Every aspiring author understands that finishing your first draft of a novel is essential to your success as a writer. But while completing Draft 1 is one of the most important things you can do, to be sure, revising your book, and particularly revising it well, means the difference between an amateur and a professional.
When I first started writing novels, I didn’t pay that much attention to the revising process. When I finished the first draft, I celebrated, took some well-needed time off, then came back and did two more fairly quick drafts before pitching the novel to literary agents. I thought that was enough.
But what I learned over many years of writing fiction was that simply finishing the first draft and then doing what was essentially copy-edits on that first draft did not make for a great polished novel. It made for a draft that was well on its way… but not at all ready for prime-time.
So around 2014 I started working with beta readers, and a couple of freelance editors, and I started paying way more attention to what I was doing during my revising process. I also had the luxury of professors on my graduate school committees who read two of my novels and gave me detailed feedback.
And then… wouldn’t you know it. I received an offer of representation for one of my novels from a literary agent, and I’ve been working with her on two different books for more than a year now. My book currently on submission received fifteen drafts before my agent started pitching it. Yep, you read that right. Fifteen drafts over the course of 2 1/2 years. The first four drafts I did by myself. The fifth draft I worked with a beta reader. Then after signing with my agent, we worked together for almost a year on ten more drafts.
Now, some of these drafts were heavier than others. Probably three or four of these drafts were minor, with me only having to take a day or two to do some copy-edits or working on developing, say, the pacing of a few later scenes.
But other drafts were much more involved. One draft took me a month to tackle, because my agent wanted me to add 10,000 new words to the manuscript. 10,000 new words is a lot to add to a revised book, and it’s especially intimidating when you’re adding 10,000 words to what was at the time the eleventh or twelfth draft. After two years of work, I had a draft that was extremely polished and focused, and then I had to integrate what was essentially a first draft of 10,000 new words into the manuscript. It was really hard. It was intense.
And you know what? It made the book so much better. I’m so pleased that before my agent started submitting the manuscript to editors that we took some difficult and necessary steps to make the novel shine its brightest. There’s no sense in working this hard, working this long, if the final product that goes out isn’t your absolute best work.
If you want to make it as a writer, you have to commit one-hundred-percent to the revising process. It can’t be something you ignore, or half-ass. You can’t just flip through your pages quickly, change a sentence here and there, and say, hey, that’s a new draft! No. I take, on average, three weeks to do a revision of a novel, sometimes four. And I’m often looking for a dozen different things as I slowly make my way through a chapter. It’s just what you have to do.
And no matter how great you think the latest draft is, more often than not your work isn’t done yet. When I submitted my MFA thesis novel, a young adult thriller, to my graduate school committee this past March, I believed I had given that book everything I could. It was the third draft I delivered, but in many ways it felt like a sixth or a seventh draft because I had done so much radical revision over the course of eight months.
The first draft was 110,000 words. My thesis advisor convinced me to delete what was basically the second act, and then start the middle part of the story from scratch. I cut 82 pages of writing, which was about 26,000 words, and I cut other parts in big chunks to the point where my second draft came in at only 70,000 words. Then in the two months leading up to my thesis novel’s due date, I built the novel back up a bit to 82,000 words.
In March and April, I felt really, really strongly about that third draft. I felt like it might be, after a mere copy-edit or two, ready to be pitched to editors!
Oh, how naive I can be sometimes, even after many years writing and revising my fiction.
Since May I have worked on three new drafts of that thesis novel with my agent, and the book has changed considerably since March. It’s changed considerably… for the better. And I don’t believe it’s there yet, but it’s getting closer, I can feel it.
Even when you think you’re done with your novel, even when you think you’ve given it everything you have, you’re, still, probably not done yet. You might have one more major revision to go. Or it might be five more revisions. It certainly helps when you have an editorial agent, or an editor friend, or a beta reader who will help you out. The best revising is really hard to do when you’re by yourself with no one to bounce ideas off of, with no one to tell you if what you’re doing is right or wrong.
At the end of the day, if you want to be successful as a writer, you need to be serious, and dedicated, and thick-skinned, about the revising process. You might have to delete characters from the entire manuscript. You might have to delete your favorite scene. You might have to cut out a middle act and start from scratch, and while doing all this, you can’t be bothered to beat yourself up about it. Your books are living, breathing things, constantly changing and evolving. Sometimes for many years.
Learn to love the revising process, and you will get far, I guarantee it.