When do you quit editing your novel and start marketing it? Is there a foolproof way to know when your story is done?
Tami posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m working on what I hope will be the last edit of my manuscript. My question is, how do you know when to stop editing? I read that at some point you stop making it better and just start making it different, but how do you know where that point is?
I have learned so much since beginning the story, and am still learning, so I try to incorperate that knowledge as I edit. I want to make my story the best it can be, but at this rate the editing process could go on forever. HELP!
Randy sez: This is a good question. The question is simple. The answer is complex. A lot depends on where you are in your career.
This might be a good time to read (or reread) my article, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” where I spell out the various stages in the career of a pre-published writer. There are several stages after getting published that I don’t cover in this article, but it’s a good start.
If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore, then I guarantee that your novel is not done yet. Period. This is true by definition. Being a Freshman or Sophomore means that you are not yet writing publishable work. Maybe you will one day, but not yet.
However, if you’ve chewed all the sugar out of the story you’re working on, if you’re just tired of the thing, it might be a good time to lay it aside and move on to another novel. You can always come back to it later, when you’re more advanced in your career.
I have a novel on my computer that I wrote when I was a Freshman/Sophomore. I suspect that it’s actually not bad, but I never sold it and I’m sure that if I read it today, the reasons would be obvious. At the time, I had a hard time letting it go and moving on to the next book.
That novel was a necessary stepping-stone along the way to getting published. That doesn’t mean that it has to be published someday in order to earn its keep. It already earned its keep by proving to me that I could write and finish a pretty good novel.
If you’re a Junior, then you should be looking for an agent and the main thing you need for getting an agent is a good manuscript. How do you know when to go looking for an agent with that manuscript?
I would say that your manuscript is done when you don’t know how to make it any better, even after considering the helpful advice of your critique group, your spouse, your sister who reads 7000 books per year, and the 92-year-old woman in your church who tells you it’s “brilliant, honey, brilliant.”
When you can’t improve the thing any more, go looking for an agent. While you’re working on that, start writing a new manuscript, because finding an agent could take a while. A long while.
If you can’t find an agent, then that manuscript just wasn’t what you needed. Maybe the one you’re working on now will be better. (It almost certainly will be.)
If you do find an agent, he’ll tell you whether your manuscript is ready to be published. It probably isn’t. Don’t feel bad if your agent asks you to rewrite your manuscript and sends you a detailed list of things to work on. This means he cares enough about you to make you improve.
If your agent never sells your manuscript (this happens quite a lot), then it probably wasn’t ready. There is no way to make this a happy event in your life. This is always painful. Novelists have to learn to accept that not everything they write is guaranteed to sell. If this is too much for you to bear, then you should try a less risky career, such as blind-folded lion-taming.
If your agent sells your manuscript, then your editor will have a go at your manuscript. Without a doubt, she’ll find a large number of problems. Then it’ll be on you to fix them. The manuscript isn’t done until your editor says it is.
Once you’ve been published, you’re operating on a higher plane than you were before. By now, you’ve got the experience to know when a manuscript is done. If you’re normal.
There are a few sick authors who are too darned humble and believe that nothing they do is ever good enough.
There are a few other insufferably egotistical authors who think that everything they do is golden, even in the first draft.
But most published authors develop an inner sense of rightness. They know that their book will generally be ready after the third draft, or the fifth, or the thirteenth, or however many drafts it usually takes.
The simple fact is that most authors reach a plateau in the quality of their writing after a few novels. They may be constantly striving to improve. They may be actually making small steps forward. But we’re talking about one percent effects here. Small improvements.
Once you’ve reached your natural level of fiction writing, you probably aren’t ever going to make any more quantum leaps. Just my observation of how things actually work for real writers in the real world.
When you reach your natural level, you’ll know when your story is done. You won’t be able to explain it, but you’ll know. You’ll know that your novel is as good as you can make it and you’ll know who to show it to in order to take it up a notch or two.
There is just no substitute for getting other eyes to look at your manuscript. No author on the planet is qualified to be their own editor. (Yes, some of us can be our own copyeditor, line editor, or proofreader. But none of us is able to be our own macro editor. You need an emotional detachment from the manuscript that you will never have.)
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.