I spent over five years on the manuscript for my first novel. I did a lot of good things, a lot of bad things, and I stressed about a lot of details that didn't matter at all. We all write differently—and it's important to respect each other's processes. In the end, everyone must do what works for them. Yet as I struggled to learn the art of the novel, I was always hungry for examples of how other writers wrote—how I could improve, streamline my time, and perfect my craft. And since completing the novel was my goal, and my manuscript is finally in my agent's hands, I thought I would share what I've learned.
Now that I am deep into the edits with my agent (more about her in another blog post, I promise!) I see what is most important to her regarding what makes my story attractive to editors and eventually, readers. I've realized some important lessons that I didn't learn on my own.
Here's a quick list of the things that are rising to the top:
1) The story must grab the reader immediately and your plot cannot fall apart.
2) Your characters must be compelling, surprising, likeable, and consistent. Don't make your bad guys into caricatures, your protagonists flat, and your secondary characters more interesting than your top-billers. (I say this speaking directly from experience, trust me. It's not easy.) Your protagonist must carry the story.
3) Your prose must sing. Whenever I am knee-deep in edits, I remember a quote from one of my favorite authors, Silas House: "I always tell my writing students that every good piece of writing begins with both a mystery and a love story. And that every single sentence must be a poem. And that economy is the key to all good writing. And that every character has to have a secret." Is every sentence of your 80,000+ manuscript a poem? That's what second and third (and fourth) drafts are for. You must make it sing.
Here is a list of things that don't matter as much:
1) Word count. Unless your word count is woefully short (less than 60,000 words) or ridiculously long (over 150,000), I wouldn't give it a second thought. What IS important is economy in writing. At my agent's suggestion, I cut the details of an entire sub-plot. I didn't eliminate it, but by trimming everything superfluous that I'd originally thought was critical, I freed up my true story and improved the pacing dramatically.
2) Editing-while-you-go. Be careful. This may feel like a good idea, and I'm not saying to eliminate your natural editor entirely, yet the most important thing is to get the first draft on paper—and recognize it for what it is: a first draft. This doesn't mean your first draft is already perfect—it is far from perfect. You will scrub that draft over and over. Just get the first round on paper so that you can move forward.
3) Perfection. It doesn't exist. I spent days, weeks and months doing everything I could think of except writing while I wrote this manuscript—by convincing myself that it was all garbage, I paralyzed myself and simply didn't write at all. I've realized that you really don't know what it is until you get the first round on paper. Finish it. Don't obsess.
And here is a list of small cautions and advice:
1) Critique Partners—they are useless if they like you too much to tell you the truth. Choose wisely, and only work with those very select few who can help you with their feedback. Close friends sometimes are too nice. Even closer ones might be the opposite—overly-critical, yet unable to give constructive feedback. Be careful who you choose.
2) Support Group— your support group is the same yet different from your critique partners. These people may not have ever read a word you've written. This can be an online community, your spouse or family, or your best friend. They don't have to read your work to encourage you to follow your dream.
3) Write Alone—It is probably best to write the complete first draft alone. (Stephen King told me this in On Writing. I didn't listen to him the first time.) Remember the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the soup? Don't piece out your novel scene by scene for critique unless you want to possibly derail your manuscript. With that said, plotting and outlining will keep you on track. Toward the end of the manuscript I learned that I sometimes needed to think for two days and write for one. Knowing where my story was going was the key.
Will my next novel take five years? Hopefully, by following my own advice, I can economize my time, my words, and my manuscript. And in doing so, I'm becoming a better writer.