How to Finish a Novel

Do you know how to finish a novel? Producing a complete manuscript is hard, and it’s where many writers get stuck. Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

how to finish a novel, complete manuscript
Put in the hours to produce a complete manuscript before your start querying. An agent won’t offer you a contract based on your first 10-20 pages.

Queries and Writing Samples Don’t Show the Whole Picture

There’s only so much a person can tell from a manuscript query letter. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart. Many writers are able to nail those first 20 pages, but it’s a select few who know how to finish a novel.

How to Finish a Novel: Look Beyond the First 10-20 Pages

Why do so many writers get stuck on how to finish a novel? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices to produce the complete manuscript. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into how to finish your novel. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the complete manuscript. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

12 Replies to “How to Finish a Novel”

  1. Great point! This is also why it’s fantastic to snatch a crit partner/beta reader within your workshop. I always feel like I have the other problem though, where the beginning isn’t nearly as strong as the rest because by the time I get to the middle of my ms, I’ve found my voice and have really gotten to know the characters, so then I have to go back and try to make th ebeginning be just as great. I’d rather have the other problem, having a great beginning and then needing to make the rest match lol. Seems like an easier problem to have.

  2. Oops, mind my typos, was typing at the speed of lightning with my kids running around the place.

  3. I realized just recently that my ms fits this exactly. However, it’s the first 65 pages that are sparkling (and humble.) The next, oh, 50 pages read like a lame cow suffering from some sort of manic disorder (i.e. bad.) Then – bam! – the next 100 pages, back to sparkling Awesomeness (and even more humility.)

    Of course, I realized this AFTER submitting it to a few agents. So I’m going in – shooting the lame cow – and replacing it with a….well, whatever. It’s going to be good.

    Thanks for this!


  4. I think I have the opposite problem. . . my writing gets really great after the first 10 or 15 pages. I always feel strongly about the story and action, just need that great hook in the beginning!

  5. Kelli:

    That’s a good problem to have, I think. One of the biggest things I always see when I’m critiquing something a partner writes (or whoever) is when the story ‘starts.’ Sometimes it takes a few pages – or 10-15….;)

    Contests like the 1st paragraph event on Nathan Bransford’s blog always make me laugh, because I sense a real…. I don’t know what it is, honestly, a fear maybe?….. that people aren’t going to get to the part of the paragraph, the book (whatever) that is good.

    If any of that makes sense, good……if not – sorry!

  6. This happened with the last novel that I shelved–with it, I workshopped those first fifty pages to everyone I could, including an editor (Stacy Whitman, who’s great), a state conference, and two different crit groups.

    Part of it was my attitude–I knew that agents tended to request the first fifty pages, so I myself made sure those were perfect. When I edited, I know I spent a disproportionate amount of time on the opening.

    But after those first fifty pages, the ms. did fall apart.

    Since then, I’ve shelved that novel, and spent a lot more time working on the structure of my recently completed and edited novel. I paid more attention not to just the opening, but to the overall story–and it’s so much better for it.

  7. I agree … there’s so much emphasis on the beginning of the manuscript, it’s much tougher to get advice on the rest of it. I founded two critique groups so we could go through the entire manuscript and make all of it sparkle!

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