Thursday, July 22, 2010

Revise First, Celebrate Later

Last time I talked about the recent upsurge in prologues, and how I usually make a note to myself that the piece would be stronger without one. Flipping through my notepad while trying to come up with something to talk about today, I realized another common theme had emerged: proofreading and editing.

Imagine you’ve just finished writing your first manuscript. You get that rush of pride, pump your fist, maybe go out and celebrate. Then you’re hit with that rush of adrenaline and decide, instead, to immediately begin querying. Because you need to get your Awesome Incredible Manuscript out there for agents to see! And rightly you should!

Just not yet.

Finishing a novel is a major accomplishment, so definitely take the time to celebrate. Did you know that of the massive amount of people who attempt to write a novel, only 3% actually succeed? So you’ve already got one up on most of the population. That’s definitely something to be proud of! But trust me when I say that first draft is not what you want to send out to agents.

Proofreading, editing, and revisions are a major part of the writing process, and cannot be overlooked due to your overwhelming excitement. You’ve got a complete manuscript in front of you, and that’s an incredible feat. But now you need to refine it. Sometimes it helps to step away for a week, or even a month. You’ve been pounding away at your keyboard for months (or years) trying to finish your story, and a break after that kind of work is needed. Even if only for a few days, it will allow you to clear your head and reevaluate what you’ve written.

I can speak from experience. I spent seven months working on the piece I’m currently querying. I wrote it in three months, then rewrote half of it, then revised and edited for another four months. It was hard not to start sending out query letters as soon as I’d finished that first draft; I understand completely how hard it can be to reign yourself in at times. You wrote a novel! You want people to see it! But those months of editing and revising really helped to improve my manuscript to the point that, when I finally began sending it out, I knew I was sending out my best work.

The thing is, it took a lot of time and effort to get there. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read through my work trying to find mistakes that needed to be fixed. So what did I do? I took the advice of some writer friends and got myself two critique partners. And let me tell you, it was the smartest decision I’ve ever made. There are lots of places online where you can find them, or even local writing groups. The key is to find a reader who is going to be honest with you and tell you what things in your story can be improved upon. Because it’s your work, you obviously have the right to veto any comments they make, but think long and hard about their suggestions. As much as you love that scene between Little Red Riding Hood and your Darth Vader-esque villain, is it really necessary? Or that argument between Mom and Dad about the ratty old couch – does it help to advance the story, or is it just filler?

Critique partners will also help with proofreading and line edits. They’ll hopefully catch the occasional tense change, or make note of a character who is suddenly coming across as a completely different person. Those kinds of changes are pretty easy to fix, and trust me when I say proofreading goes a long way. When I’m reading a manuscript and there are a bunch of typos on the first page, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the piece. Usually those typos go all the way through the story and lets me know that the author didn’t take the extra time to look over their work. Massive amounts of typos really pull the reader out of the story, and that connection you were hoping to make can’t really happen.

Over the course of this summer I’ve read a pretty good amount of work that felt very much like a first draft. While the plot might have been great, the characterization fell flat, or jumped around a lot. Or maybe the characters were awesome, but the plot was so confusing it became impossible to follow. There are times when a story told in first person will suddenly jump into third, which results in me having to go back over what I’ve read to make sure I didn’t confuse myself. Wrong words take the place of what was obviously supposed to be there, and nonexistent words like “anyways” and “alot” show up. Those kinds of things are problems that might have been resolved by a careful read through, or a critique partner.

So, congratulations on finishing that novel! Now it’s time for the real work to begin. Take your time revising – you’re in no rush. In just a little while you’ll have a shiny manuscript that’s all ready to go, and then you can proudly send it out into the world, head held high, because you know it’s your very best work.


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