With the first draft of my manuscript complete, my 5 a.m. writing sessions have morphed into 5 a.m. editing sessions, which actually serve me well in determining if my prose is compelling or if it makes my eyes glaze over (which happens easily at that early hour!).
If I learned anything from writing my first manuscript (which is now safely tucked away in my desk drawer) it’s how important the editing process actually is. During my first go-around, my “editing” process (if you can even call it that!) consisted of re-reading my manuscript once, maybe twice, and running a spell check. I never went back and took a deeper look at my characters, plot, descriptions, dialogue, setting, pacing…none of it! Sadly, I was somehow under the impression that a quick read through is all it would take and bibbity, bobbity, boo…I’d be a published writer. Boy, was I clueless!
Naturally, most of the responses I received from agents were standard form rejection letters. But because I’d read a lot about the querying process, I knew that even great writers get piles of rejection letters (so many in fact that apparently rooms have been wall papered with them!), so I was not deterred. But what I wasn’t expecting (and, in hindsight, am so thankful for) is that a few agents were kind enough to actually write back and tell me that 75,000 words really isn’t long enough to be considered a novel. (There are varying opinions about appropriate novel length, but for the commercial fiction I write, I’ve learned that the average length should be somewhere in the range of 80,000- 120,000 words, with 80,000 words still considered on the low end). At first I was a little put off by this feedback and thought, but my book is different! However, this lesson was reconfirmed at a writer’s conference where a panel of agents talked about how they use the word count in your query letter to immediately determine if your work is too short (read: you haven’t developed your story well enough) or too long (read: you’re rambling). Gulp!
At that point – still with no real clue about the editing process – I morphed into a literary butcher and chopped my manuscript up into a million little pieces. I threw away parts that bored me (yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually approached agents with a manuscript that contained parts that bored me!), added new characters, new storylines…the works! My new and improved manuscript was 95,000 words and I was feeling good. But again, I didn’t take the time to go back and dive into my characters, plot, descriptions, dialogue, setting, pacing, etc. I relied on the fact that I felt warm and fuzzy about my manuscript – and that it had managed to elicit tears from the friends and family members who had read it – when I should have been relying on the fact that it was absolutely, spit-polished perfect (which it was not).
So, with my new and improved manuscript in hand, I went back to the agents. Let me pause and say that, generally, once you query an agent and they reject you, there is a slim chance that they’re going to give you a second look (which is why your manuscript needs to be flawless the first time!)…unless the story has changed so dramatically that it’s a different work altogether. With a name change and a completely new element to the story, my manuscript definitely qualified as a “different work altogether.” So the query letters went out and soon the rejection letters rolled in. This time around, however, I got a step closer and a few agents actually requested to see the manuscript. Let me tell you, the high that I felt when my manuscript was requested was equivalent to the rush of adrenaline you feel the first time you go skydiving (and, yes, I’ve been skydiving so I do indeed know what a rush that is). So, I sent the requested chapters to the respective agents and waited, my heart exploding with hope and optimism. But sadly, only rejections came back. Thankfully, again, the agents took the time to write to me and tell what wasn’t working. The main gist of the feedback this time was that the story simply wasn’t compelling enough (read: the story wasn’t interesting enough to sell). Thankfully, a few them mentioned that the writing was good, so even though I didn’t end up with an agent, I got something even more valuable: a morsel of affirmation that my writing skills were worthwhile and the encouragement to keep working at it.
Now, I have to admit, by this point (which was nearly three years later), I was sick to death of looking at my manuscript. I was tired of reading it, tired of writing it, tired of thinking about it, tired of talking about it. I had officially run out of motivation for that story. That’s when I opened my desk drawer, placed the manuscript inside and said, “See ya later.”
Within a few days, I opened a blank Word document and the cursor blinked on the screen, daring me to try again. Now, here I am, 2 writing classes, 1 writer’s conference, countless hours of research, and another 95,000 words later and this time I’m giving the editing process the respect it deserves. This time, when I finally approach the agents with my new manuscript, it will be air-tight.
Through my writing class, I’ve learned that there are several stages of the editing process – from the big-picture flow of the story down to the necessity and accuracy of each word – and in my own roundabout way, I’ve gone from being clueless to clued-in. Tune in tomorrow for a deeper look at the editing process.
To all my writer friends out there: what’s your experience with the editing process been like?