It doesn’t matter if you plan on self-publishing your story, or you want to find an agent, or you just want to print it out and put it under your pillow, your story is ready when you feel there’s nothing more to add, nothing more to cut, nothing more to tweak. If you can read your entire manuscript without wanting to make a single change, then you’re good to go – it’s the best you could do at the time. Maybe a break is good, maybe it’s not. All I know is that I edit and re-write and tweak my stories until I just want to get them published and never have to read them again.
The thing is that given enough time, a story is never perfect. Camilo Jose Cela said about The Family of Pascual Duarte that thirty or so years after the first edition was printed, he read it one more time and found things he would have liked to change. I suppose that given enough time, there will always be something to change, simply because we, as individuals, change, we, as writers, evolve, and our preferences, our voice, and style change as well.
If when writing your first draft, you can afford to shut out the world and just type, when it comes to the editing process you have to let the world in. Feedback is imperious and without it there’s no room for improvement. So this leads me to my next part. Beta readers.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” ― Elmore Leonard
Find as many of them as you can, but you should try to find the type of people who wouldn’t praise your book unless it was good – it’s common sense, and this is not the time to be hungry for rave reviews. Feedback is both positive and negative, and the broader the spectrum, the better the results.
Who are my beta-readers? Some of them are fellow writers, some of them are friends who have a taste for the genre my story is in. I don’t think it’s that hard to find people who are willing to read your story. You can try forums such as AbsoluteWrite and find beta-readers there. Or you can post on your blog – I’m sure a few of your followers will be more than willing to give your story a try.
The difficult part is knowing what to change. You might be tempted to change everything if one reader says so. But if you do this beta-reading thing right, you’ll get mixed reviews – some might say to change this or that, some might love those bits. And it’s up to you to know what to change. It works best when you have doubts about certain scenes and you kindly ask your beta-readers for their opinion.
With Jazz I got good reviews from all my beta-readers, which wasn’t really that great. And I changed half the story after that – somewhere along the line, when I was revising my manuscript, I realized that I had been too eager for feedback and sent my story out to beta-readers too early, so I changed some stuff – I moved around several chapters, deleted some parts, made the writing tighter. This is something you should always aim for. My first draft was around 32-33 thousand words, after the first two edits it was around 30 thousand, and the final edit was 27 thousand words long.
But when doing this you should be careful. It’s not about making the writing blunt to the point of being tasteless; it’s more about eliminating redundant words.
“More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” – John Irving
Jazz took me three weeks to write, then I took a break from it for almost two weeks. This break is extremely important because you distance yourself from your story. It’s extremely difficult for a writer to be objective towards his own work.
So take a break, write other stuff, go out, live life. Then you can go back to your story and read it.
When I was a kid, young, arrogant and with less facial hair, I used to hate editing my stories. I was terrified to read my story and find out that it was quite far from brilliant. I hadn’t set up a writing habit yet, and so I was writing only under the impulse of inspiration, when I felt that I couldn’t keep the story locked inside my head for any longer without doing some serious damage to my brain.
So what do you do next?
I read my story aloud. It’s very helpful, especially when it comes to dialogue. If it doesn’t sound right then it probably isn’t. You can even set up a sort of play with some of your friends – hearing the dialogue helps a lot to determine if there’s room for improvement.
Make the necessary changes, read your story a couple of times, then print it out. This is another must. You’ll catch other stuff you might want to change – the layout of paragraphs on the page, repetitions that you wouldn’t normally catch.
Some writers spend years editing and rewriting, others work for a few months. What’d you think? That great writers write wonderful first drafts? No. Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times. Here you can find the 4500 pages of drafts, notes, and edits from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Editing is not about grammar, punctuation, and finding some fancy synonyms. No. That’s called proofreading. I’m talking about big changes, about inconsistencies, plot holes, the character’s voice, the narrative.
Don’t be afraid to change. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back and change it back to how it was. That’s why you should have multiple backups.
Writing isn’t for lazy people. Whether they’re in this business to entertain, or aiming for glory and fame, or they just want to share their art with the world, whether they’re asking to be paid for their stories or giving them away for free, whether they have the best line editor in the country helping them, all writers have the following moral obligation: since they’re asking for people’s most valuable resource (time) they are the ones who should control the quality of their work.
Ever read a story in which the writing seems effortless? Well, that’s because that writer knows he owes everything he is to his readers, and because of this respect he worked on his story until it was, at least in his opinion, flawless. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that all writers should work their ass off to ensure that they give readers the very best they’re capable of.
Writing is the most flexible of art forms. It’s also the one in which the hard work and struggles of the artist are least visible. Maybe it’s ironic that we should work so hard to make it seem easy, but remember that you can only call yourself a writer if someone’s willing to read your story.