First of all, apologies for this post being so late. We’ve had massive internet blackout chez Morris and no joy from the online help people. This post is being brought to you from a thin-walled internet cafe under a gurgly bathroom in which a gentleman appears to be having a very productive cough. But, like him, I feel so good to get it out at last.
Anyway, on with the post. I’ve had a great question from Tara Benwell: How do you know when to stop editing your novel, especially when you hear different advice from different editors and readers?
Novel-writing must be the ultimate artform for editors and perfectionists. Unlike painting, where too much tinkering might turn a strong piece to mush, most books – fiction or non-fiction – only get better with repeated attention.
Indeed, getting a novel right is such a complex job you could edit for ever and some writers would if the writing universe would let them. So how do we tell when it’s safe to stop tweaking?
Is it your first?
If it’s your first novel, it’s particularly hard to know when to stop. Your first novel is the book that teaches you to write. Baby steps turn to giant leaps and by the time you have a polished draft you’re eager to see if it’s a contender. But many first-time writers query before the manuscript is really ready.
If you have edited until you can’t think of anything more to do, and you feel the story is sharp and sparkling, don’t send it to an agent or publisher. Give it to a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be an industry professional, but it does have to be someone whose literary judgement you trust and who will give you an honest opinion. Then digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off and edit again.
Time to stop being solitary
Writing is primarily a solitary activity – at least while we’re doing it. But all the writers I know reach a point where they need feedback from their trusted readers. Finishing is something we all have trouble with and no writer I know can do it without help.
Tara’s obviously gone through these stages and has discovered a new joy in critical feedback – conflicting suggestions. Make it a thriller, no, make it a romantic suspense. Make chapter seven the prologue; no, get rid of all that material in chapter 7. Put the parrot centre stage; no, get rid of the infernal parrot. There’s clearly something wrong in the manuscript, but which advice do you follow?
To make sense of conflicting advice, you have to delve a little deeper into your critics’ expectations. What kind of book did they think they were reading? Is it what they usually like to read? Were they comparing it to one that is already on the market? If you know that, you can see why they made their suggestions – and can decide if that is the way you want your book to go.
Conflicting advice from agents and publishers
Sometimes this kind of feedback comes from agents or publishers. As above, this might indicate there is a flaw that needs fixing – in which case, work out which advice fits best with the kind of book you want to write. But wildly conflicting advice might also be an indication that the publisher wants to slot it into a spot in the market that it doesn’t yet fit. Your book may be perfectly good as it is, but these days a quality book doesn’t automatically earn a deal.
So should you make those changes? It’s worth considering if there is a guarantee that they will publish – but there isn’t always and you could do all that work for nothing. Should you carry on looking for a home where your book fits better? After all, fashions change. Every case is different and it’s a tough call.
Great novels aren’t finished, they’re pushed out of the nest
I’m going to let you in on a secret. None of us published writers ever think we’ve finished our novels. Allow any of us to pick up our work again six months after finishing and we’ll find things to change, think of better ways to skin the cat or save it. We’ll read favourite passages and suck our teeth. Editing is kind of anxiety habit for not doing it all perfectly the first time. We all have a feeling that we could do this novel just a teensy bit better with one more pass.
But at some stage the sand runs out of the hourglass, the imperfections we notice get smaller and smaller, our inner circle of readers are happy and we push it nervously out of the nest.
Finished is a relative term
And then there are degrees of finished. When the manuscript reaches an agent or publishing house, it comes back with queries and notes. Just like your beta readers, your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible – and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one.
In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.
If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?
There are people who refine the same book for ever, but maybe they’re not doing any good. Perhaps they’re polishing so far it’s down to the bare metal. Or they’re constantly reinventing their style by redoing the same story when they should start a new one.
As writers we’re learning and changing all the time. If I’d started my current WIP five years ago I wouldn’t do it the way I’m doing it now. We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. Some tricks and devices I thought were smart five years ago I wouldn’t use now. To me they’re obvious, although readers may not mind them at all. They only matter to me as I develop my art. I’m not interested in the same themes, problems and types of character as I was half a decade ago. So I do the book as well as I can at the moment, make sure it works on its own terms and for the people who will read it, and move onto a new phase of my writing life.
Is the book finished?
In the end, all we can do is build our trust in the book and let it go.
Thank you, Pinkmoose on Flickr, for the photo.
How do you know when your book is finished? Share in the comments – I may not get to them immediately, but I love a good discussion and I’ll reply as quickly as possible