Author’s Note: As fate would have it, one of our Author Origins guests, Michael Fletcher, published a great post on this subject at almost the same time I wrote this. You can check it out here.
In today’s publishing scene, authors are under more pressure than ever to produce at lightning speed. Given this PUBLISH OR DIE mentality, it’s easy to get impatient or rush the process, especially when comparisonitis flares up and it seems like everyone around you is releasing a book every other day. But rushing the process is the last thing you should do.
While cable surfing one night, I came across a TV program featuring a reunion of aging songwriters. As they dispensed career wisdom, one line stood out above the rest: “More good songs are ruined by people trying to finish them.” In other words, sometimes no matter how bad you want to, you can’t rush great creative work.
More good songs are ruined by people trying to finish them.
Don’t be hasty, grasshopper. Don’t shoot your muse/book in the foot just because you’re trigger happy.
But how do we know when we’re there? When is enough enough and when do we need to put in more elbow grease?
As foolish as rushing an unready manuscript to publication is, revising a book a thousand times (especially if you haven’t even finished it all the way through yet) is just as bad. The best solution is to work at your own tempo and develop an instinct for when a book’s “just right.” It will be ready when it’s ready. And once it’s good to go, get that tasty little piggy to market.
Although that sounds fine and dandy, it’s harder than it seems. You’ve got to be honest and disciplined with yourself. There’s no absolute rule that your book will be ready after X amount of drafts. That said, here are some guidelines I’ve found helpful for revising a manuscript.
Don’t be lazy.
The most important. If you need to do another revision, just do it. If you need to make the big change requiring a massive rewrite, make it. Rewrites can just plain suck, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. If your writer’s intuition tells you something isn’t quite right you’d better do whatever it takes to fix it. The worst thing you can do in this situation is ignore your instinct. There’s nothing worse than reading over a book you’ve published and kicking yourself in the butt for shortcutting it. Your book deserves better. Don’t cheat your work or yourself.
Outlining is your friend.
Not only does outlining help you write faster, but it also gives you a bird’s eye view of a clean slate, where you can brainstorm and throw in what-ifs to your hearts desire. Outlining also allows those “ah-ha” moments a chance to show themselves much earlier in the process. It’s also helpful to compare your outline to your rough draft, especially if you feel like you’ve missed the mark somewhere along the way.
Understand your man(uscript).
I love Anatomy of Story and am working my way through the Story Grid (you can check it all out for free here) as we speak. Both provide fascinating insights on character development and story structure. Understanding how a novel works and the particularities of your genre are a must. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.
Marinate your manuscript.
Stephen King recommends letting a rough draft sit for at least six weeks before you go back to it. I’ve done anywhere from two weeks to six and now usually schedule in a month away from a manuscript when I’m figuring out my production schedule. This gives me enough time to forget what I was going for and see what I actually ended up with. It also helps to spot those pesky typos.
Be a butcher.
There is nothing worse than hitting backspace on a highlighted section of 1,000+ words…or an entire chapter. Even so, there comes a time when we have to kill the fluff. It’s okay — they’re just words. You can write more. Words are cheap. Another Stephen Kingism: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, this formula makes a good measuring stick. There’s always fat to trim, making for a leaner, meaner manuscript.
Know when to show and tell.
I’m a firm believer in the power of beta readers and (of course) editors. Even so, I don’t let anyone see my work until I’ve wrapped up the second and sometimes third draft. Input is good, but not when you’re still figuring out the story for yourself. Too many opinions too early on only muddy the water. Once you work out most of the kinks, THEN it’s time to share. I’ve got a trusted group of 3-4 beta readers, a developmental/continuity editor and another editor who looks at both copy and structure. You can bet by the time a manuscript passes through THAT gauntlet, it’s ready to roll.
Derek Alan Siddoway ( D_Sidd) always thought he wanted to be a paperback writer. Instead, he broke into the self-publishing world in 2013 when he realized there had to be a better use of his time than writing queries to agents. Converted by the fellowship of indie authors, he never looked back. Now, he’s the Founding Father of Undaunted Publishing, a hybrid publishing house combining the best of traditional and self publishing, and the author of Teutevar Saga, an epic/historical fantasy series with a “medieval western” twist. Learn more at derekalansiddoway.com.