When you’ve finished a later draft of a novel (say fourth or fifth) it is easy to begin to over edit. Someone reads a bit or even the whole thing and makes suggestions or you read about the draft editing process of another writer or you read a novel similar to yours or you receive some query rejections – all these things and more can lead to a crisis of confidence in what you’ve written. Before you dive in and start adding new characters, changing your setting, giving your MC an imaginary friend or hidden pair of wings – stop and think. Breathe even.
It’s common advice not to read your first draft once it is complete for at least a month, more if you’ve got the time. Well, I think it might be good to take this advise further into the editing process. Don’t finish the draft where you fixed all the word repetition, character shifts, and your soggy middle then immediately begin again because someone read it and thought sub-plot A needed to be stronger unless that someone is an agent or publisher.
Hank Green has a great vlog about the secret of his productivity, which is getting projects to 80% on his own. He gets to that place and then starts to share it and get input because to get anything to 99% (no such thing as perfection people!) takes collaboration. He notes people’s ideas of what is the ‘best’ are always changing and more brains on any problem usually leads to a better outcome. I think the same can be said of writing books, in particular if you want to have them published. No matter how good your book is when you get an agent, they will have feedback and suggest edits. No matter how good your book is when it goes to the publisher, they will have feedback and request edits. No matter how close to 99% you think it is. No. They will never just say, “Wow! You’re the most gifted writer in a century! We are sending it to print tomorrow!” That has never happened.
I’m going to use my current MS as an example. It has been short listed in one and long listed in two well known novel competitions. I don’t say that to brag, I say that to put into context that it has also been rejected by eleven agents so far and completely ghosted by two agents who actually requested it. So while the MS is in pretty good shape, I’d go so far as to say it’s very close to that 80% if not above it – that doesn’t mean it’s going to sell yet. I’ve had beta reader feedback and sensitivity reader feedback, almost all of it positive. I’ve had a editor from a major publishing house read it and offer suggestions as well. What criticism I have had since my most recent edits, I have taken with a grain of salt because of the solid encouragement of beta readers who don’t know me personally. I thought about big changes I could make but did not actively edit for them for a good two months. And now, after sitting with ideas and talking to a lot of people, I see a change that could overcome the no’s of gatekeepers without losing the heart of what I started with in the premise. So I’m making a big change.
Here’s what I’m not going to do though – gut it. I’m not changing the major elements of plot or character. I’m not redoing the ending. Because what will most likely happen is that I will over-edit. I’ll accidentally remove all the stuff my beta readers love and fall into a bottomless pit of changes while not sending it out and not finding the agent who will read what I’ve got so far, that oh-so-close to damn good shape, and either ask me to revise and resub or simply take me on and work with me. Now if/when an agent says “you have to make X a bigger thing” I will do it. I’ve already mapped out how to do that. Equally, if in a few months time I find I am getting nowhere with agents or other competitions based on the changes I have made, I may well give one large change a go.
I see writers fall into the pit a lot. Don’t do it. Don’t rush to make a change that doesn’t quite feel right or that you do not really know how to carry through your novel with precision and prowess. Great writing doesn’t happen at a desk alone. Sorry. It happens with help, with time, and with not too small a dose of magic.