realise that what you have done is work out what your novel is about. You’ve met the characters and shaken their hands; you’ve introduced them to each other and let them mingle in some interesting places. But you’ve also brought in someone who’s a real pain and keeps cropping up in the wrong places, and someone else who is absolutely fascinating but who sits in a corner saying nothing to anyone. There’s another one who disappeared half-way through, and another who wanders through the whole novel searching for something that you’ve got in your hand, but forgot to put down anywhere. And some of them want to be somewhere else, and some of them don’t want to be there at all, and another’s suddenly had a baby or turned out to be single when you need them in a relationship. Or not, whichever’s the most inconvenient for you.

So you give them all a hard talking-to and you sort them out. Banish them, or give them what they want. And there’s your second draft. It makes sense now. You’ve kept your best writing in, and you’ve kicked your ineffective characters out. The shape’s emerging, and the bits you’ve shown people are really, really good. There’s a sentence – a paragraph – a chapter, even, that could win the Man Booker (or the Golden Dagger, or the Romantic Novel of the Year Award) on its own.

And now – now you don’t even want this to be THE END. You can see how things tie together. Connections exist in there – ones you hadn’t even thought of. You start waking up in the middle of the night crying, ‘Of course!’ and start scribbling before you forget. Sometimes, you can even read your own handwriting in the morning. And your third draft is born. Your actual children, should you have any, may, of course, have starved by this point, not to mention what has happened to your day job, your relationship and your consumption of Rich Tea Finger biscuits, but that’s a topic for another post.

And then. Then comes a point where the part you have to cut is the part you’ve always thought was the best. The passage that you know reviewers will quote when they’re explaining why you won the Man Booker (or the Golden Dagger, or the Romantic Novel of the Year Award).  It’s brilliant – it is – and it’s survived draft after draft, because when you read it, you know that those sentences were the reason you wanted to write the novel in the first place. But the novel’s moved on. It’s found its form, the characters are living and breathing, and this section no longer brings what it did to the party. The cakes have been eaten, and the plate’s left, empty and covered with crumbs, at what’s become a banquet.

Let it go. You’re not killing your darlings – you’re thanking them for making your novel what it’s become. Let them go, and the next draft can happen. The one where your novel’s strong enough to spend some time with an agent. And then a publisher. And then – and then, of course, it all starts again, and you realise that THE END are the only two words in the dictionary you never actually got to write.

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