Almost as long as this blog post!
So, you’ve decided you’re gonna write the great American novel. You start the process, your own individual process, and get to work. Working diligently every day, you finish your first novel in 3 or 4 months, 10 months, 2 years, or whatever it takes. Nice job, time to get your masterpiece to an agent and start your long, illustrious career as a commercially successful author.
Not so fast. The dream is nice but, as the old saying goes, if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. The process of writing the novel is the first step in an awfully long process before you can even present it to an agent. Nice job on the writing of the story and for completing it in your timeframe. Now comes the fun and, in my opinion, a more tedious process than writing the novel but one that is very necessary if you want to put your best product out there.
My process involves writing the story then having my first pass at editing the story. From top to bottom, I run through the entire book to edit where it needs. Because it’s my writing, this kind of editing is usually only good for grammatical/spelling edits. I also check things like character development, story flow, if there are any unnecessary parts to the story, dialogue realism, plot holes or if it is engaging and will keep the reader wanting more. Does it all make sense? Is anything over-explained (I certainly do not want to talk down to my readers)? There is a lot to look for in your story but even if you go through it all and feel you have tightened it up, try again. There is always more tightening to do. You need to go through it multiple times but even more important, if you are serious about your work, find a professional editor to go over your story. I will tell you that it helps to walk away from it for a few months or more then go back with fresh eyes. You will find so much that you will change (at least I always do).
Stephen King once wrote about the editing advice given to him, in a formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Great insight!
As I have mentioned in other posts, my daughter has professionally edited novels in her career. She has a whole different view of the story and structure than I have. Her degree is in English with a Creative Writing minor. Her viewpoint from all her education and experience serves her well. I asked if she could look at my first novel and if she had the time, to give it a full edit. My daughter obliged and, in the end, did two full edits on my novel. The work she did was invaluable. We worked the document through Google docs because we were in different parts of the country at the time. It also worked well so she would make margin notes and leave it to me to make any changes she suggested. There were things in my novel that I never saw, making me realize you can only edit your own work so far.
The contents of your story came from your own mind and even after your first edit, they looked good because you created them. You are biased toward your own work. Having an unbiased party go through the work can make all the difference in the world. You might wonder how my daughter is at all an unbiased party. Believe me, she treated me like a stranger and was very tough on me and my writing. She pulled no punches, no kid gloves for me, and could be very brutal in her editing comments to me but not in a mean way, just honest. I appreciate the complete honesty with which she edits my work and would not have it any other way. It is delivered in a raw, fix it and learn how to do it correctly way (and tells me how to fix it). I would rather have that brutal honesty than for someone to tell me the work is “just fine the way it is.” That does not help anyone.
You may not like some or all the feedback you get because this is your baby, the thoughts of your inner mind here on paper. How dare someone criticize my work, my thoughts, my ideas. But they will. Your feelings all depend on how you look at that criticism. It is all meant to be positive, constructive criticism, not negative. It is to help you, to help your novel be the absolute best it can be from someone who knows what makes a great novel. Now, to be fair, I am not educated in the art of writing a novel but many of you will be so the editing may be much less in volume than anything I have experienced. I feel sorry for my daughter for all the work she has to do with my less than perfect writing. She is a trooper!
The editing process is exciting to me. How cool is it to have someone point out all the things that could be better and you get to make those corrections to make your work that much stronger? That sounded sarcastic but was not meant to be, I am totally serious. The process to me is exciting and the end product after edits is very empowering. I can see immediately how my story gains strength and is that much better with each edit I make. Pushing me to show and not tell my readers what's going on. Catching things that never would have caught my attention and the difference in the writing that these corrections and adjustments made.
It can be frustrating when I am asked to change something that I think is relevant. And I do not necessarily change everything I am shown. I probably make about 95% of the changes my daughter brings to my attention but there are things I feel strongly about and will leave as it is written. Now, these things are not grammatical or bad English mistakes but things that she has a different viewpoint than I have. There are 33 years of different generations communicating here so there is bound to be some disagreement. It is never much, a small thing or two but these are things I believe should be in the story and therefore, it is ultimately my choice to leave them as they were written. It is my work so I should have a little say. I think if you are passionate about something in your story that an editor asks you to change, stick to your guns if you believe it is important to the story and you prefer to leave it as is.
Write the novel then go through it to find the obvious things wrong (grammar, spelling, missing words, poorly written sentences, etc). Next, go through it again. Then, find a beta reader, editor, or someone with the experience and willingness to go through it for you to help you edit the work. Remember, agents want the most polished version of your story that you can provide. If it’s not polished, you may not get the attention you want from any of the agents that you submit your work and who wants to waste all that time? After that, make any changes and go through it again. You will always find things to change, trust me. Once you get an agent to work with you, there will be lots more editing to be done so be ready. It is a lot of work submitting to many agents so make sure you are sending your best product. You’re not doing this for rejections!
Once you start submitting the manuscript, or X number of pages/chapters to agents, you will get rejections. You will get many no responses, which I equate to rejection. But some agents take longer to reply than others so patience is necessary. It is part of the process but do not let the rejections or non-answers discourage you. Let them motivate you to keep going, to keep fighting for that one acceptance and request for your manuscript. If you continue to get rejections, look at your work and see if it is where it needs to be. You will probably not get much in terms of feedback from the agents that review your work.
Get the opinions of others that are readers or from writing groups and fellow authors. I can’t tell you how many times I have tweaked the first few paragraphs of the two novels I am shopping now. But one of these times, I am going to break through and all of the changes will have been worth it. Not just because I have broken through but because that means you have a product that caught the attention of an agent and will probably do the same for the future readers of your novel. That is the goal, right?
I found that my first chapter, or prologue in some cases, needed to be much stronger for my first novel (I have so many versions of this novel). I was not hooking my reader out of the gate and have found this is especially important. So, I went back to the drawing board multiple times and came up with something that will hopefully intrigue the reader and give them that yearning to continue reading to find out whatever it is that intrigued them in the first place. Fingers crossed this latest beginning does the trick (it is at least my fourth version for a new opening chapter).
To sum it all up, write, edit, edit again, find an editor, edit again, edit once more, and possibly even once more then give it a try if you feel it’s ready for an agent’s eyes. Don’t let rejection set you back, let it motivate you to show those that turned down your work that they should have given you another look. One day, they may just see your work on the NY Best Seller’s List and remember that they had the opportunity at one point to be your agent. Good luck and remember, edit, edit, edit…and then edit some more.
Happy reading, happy writing!