I think many of us have been seduced (or is it corrupted?) by the Hollywood version of writing a book. Invariably our tortured writer, after going through countless torn up pages and an almost equal number of bottles of hard liquor, produces a manuscript, sends it off to his publisher, and then weeks later has lineups out the door on his book tour.
Not that I think all of us who aspire to writing a novel thought that scenario was realistic. We’re probably more taken by things like NaNoWriMo. Surely a month is enough time to get a novel done. Twenty five hundred words a day average and by the end of a solid month, there it is, your finished work!
Not so fast. Maybe if you’re a “pantser”, the type of writer who just sits down with a general idea and starts writing, letting the story and characters develop as you go, that’s attainable. Then you discover that the plotters, those of us who need to know the story structure and plot before a single word is written, have spent days, weeks, or months planning their work well before November first!
Either way, there you are at the end of the month (or more) with a manuscript, ready to submit for publication or to self-publish, right? Wrong. What you have is a first draft, a major accomplishment to be sure, but still just the first step on a long road. At this point most people have probably encountered a first draft that was self-published and seen the brutal critical response. None of us wants to be that person.
From what I’ve seen, unless you’re an exceptional pantser, that first draft is chock full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Even the best of the plotters probably have some serious issues that need to be addressed. I’ve just spent a huge amount of time revising the plot of my Work in Progress and even then although I’m excited about the thematic concepts I’m exploring, there’s lots about the plot that I find pedestrian and predictable. Granted, it’s a genre work and the plot needs to hit the points required of the genre, but the difference between another story and a great story is elevating it, extending the perception of what possible within the genre structure. This story isn’t doing that. Yet. If I’m lucky my second draft will elevate the story to the point where I’m happy with it. Right now, I just want a complete story that doesn’t suck.
I’m digressing. The point is that most first drafts are going to see major revisions before they are seen by anyone other than the author. There will be reworking, deleted scenes, new scenes; possibly even new/deleted characters. On occasion, the real story the author was trying to tell might only become obvious on the second or third reading and the whole work might transform into something related but vastly different.
I’ve read authors talk about being on their third, fourth, fifth, or higher drafts before letting anyone else see the work. I used to think this was a clear sign of struggle, but now I can see how each major overhaul might lead the author down a path that more closely aligns with what they wanted to say when they sat down to write that first word, or record their first plot point. Each draft is a sign of progress, of growth.
Both the Hollywood and NaNoWriMo versions romanticize the process, just to different extents. The benefit of NaNoWriMo is that a lot of people come out of it with something tangible, something that might develop into a finished work. I suspect the Hollywood version produces little more than hangovers.
But the topic of this post is pushing through, and getting a draft that you’re happy with is really just the first major milestone on the road to publication. If you’re going the traditional publisher route, you might be ready to start submitting your manuscript. Although personally I wouldn’t yet. I’d run it by a few fellow writers, ideally some good friends and a few who really don’t like me that much — friends have a way of tempering criticism so they don’t hurt your feelings but your enemies won’t hold back. Maybe then the manuscript is ready, or maybe you need another draft to fix the issues they identify.
Now at last it’s ready for submission. Assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who gets interest from an agent/publisher, the next step is story editing. If you’re self-publishing, now’s the time to find a good story editor of your own. This is another process that’s likely to take months and require several stages of revision, or horror of horrors a return to Yet Another Draft.
Last but not least there’s the copy edit. I suspect this is a little more straightforward with traditional publishing. A publisher is likely to have an established style guide and will stick to it. An author’s options for deviating from that on things like Canadian spelling vs. American spelling will be limited indeed. The main rule there is consistency I’ll die on the hill of putting spaces around my em dashes but heaven forbid I only do it to some of them.
Then if you’re smart, Advance Reading Copies off to a selected few, to purge some of the remaining issues (there are always more), and finally to publication.
That’s a lot of pushing through!