There’s a lot that can break your heart when working on a novel.
Trust me, I know. Since 2010 I’ve written twenty-one novels (three middle grade, four adult, fifteen young adult), and I’ve had my fair share of heartache as a novel writer that I wouldn’t be able to fit inside of one Medium story, that’s for sure.
Writing the first draft can break your heart because oftentimes you realize during the drafting process that the book you held for so long in your head just isn’t quite coming to life on the page, and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to fix it.
You can revise your novel two, three, four times, and still not feel like it’s ready to go out on submission to agents or publishers.
You might feel really positive about your novel, but you send it out to a few beta readers, and they all bring you loads of feedback that make you understand it’s nowhere close to being ready.
Oh, and there’s the querying of a novel to multiple literary agents after working on the book for many months or even years, only to come up empty.
There’s so much that can go wrong, and that’s sadly the name of the game.
You write a novel with the best of intentions, but there’s no guarantee that people will like it, that it will find you a literary agent who believes in you, that the manuscript will ever be published.
You have to be ready to put in the time. You have to be ready for that book you’re working on right now to potentially go nowhere.
Another thing you have to be ready for that I feel isn’t talked about very much?
Sometimes you need to throw out your revisions if your story is getting worse or headed in the wrong direction.
It’s so hard to throw out a revision you’ve put dozens, more likely hundreds of hours of work into. You’re not getting paid to write a novel at this stage. You’re working for free, keeping the faith that the book might work the more you revise it and copyedit it and tinker with it.
And yes, sometimes after you’ve worked on a novel for six months or longer it’s hard to take a step back and see what your novel is and where it’s come since you completed the first draft. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, and so you have to revise, revise, revise. You have to let your manuscript sit for awhile, then revise again.
Beta readers often help you find the major flaws with the novel, but not every piece of advice should be taken into account, especially when you feel deep down it’s actually making your novel worse. Sometimes you’re not sure. Sometimes an idea strikes you as interesting, and so why not try it out in the next draft. You can always delete it later.
This is why I always believe in saving every single draft you do just in case you want to go back.
Just in case there’s a scene or character or moment that somehow got lost from one draft to another, and you need to go retrieve it. Just in case that newest draft is a step down from what you had months before.
Just in case that latest revision is nothing close to what you originally set out to do when you wrote draft number one.
This is the state I’m in right now with one of my manuscripts. And I’m not just throwing out one of my revisions. I’m throwing out four of them.
Let me tell you a story…
Throughout 2018 I felt inspired to write a middle grade ghost story novel. An image entered my head of an elderly female ghost pointing at a trembling twelve-year-old boy in a cemetery, and I couldn’t shake it. I had a literary agent at the time, and she was excited about the idea and what the book could be.
So I wrote the first draft in early 2019. I felt it was the best first draft of a novel I had ever written. I did a second draft, and then a third draft (more of a polish, really). I sent it to my agent in April of 2019 super excited. I thought we had something great.
Her letter and line edits she sent back to me a few weeks later was depressing to say the least. There was so much wrong with the manuscript, she thought. Wrong point of view. Too many characters. Wrong choice to have one of the parents be dead. I agreed with some of her thoughts and not so much with some of the others, but I wanted to do right by her, wanted to get the novel to a place where she could be excited by it the way I was excited by it.
So over the next eight months I revised my middle grade novel four more times. I changed more than sixty percent of the story. Cut out thirty thousand words. Deleted two major characters. Changed the point of view. Had three outside beta readers give me feedback.
And the craziest thing happened during those eight months… I started to hate the novel.
Something I had loved in the beginning maybe more than anything I’d ever written, certainly for middle grade readers, had turned into a story I barely recognized anymore. It was no longer scary or spooky. So many of my favorite scenes had been cut along the way. The motivations of my main character were confused at best. And the last scene, so mysterious and satisfying in the first couple drafts, now was a talky, uninspired mess.
The day I decided to part ways with my agent, she sent me a long letter giving me more advice how to make the novel better, and most of what she said went against what I wanted to do with the story and certainly what I initially intended when I first started working on it. We went our separate ways. I started working on another book. I didn’t think about my ghost story for a year and a half.
At the beginning of June 2021, it was time. My teaching year was winding down, and I was having major withdrawals over this middle grade novel I hadn’t set eyes on since before the pandemic began. But here was the million dollar question: should I revise the seventh draft — the last one I worked on — or the third draft — the last time I actually liked the story?
During the weekend of June 4, I hunkered down and read both versions. It was an incredible few hours, let me tell you. When you read your own novel after not having looked at it for eighteen months, it’s like reading the work of someone else. But what made this experience so extraordinary is that the third draft and the seventh draft read like two different novels. The pacing is different, the point of view is different, dozens of scenes in the third draft aren’t in the seventh draft, and vice versa.
And you know what? It became clear to me early on: the better book is the earlier draft.
This is not to say the seventh draft is a disaster. There were a few scenes in the newer draft not in the earlier draft I loved and that I’ll be transferring over. Those eight months I spent revising that middle grade book four more times wasn’t a complete waste of time. I did some cool things that will have their places in the new draft — the 2021 draft, I like to call it.
But still, there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into four revisions of a book that for the most part are being tossed in the trash. Time is so precious as a fiction writer and we want those hours we spend at the keyboard to be worthwhile. We want them to mean something.
Well, you know what? They do mean something.
They always mean something, even if the end result is only ever seen by you and no one else.
You’ve probably read this or heard this before, but it’s true: any time spent writing or revising teaches you something. Even if you have to throw out your work. Even if you have to throw out scenes and characters and entire drafts you spent weeks and months on.
I’m throwing out 95% of four drafts of my novel, and I am thrilled about it. I started the new draft this week, and I’m going back to the book I loved in those early weeks. Yes, it needs a lot of work. Yes, some scenes, potentially even a character or two, will have to reworked or cut from the manuscript. I have tons of revising and editing ahead of me before I started querying this one to literary agents in the fall.
But it’s all for the best.
I’m listening to my gut on this one, and my gut says to go with the third draft, not the seventh. When the book was still working in a way I knew it was working and had promise to become something scary and memorable for younger readers.
Revisions are essential in the process of writing a novel, but don’t continue with another revision if the last one didn’t feel right. If you’re changing things and doing things for what you deep down believe to be the wrong reasons. It’s going to be your name on that cover, after all.
So do your best always to improve your latest novel through revisions and help from beta readers, but always remember it’s okay if you have to throw out one or more of those revisions.
Tell the story you want to tell, and make it your own. However long it may take.
And if you mess up somewhere along the way? Don’t panic. Those early drafts are always right there waiting for you.