Writing is a tough business, especially novel writing. Almost by definition, it takes place in a virtual cave—one would-be author alone against the onslaught of the imagination. Characters talking in your head, moving pictures of setting and plot: isn’t this most people’s definition of insanity? Sure, the writer knows at some level that these are his or her creations, but tell that to a character who has decided that, come hell or high water, she is not embarking on that terribly convenient (for the author) mission that doesn’t happen to fit with her way of looking at the world.
In addition to the intense solitude of fiction writing as an exercise, budding novelists encounter another problem. To be able to write, you must first have learned to read. The vast majority of us learn to read at an early age, and those of us who become writers have often been reading for several decades before we produce finished work as adults. Since we are such accomplished and passionate readers, we tend to assume that we have what it takes as writers, and since we are writing alone, there is often no one to correct that misapprehension.
The third problem magnifies the first two: finishing a story feels fabulous. At the moment of typing “THE END,” almost every author knows this draft represents the greatest work in world literature, a piece of perfection equal to the classics. Every one of the nine hundred pages, now so laboriously completed, shines like the proverbial sun. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first book or the twenty-first, in that instant of completion the thought of withholding this gift from its unwitting but eager readership seems cruel. And so the first draft gets pushed out into print before it’s ready.
In the olden days, by which I mean a decade ago, that last step was not possible. Vanity presses existed, but few people read the books they published. To reach a market, writers sent out typed, then e-mailed, queries to literary agents who, drat their uncaring souls, failed to recognize the genius. The agents did not reply or, if they did reply, sent standard responses. Writers had to work their way up to requests for full manuscripts, detailed critiques, and personalized rejection letters before they finally secured a contract. In the process, they did a lot of rewriting. And slowly, slowly, authors learned that, however necessary in terms of preparation and training, the mere fact of being avid readers did not mean that they had mastered the craft of novel writing.
Believe me, I know. I’ve been there and done that, as they say. Twenty-plus years ago, I sent queries to agents for novels that these days I can’t bear even to look at. I think of those queries and cringe. What must those agents have thought? But I know the answer: they had seen thousands of submissions just like mine, and within three pages, if not three paragraphs, they thought “here’s someone else who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” tossed my query aside, and sent the standard letter—or nothing.
At the time, I was disappointed, not to say devastated. But now I consider myself fortunate to have had that experience. It took me fifteen years to write a publishable novel, reading craft books and working with more accomplished fellow writers all the way, and in those fifteen years publishing changed. In many ways, it changed for the better, because a highly consolidated market rejected good books as well as those that still needed much more work. But in one respect, authors lost from the change. As I have discovered from hosting New Books in Historical Fiction and from co-founding Five Directions Press, it has become easy to publish a book too soon.
Not only beginners or self-published authors make this mistake. Even mature writers sometimes put out books at a point when they could use another round of editing or error checking, when the plot is still sketchy, when the main characters’ motivations remain cloudy or inconsistent and their developmental arcs unclear. In these cases, the writers are usually seeking to make money with additional titles or have signed a contract they must meet. Sometimes the writer has become such a big name that no one in publishing wants to criticize his/her books. But for whatever reason it happens, the person hurt in the end is the author. The established author at least has his or her early works for readers to enjoy. The new author may never recover from those slow beginnings, inept dialogue, clichéd emotions, and trite descriptions. At Five Directions Press, that’s one of the things we do for one another: we decide as a group when each of us can safely release her book.
So do yourself a favor. Put the first draft away, toast your achievement in champagne, and pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned every drop and chortle. You finished a novel, and that’s amazing. But don’t send the file out (or upload it for publication) just yet. Go back in a week—better, a month—take out the blue pencil, and revise. Read the dialogue aloud and listen to whether it sounds clunky. Show the manuscript to a writer friend you trust. Show it to a few more. Collect their comments and repeat. Get recommendations for books on writing and read them, or if you can, take a course. Hire an editor who specializes in your genre of fiction, who can point out where your specific story goes off the rails or needs further development. Join a critique group and learn while doing. Find a way that works for you. But whatever you do, don’t publish the first draft or even the third. One day, you’ll be glad you waited.
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