Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 23, 2017

Is Your Novel “Good Enough”?

Kathryn Craft

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”?

About Kathryn
Kathryn Craft
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.

45 comments on “Is Your Novel “Good Enough”?”

  1. Kathryn, YES! And this struck deep: Our sense of a job well done is always changing. This so reflects the whole writing package: our craft level ( as we keep learning!), marketing (new ways tor each readers!), and the publishing industry (keeps evolving!). It's like riding the back of a great sea monster toward a distant shore - us at the reins but the waves ever rising and falling. 🙂 But your guidelines here make for a good road map to help keep us on course without washing overboard!

  2. Argh. This is such a hard one. I think I eventually feel myself rearranging words and know the time has come to stop. I'm going to start asking myself your three questions under #3. That will help!

    1. It is hard, Kathy. And I am a fan of rearranging words to optimal effect! But that can be done later, if need be. Don't let that rearranging stand between you and submission! An "A then B" sentence switched to a "B then A" sentence won't impact the overall impression your hook and story premise will make in an agent.

  3. 'Truth is, this is an industry that runs on gut feelings, fairy’s wings, and loss projections. No one knows the magic formula.' Sad, but true, Kathryn. I just try to remember that the ONLY thing I can control is the quality of my work.

    And on a good day, my attitude.

    1. Haha love that last line, Laura! Publishing is nothing if not a constant head game. We must be attracted to that ultimate challenge on some level or we'd all go find jobs at bowling alleys, right?

  4. Thank you, Kathryn! Your advice is sane and well-balanced and useful. I will save a copy of it to refer to since I am on the third time through my novel.

    1. Yes, definitely save for later use, when you are starting to wonder. I know many experienced novelists who write 5-7 drafts. The many layers of our work rarely reveal themselves all at once!

  5. So glad that I poured another cuppa coffee and sat down to read this post, Kathryn. It made me realize that I have faced all three problems--and eventually arrived at the same solutions. I shall take this to mean I'm not ready to settle for the bowling alley job, and for that I thank you very much!

    1. You made me laugh, Meg. Can't say I ever considered the bowling alley job but barista at Starbucks ... yup. Except I'd drink my paycheck so not a smart career move for me. 🙂

      1. There's a new indie coffee shop just two blocks from my house; they don't age-discriminate, and there are times--oh yes, there are times--! Then I remember I'm shy, and get back to the safety of the computer.

    1. "Recovering perfectionist" ... Perfect! It's a slow process. And one I'm still struggling with. 🙂

  6. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped to wonder if it’s “good enough,” and considered just getting my work out there and moving on. But each time I’ve had a gut-check that told me to keep slogging. And, in looking back at the result of the next major step(s) taken, I’ve made my work significantly better. That’s not just a gut feeling, that’s evident in the feedback.

    So when is it ready? It’s funny, but in the wake of each progressive step, I become less and less fraught over that question. Perhaps it’s that the answer can only be revealed by an honest acceptance of the work’s increasing nearness to readiness. And the nearer it gets, the easier it is honestly see.

    Love the Herbert quote. Thanks for shining a light on a subject we all need to examine for ourselves, Kathryn.

    1. Vaughn you described perfectly my experience with my first novel, except that some of that valuable feedback I received from rejecting agents. One called me up and spoke to me for 50 minutes about the fact that she felt I'd written beyond the story's true end! You can believe I made that change.

      I used the phrase "flinch-proof" because "good enough" is not a good enough predictor. I think you have to have it ship-shape to the point that you believe in it without reservation, because it is that enthusiasm and confidence that will leak into your winning query. And if you receive another gut-check? There are many agents out there, and new ones joining the ranks every year who would love to take on your improved story.

  7. Kathryn, as I try to bring my current very badly behaved manuscript to heel, this post really hit home. I think that a book is only done when I feel the emotions I want my reader to feel when I read it--even if it's the 7th or 8th time through the book.

    1. That's a great standard of readiness, Holly, thanks for your input! Of course the trick here for a less experienced author is that you KNOW what feelings you are going for, and may well be feeling them—but a reader new to the work may not, for so many reasons. Like any art, effective literature is a tricky balancing act between what the viewer perceives and the artist's core belief.

  8. "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."

    Ha! So that was YOU standing beside me in the 12-step class! I'm finally beyond my first chapter after three years of my CP telling me to just write the story. It feels good, but it takes all my willpower to just read the last sentence before I start writing the next day.

    You are not alone.

    1. Oh my, M. Lee, you capture so well how perfectionism can be a roadblock. We need "special" road signs: Keep going! Keep going! You can always fix it later!

  9. I think we know in our gut when it's ready or not ready, we're just not always willing (or are afraid) to admit it. Laziness and skipping steps comes back to bite you, but obsessing over every possibility can paralyze us. Helpful, excellent post. Thanks..

    1. Cara so true about those skipped steps! My first novel interwove backstory and forward-moving stories in the voice of the same character. At one point I made a huge revision to the forward-moving story without re-reading the full. Turns out the change created a huge misalignment between the story threads. I only learned of this when an agent at a great agency, with whom I had a personal connection, requested the full and wrote back that he had no clue why a character had acted the way he had.

      I didn't know either.

      Oops. Lesson learned.

  10. Other readers are helpful, particularly in pointing out what's not quite right for them. And I let them at my work mid-way through the process. But later, even if others like my book, if I have doubts--any kind of sensing, knowing or gnawing--about it being ready, it isn't.

    Thank goodness, then, that writing and reading are not sciences. All I have to do is love my book sentence by sentence. And for me, the test for this is, after letting it sit, feeling surprise and pleasure as I read it. Then I feel confident that others will too. And, of course, equally confident that some will pan it. I just hope to find agents in the first category. Ha! The writer's life.Thanks for this post, Kathryn.

    1. "All I have to do is love my book sentence by sentence. And for me, the test for this is, after letting it sit, feeling surprise and pleasure as I read it. Then I feel confident that others will too." That's the spirit, Tom!

    1. Barb,

      Staying with it and being kind to yourself (putting away the tools of self-destruction) is the ticket. Whereas being discriminating (critical about the words on the page and the story) is standard in editing and revising, every moment in regret or SELF-criticism comes at a cost which is that at least ONE moment of future work is lost.

      And then comes the hard part. Put it away...long enough to not remember the problems and how you solved them. Going back, I find it is like I'm reading someone else's work. Things that then stick out need to be polished. Funny, for me. The first sentence takes the longest look and patience.

      Write on cheerfully.

  11. I really needed to read this today before I go back to my novel. thank you for your advice and your suggested solutions. I shall save this post in my craft file for future reference.

  12. Oh the revisions challenge - how many revisions are 'enough' is my whine! More, unfortunately. It's an art, and I keep questioning myself, being a severe critic to my several drafts. Thanks for the article today. I'll head back remembering to give things a chance to sit an simmer before revising yet again. Merci!

    1. Good luck, Celia! When you return to it, instead of thinking about being hard on yourself, think about trusting your gut instincts instead. Your inner reader knows a lot more than your craft mind does. It's been working longer!

  13. Thank you Kathryn. I'm at Obstacle three solutions too. I'm aware of the rearranging-words stage and hope that's over for now, but I'm working on the second point of making the story clearer, neater and more engaging without venturing anywhere near point three. I always enjoy your posts. Thank you again. Wendy.

    1. Wendy, I'm an epic word rearranger. I do believe more effective language can help deliver the story. But it doesn't change the story, and that's what these pros are looking for: a story that pulls you in and won't let go. If you have that, submit. You'll have plenty of time for those little tweaks later.

  14. I'm definitely stuck in Obstacle Three. If I procrastinate much longer in seeking beta readers, I'll never get my novel manuscript in the hands of an editor -- much less get it published. I'm reminded of something a professional genealogist told my sister and me before we published our first genealogy book. She said, "If you wait until it's finished, you'll never get it published." I think it's time for me to stop self-editing and take the next step!

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