Letting Go of Your Novel – One Writer’s Story

by RV Howard

You’ve finished your first manuscript. Maybe. Well, there is that one comma. . .

It’s not easy to release a novel into the world. Some are fearful of the response they’ll get, others don’t know what they’ll do with themselves when it’s gone.

Three years ago, I was challenged to write a novel. Having spent many years writing, editing and publishing articles for a wide range of publications, I accepted the challenge with a knowing smile. I already had a story concept – something I thought of while watching TV news.

I had trouble fleshing-out my story, so I went to writersdigest.com and ordered a few books on the various aspects of writing fiction — nine volumes over the next few months.

A year later, I began to understand what they were telling me about the importance of plots and subplots, theme, mood, characterization, back stories, setting, dialogue, scenes, pace, style, point-of-view, symbols, verisimilitude, authentication and so much more. Humbly (and angrily), I rewrote more than half of what I had written.

Meanwhile, my concept had evolved, but I realized that my protagonist had not.

A published novelist of my acquaintance read my first five chapters and opined that it was “a good non-fiction novel.” A new genre? My enthusiasm crashed on the rocks of who, what, why, when and where.

Then, I discovered writing groups. They met in coffee shops for two hours, three times a week in my area – six to twelve people working on novels, short stories, poetry, children’s’ books, memoirs, essays, screenplays and business manuals. Some were established authors, most were not.

The first things these writing group sessions provided for me were accountability and focus.

My fellow scribblers always wanted to know what I was working on and how it was going. No more not-in-the-mood, writers-block or too-busy-with-real-life for me. I was apprenticing as a writer of fiction.

Before I knew it, I was polishing my first draft – 81,000 words organized into 49 chapters. Now, critiquing my novel became an obsession. I constantly thought about my story and how to improve it. I often dreamed about new subplots, settings and characters.

I edited, rewrote and added scenes, trashed others. No matter how many times I read a chapter, I found something to improve, to change.

I believe I was afraid that I would no longer have a purposeful, edifying occupation if I did not have “the novel” to perfect (I am retired from gainful employment).

Moreover, I had nothing in the hopper, no sequel, no new story idea. I attempted a memoir of my childhood, a story about me. Easy. But I turned out to be not that interesting after all. I kept coming back to “the novel.”

I dreaded the writing meetings because I really was not writing anymore. I was “fussing.”

What I needed was someone else to read my novel. Would someone else find it as interesting and enjoy it as much as I did? Would he or she smile at my characters’ clever turns of phrases, squirm as the tension rises and turn the page quickly at the end of each chapter? Is that not why one writes fiction, to please and entertain?

But where could I find a beta reader to please and entertain?

My non-writing friends are few and short on time, or do not read books for pleasure. The folks in my writing groups are also short on time, and none of them is interested in geopolitical themes with predominately late-middle-age characters struggling with life and death issues across three continents.

I searched the internet in vain. Development editors and beta readers out there charged more for there services than I could afford. One day, a man close to my age joined one of my writing groups. He was working a series of short stories based on his adventures in Central America in the 70s and 80s. The next week, he overheard our group leader asking me if I had found a beta reader. When I replied in the negative, the new man said, “I’d like to read your novel, providing it’s not all narrative.”

I’m old school. I explained that it was printed on 400 pages in two ring binders.

He nodded and said, “Bring it in next week.” I did, in a brown paper Trader Joes bag with sturdy handles.

As he took the bag from me, and walked toward his car, a few bars of the Hallelujah Chorus exploded in my head.

Free at last! A stranger, but a fellow writer, had agreed to read my novel and tell me what he thought of it and how I might improve it. My 400-page novel was now his problem, not mine.

A few days later, I was going through my canvases and inventorying my brushes and paint tubes when I remembered a bizarre kidnapping story idea I had about a year ago.

I made a cup of coffee, grabbed a few cookies and thought about it. Well…, I could move the middle-age couple’s houseboat in the Caribbean from my first novel to the Limehouse Marina on the Thames east of Trafalgar Square, and enroll my victim in the Winchester Academy in Shropshire. What if his father was the king of a tiny country in southeast Asia whose primary export was a unique fermented hemp seed oil, and…?

I have determined to complete my next novel in twelve months while finishing a dozen landscapes.


RV Howard’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Business Week, Consumer Reports, Family Handyman and a dozen trade and business publications. He now lives in Idaho, an hour from Hemingway’s cabin. His first novel, The Pastun Gene, is unpublished as of this posting.

And, he’s also my dad.

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