Give Your Manuscript Several Chances to Shine
By Jeff Salter
I can’t really say this is a pet PEEVE – because it seems to work for some authors I know – so I’ll just call it a pet TOPIC that I like to emphasize… especially when I’m speaking with beginning writers (of whatever age).
And that subject is? Drafts.
Multiple drafts – in my opinion – are extremely important. To continue the imagery in my subtitle (above): carefully “detail” (the verb) your “vehicle” to make the best possible impression. After all, you’re trying to capture the attention and interest of an editor, publisher, or literary agent. You don’t want to arrive in a beat-up, dusty, rusty bucket of bolts. And if you’re already tired of my vehicle imagery, consider how you look and feel when your feet first hit the floor each morning. Would you want to lurch immediately into a “meet and greet” (trying to make a favorable impression with someone)? Or would it be better to shower, shave, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and dress in some fresh, clean clothing?
Okay, let’s get back to manuscripts.
Contrary to the popular notion of many beginning writers – and I know because I was once among them – a first draft is NOT ready to be submitted for publication. There are far too many issues – including the biggies like continuity and the smallies like spelling errors – in that first draft which must be resolved. And sometimes it takes two or three drafts before your manuscript is clean enough for even a beta reader… much less a publishing house.
After a trusted, perceptive, experienced beta reader goes through your story, LISTEN to what they tell you. If they say the pacing falls off in the middle, believe them… and FIX it. If they say a scene feels out of place, believe them and MOVE it. If they notice you’ve left a plot loose end that really needs to be reconciled, believe them… and work it out.
Yes, you need feedback on your writing (and you certainly want it NOW), but resist the temptation to send out a first draft. It’s far too easy for the beta reader to stumble on all those small glitches (that you would have already fixed by yourself if you’d just waited and sent them a second or third draft). You don’t want them to be jarred out of the flow of your story because of little things you were planning to fix anyhow!
In my first five novel manuscripts, I wasn’t writing very smart. All five of those stories had POV issues, plot tangents, entertaining but irrelevant sidebars, and many other flaws. Each of those first five novels had to be completely overhauled at least once… and some were re-done twice before they were submittable. One was overly long at 165,000 words, so I had to slash and burn my way down to 110,000 words — an indescribably painful process I likened to major surgery.
Beginning with my sixth novel, however, I began to write SMARTER — settling those POV problems out front… and keeping a better rein on my characters (who kept trying to bolt from their harnesses).
So, the process I describe below is what I began using for Novel # 6… and all which followed.
During the first draft, a certain amount of revision and editing occurs – especially for those all-important beginning chapters – but from that point on, I try to focus on getting the story finished. Yes, I usually leave some holes — often this will be where I have to do further research before I can complete that scene or chapter. This initial draft usually also has some issues with continuity and pacing. And this is why I don’t send away my first drafts!
Usually, my second draft attempts to reconcile all those large issues and it’s now shaping up nicely — but still NOT ready for an external reader.
Normally my third draft is the one I’ll show to my beta readers – usually my brother and/or my wife – so I can learn whether my story FLOWS, whether the characters are likeable and believable, and whether the content itself is interesting or entertaining.
Draft four is typically my effort to fix everything that was brought to my attention by the beta readers.
Draft five is usually where I add the polish… and shine it up for submission.
If that manuscript is contracted, I often have a chance to make another run-through before the first editor receives it. If I get that opportunity, I take it — there’s always something to fix or make better.
Though the edit phases vary from publisher to publisher, it has often been a set of content edits, followed by a set of line edits, followed by the attention of a proof-reader. Each of those stages also involves at least one complete, word-by-word review by me and if I have the time (within that particular deadline) I’ll give it a second pass.
So the story may have as many as three sets of editor eyes, plus my own careful attention at least four more times (and possibly as many as seven passes).
It may surprise readers to learn that I can still find typos and word echoes after eight or nine drafts!
And that’s before we even get to the galleys.
Why is this a big deal to me?
When I’m reading books – even some published by the “big six” NYC houses – I’ll often see typos… and I wonder: “how did that slip through the cracks when they have entire departments working on those books for up to two full years?”
As much as possible, I want my novel, novella, or short story to be as perfect as it can be. That’s a reflection on me, the editors, and the publisher.
When you’re reading a book – fiction or non-fiction – do you often find mistakes?
[JLS # 519]