Turning Whine Into Gold
If we are ever to finish a novel there comes a point when we all must ask: is our story (yet) good enough? The question deserves a thoughtful answer. A glib “Hey, it’s better than half the crap out there” is the mindset that once defined “vanity publishing,” and went on to taint the early years of self-publishing. On Amazon, aspiring to be better than half the crap will only get you a ranking in the 6-millions, where your title is likely to never be unearthed.
Writers seeking the traditional route can rest assured that someone else will be making this determination. But consider this important distinction: while yours is only one of many the publisher will put out this year, it is probably your only book, and an important, non-erasable stepping stone in your career.
But a flinch-proof manuscript requires confidence, not hubris. How do you really know if your novel is ready to share with agents, editors, or…gulp…the public?
Work around the obstacles to knowing if your book is good enough
1. Obstacle: Uneven feedback.
Even when opinions are based on industry knowledge, solid craft analysis, and life wisdom, all of them are, in the end, subjective. This is the reason that the same book will be both panned and praised by reviewers.
Solution: I love what Stephen King said about feedback in his book On Writing, which as I recall went something like this: If you give your manuscript to five friends and three of them say you don’t need a certain character, get rid of that character—your public has spoken. If they come back with five completely different opinions, tie goes to the writer. Leave it as it is.
Pro tip: Submission itself, whether to agents or by the agent to publishers, can be an important part of your revision process. Glean all you can from the personalized rejections you receive, and if something smarts with the sting of truth, feel free to pull your work from consideration so you can revise it further. See this free advice for the gift it is and make those changes.
2. Obstacle: The words, “runaway bestseller.”
You can expect unpredictable happenings on a daily basis in the publishing industry, but you can’t count on them happening to you. Even the sales and marketing departments that approve an acquisition aren’t sure when they’ve found a winner—but at least they’ve identified a target audience, and will hedge their bets by making the book as attractive as possible to it. Truth is, this is an industry that runs on gut feelings, fairy’s wings, and loss projections. No one knows the magic formula.
Solution: Stay true to your vision of your book and your goals for its marketing. Unless you are completely on board with suggested changes, don’t revise to trends that may or may not have run their course.
Pro tip: As Dune author Frank Herbert once wrote, “A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else.
3. Obstacle: Our sense of a job well done is always changing.
For students of storytelling craft, our sense of “finished” is as elusive as the summit of a learning curve obscured by the clouds.
Solution: Ask yourself: am I just rearranging words at this point? (Stop.) Will further revision make it a more effective and engaging story? (Continue to revise.) Will more revision turn it into another story altogether? (Stop revising this one and write a new story.)
Pro tip: It is never too late to revise. Changes can be made that will improve the readability of your novel even after the editor has turned off the lights and the copyeditors are wiping up. Or beyond: my audiobook director kindly let me know of three typos, which my print editor was able to fix on the final printer proofs! The bottom line is in the byline: we are the first to set down words and can be the last to request changes. The buck stops with us.
Call me an unreliable narrator here if you will, because my opinion is definitely skewed: My name is Kathryn, and I am a recovering perfectionist. I want my novels to be the best they can possibly be. In an industry where we can count on little else, the very least we owe ourselves is the sense of a job well done.
Is your work always “in progress”? What’s your bottom line? Beyond “the deadline is here and I have to send this,” how do you judge when your work is “good enough”?
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.