When a book is finished

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When a book

I’ve taken a couple of months away from this blog and the manuscript workshops to complete the first full draft of Viral Times. It’s been a process of learning craft and considering workshop responses over more than six years to finish this first novel. (Thanks to all who read this in progress; you’ll be in the foreword.) Although it took longer to finish this draft than I expected, it feels delicious to have transformed my creative work from a project into the bones of a book.


At the end, in the last gallop to the wire, I used Scrivener on my Mac to make a pack of 51 chapters into a cohesive narrative. (It runs on Windows, too.) I’d been searching long and hard for a piece of software that would take dozens of Word documents (one per chapter) and line them up in my sequence of plot. The most brilliant part of Scrivener is creating what’s called scrivenings: an test-run of scenes and sequel to make up a chapter, or a proposed set of chapters to devise a book.

I’m lucky in being able to bull my way to the finish with the Mac and Scrivener. Some of this fortune comes from earning a journalism degree rather than an English degree more than 25 years ago: the journalism pays for things like the 24-inch iMac and provides time to work on the book. I figured, back in 1980, that learning journalism would give me a better chance to earn a living than a proper literature degree. While I had to learn the craft of fiction over the past six years (a education in process), I was at least writing all the while to run a house and a business.

Now I’m in the rather comfy spot for awhile of waiting on an agent’s response. A lucky connection with Cameron McClure of the Donald Maas Agency netted a request for 100 pages. Big chunk of a 293-page book, good agency, and an agent who sells stories like this future fiction tale of mine. No promises, but the book is on its way to whatever it will be in the months and years to come.

When is something this large really finished? You never can be sure, and I still think of what could have gone into it, or been cut out. Those things might still happen (and probably will) as the book moves toward publication. But one marker of completion is length. Scrivener helped in an enormous way with this. Few books should be longer than 120,000 words, with the rare exception. Fewer still will sell at under 70,000. Those numbers come from the Maas Agency, where one of the agents posted a great article on book length.

And now that Viral Times has come in at 98,000 words, I can look forward to my manuscript workshops of this fall. By the time we’ve met for half of the 8 monthly sessions, I’ll have read and responded to 100,000 words. I come back to that work renewed and ready after my summer vacation.

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