I find quite a few new novelists (new= those who’ve written between 0-3 novels) being impatient with the process of drafting, collaboration and publication. You’ve got a story, it’s ripe and ready for hungry readers. Why should you be patient in a “hurry up and wait industry?”
Everyday I meet with authors around the world and their questions have spurred a lot of the material in this article. Because there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about the writing and publication process, I hope to shed light on how to approach not only your draft, but your publication journey. At the heart of your artistic practice there must be patience, understanding, and knowledge from credible sources.
WHY ARE WE IMPATIENT WITH OURSELVES WHEN WE’RE DRAFTING A NOVEL?
A big obstruction to being patient with one’s process is a lack of understanding about drafting and revising. Before any of my books go to print they’ve gone through anywhere from 8-12 full drafts. (The beginning of my novels I tend to revise quite a bit more.) Each of those edits is focusing on something different, until the last three revisions where we’re getting into the granular/nitty gritty of sentence structure, word choice and punctuation, as well as layout.
A good idea to keep in mind, if you’re not familiar with drafting processes is that you want to break your novel writing process into something much more manageable, like follows:
- Idea Draft (for me, this is usually drafts 1-3, but sometimes 1-5)
Zero or Rough Draft-I usually start with a notebook so that I feel really free to write whatever I want, let the ideas flow and not feel pinned down to create a grand masterpiece and forever feel disappointed with myself.
- Revised Idea Drafts-Drafts # 2-3
This is where I go deep into who my characters are, what they want, their relationships, the rules of the world they’re living in, the deep histories of the lands they inhabit, cultures, etc… I use my Character Mincer workshop with all of my major named characters. In later years, I’ve leaned more heavily on my character’s lives and histories. I save world-building solidifying until after character and relationships feel really solid. I also want to decide whose POV to prioritize after Draft # 3. In the past, it’s usually after draft # 3 or # 4 that I’d get a professional developmental edit, or swap with a trusted critique partner.
- World-building Idea Drafts # 4-5
I’m revising just for the world, setting, and how it’s affecting my characters. This is often where I get input from others about what feels clear and what doesn’t. I’ll go to workshops with pages, submit pages to my critique group or critique partner. I’m still in that fluid state where input can help shape the ideas and where I think they’re going. For those writing historical novels or novels with a lot of important timelines overlapping, this is usually where you’ll do the heaviest work, depending on your process. It’s also at this point that I decide if I need to completely re-type the novel up, after printing it out and sticking it on my Accto book stand. Never be afraid to re-type up your novel. It has saved me hours of work of trying to jenga scenes that were only partially working.
- Voice/Language Draft # 6
I’m looking at the dialogue, narration and voices of the characters. I almost always write in alternating POV. (Why do I do this to myself?) This means I have to really check that there’s a clear difference in those two character’s voices, language and observations in order for readers to not feel confused. I divide up the book and do one sweep just in one characters voice and repeat the same for the other POV. I look at the use of narrative language here to make sure that I’m not overusing the same words, or confusing readers with too much world terminology. My goal with my books is to always make them accessible to a variety of readerships, particularly those for whom English is a second language. I don’t want my prose to be so dense that it’s untranslatable into another language.
- Granular Draft # 7
This is where I go deep into line editing my work. I print it out and really look at it as if it weren’t my work, but one of my author’s manuscripts and try to find every mistake, awkward phrase (often reading out loud) and place where there’s incongruity and even other issues I didn’t notice in the drafts above. This is often a much slower revision because I have to go slowly, mark everything on paper and then make sure I take care of any big picture things I didn’t notice in subsequent drafts before I get into the super granular. It is after this draft that I feel ready to either submit for copy-edit or for literary agent representation.
Now, my process above might feel bonkers for others. They might have a brain that allows them to look at multiple things at once. If I give myself too tall a task, I’m likely to miss essential things that need sweeping and tidying. In addition, I’ll be discouraged from making essential changes because I’m too overwhelmed. Take the time to know what process works for you.
Overwhelm is a real thing. It can fuel Imposter Syndrome, causing us to pull back and even believe we’re the only ones who can’t go forward with a project. When I feel this way, I’ll challenge myself to try to at least edit (or compose) a page or two before moving onto my daily work. In this way, I’m making small steps forward and not giving Imposter Syndrome any fuel to keep obstructing the important work I have to do.
Because there is still so much misunderstanding about how revising and drafting can work, it means overwhelm and personal impatience is much more likely. I’ve met far too many new authors who think if they write three drafts of a novel it’s ready to query. (It could be, but it’s unlikely.) Or, I have individuals contacting me for a copy edit and the POV in their novel is still all over the place. I don’t say this to be discouraging or demean anyone, the opposite, actually. Instead, I want writers to feel empowered to both be patient and diligent. That is only possible if you have the knowledge to know that self-editing is a lot more involved than it might look. It does often mean getting input from experts.
PATIENCE WITH PUBLISHING PROFESSIONALS: STANDARDS OF CONDUCT
This patience also transfers into working with publishing professionals. Endeavor to understand what that relationship looks like and what our editor’s and agent’s expectations are for professional conduct. Too many authors unknowingly get themselves into interpersonal binds when they refuse to follow the culture of an industry that is underpaid, overworked and subject to very volatile market shifts. We all (editors, agents and authors alike) wish it wasn’t like that. We’re doing our best to champion good books, but we are also imperfectly human. It’s super important to always approach industry folks with the utmost kindness, patience and professionalism. Here are a few behaviors that will hurt your career:
- Sending lengthy/rude e-mails that are not succinct and to the point after receiving feedback, a rejection, or offer of representation w/ feedback. Editors and literary agents spend the bulk of their time editing, talking with authors, industry professionals, and selling/promoting your book. We reserve a very small amount of time for e-mail. It is not in your benefit to write long monologues, round robin/rapid fire multiple e-mails when one will do, or to defend your work with pages of explanations. You have to show that you understand how the industry works with your professional conduct. Don’t assume that you can act differently because you’re better than everyone else out there or your work industry operates differently. You’ll only receive ire and rejection as a result. Offers of representation can be rescinded, contracts can be canceled; folks do get blacklisted. Take a look at Publishers Weekly or Jane Friedman’s Hot Sheet to get more informed about the industry.
- Don’t pester industry folks if you haven’t heard back within 48 hours. Of course, if you are a paying client, most editors want to respond within 48 hours, unless it’s over a weekend. However, literary agents and editors at publishing houses are just as time strapped as I am. If a literary agent requests your full or partial manuscript, it isn’t unusual for six months to go by before you hear from them. Some literary agents will give you an estimated timeline for hearing back from them, but e-mailing before 3 months (or the timeline they’ve established) unless you have another offer of representation is never a good idea. The squeaky wheel does not get the grease in publishing. If you’re in doubt, check with an author friend or past editor you may have worked with to get a check on how to proceed, especially if you feel your question is urgent. If you’re paying an editor for feedback and you haven’t heard back within a week, it’s always a good idea to follow-up.
- Receive feedback gracefully, with gratitude, and give yourself at least 72 hours before responding with any sort of rebuttal (which you should avoid at all costs). I was in a wonderful panel with Sean Desmond, head editor at Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central, who talked about how authors have really got to restrain themselves, after receiving feedback, from immediately responding with a defensive e-mail. It NEVER works in your favor and it just annoys and erodes the editor/author relationship. We all want to work with people who are ready to learn how to become better writers, at any stage of their career.
- You have to find a way to separate your feelings about your work from the work itself. You are not your work. Your self worth is not inextricably connected to your book, which eventually will be sold as a marketable product. You have to see feedback and revisions as necessary evils that you must be patient with becoming accustomed to. When I first get feedback it never feels great, it’s often stress-inducing as I try to weigh all the different ways I could possibly solve a problem with the manuscript I had not anticipated. However, I always reply to my editor or critique partner with a succinct “Thank you so much! Excited to dive in.” And I get to work. A week after looking everything over, I schedule in a phone call or in person meeting to talk through some of the harder edits so I have a clearer way forward.
- Everything in that outbrief meeting, after receiving an edit, is about implementing the changes I’ve agreed to. I don’t even bother talking about the ones I’m not going to take on, because it’s not important to go over them and start a debate. Of course, if there’s a crucial thing that needs editing, I’ll discuss it, but NEVER debate it. Instead, I always approach things that feel like they’ll ruin the manuscript from a place of curiosity and patience. At the end of the day, I decide which edits will go forward. There’s no reason to be dramatic and argumentative about those changes I’m not implementing. I’ll only waste both of our time.
- When engaging with a freelance editor, make sure you’ve given yourself enough lead time. At least half of the inquiries I receive are from individuals that want to start working tomorrow, or shortly thereafter. Some will state they only have the next 4-6 weeks to work on the project and get it in shape (because of a lull in work projects, life, etc…) and then they’ll have to query agents. When I tell individuals that it’s not a long enough timeline, I sometimes receive grumpiness instead of gratitude for being frank about the state of their manuscript. (This is often during a free meeting where I’m not being paid to give this advice.) Most full-time editors are booked up at least 1-3 months in advance, with rare exceptions. (It’s not bad if they are available to work right away.) It’s important to be patient with the fact you’re likely going to work on this book for years, not just months. Query freelance editors at least a month ahead of when you’d like to start working with them. Wait for all the proposals to come in before you decide who to engage with: it will save you a lot of headaches later. You want quality, not just the cheapest/fastest bidder.
- Be patient with yourself and your own capacity. Often the reason authors express impatience with me is not because of anything I’m doing or not doing. It’s because they haven’t yet learned to approach their work with a 1% daily increase attitude. Your work matters, but your life also matters. When you are patient with yourself, you’ll find more harmony in many other aspects of your life.
TIPS TO HELP YOU GAIN MORE PATIENCE
- Do the work and get help–don’t isolate yourself!
- Attend a writing workshop, or self-guided course, if freelance editors are outside your budget.
- Go to book launches, swap work with a fellow author and be an engaged member of the writing community
- Read Brene Brown’s books! A few favourites: Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, and Atlas of the Heart.
- Join Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed Newsletter & Tiffany Yates Martin’s Newsletter
- Examine your workflow. Are you expecting yourself to cover too much ground in a short period of time?
Giving Yourself Room to Grow, the 1% theory
There are many theories out there about person growth. One that has helped me immensely is approaching my art from the lens of trying to increase my skills by 1% each day. I don’t want to rest on my laurels and simply vegetate where I am. (I’m sure you don’t either!) I embrace the opportunity to read publications from the industry (like PW and the Hot Sheet), take classes, read blogs and articles from other editors and authors and keep a running catalogue of articles to share with the authors I work with. I also try to grow as an artist by taking dance and painting classes, exercising, etc. Like any normal person, I sometimes let the well run dry. And when that happens, impatience flares its ugly head.
Know What You Have Control Of
I do not have control over how readers will react to my books, how they will sell, nor do I know how my efforts will translate into sales, acclaim, etc. However I position myself for success by defining it for myself, sans outside validation. We live in a society that thrives on outside validation. In fact, people often pick up books or decide to work with someone because of that outside validation. It is important, but it is not everything. Someday someone will give me a one-star review. I don’t have control over that. But, I do have control over doing the work, approaching it with grace, and being a part of a community that supports books.
Working With the Pros-Understand What Will be Expected of You
When you get published, you’re expected to have a great deal of knowledge, even if you’ve never been published before. There’s unfortunately a lot of assumption heaped upon new writers. A recent Bookseller survey showed that authors who are launching a debut novel for the first time felt mostly unsupported by their publishers. This is because so much of the launching experience has been shifted into the hands of authors themselves. The days of wine-soaked lunches and being brought up to speed by your agent or publisher about your book launch are mostly over. You are expected to be prepared for launching with or without your publisher’s help and that means making sure to grow your network of folks who can help you when launch day comes. Book selling still remains very much a community effort.
What Patience Will Prepare You For
This gives authors the opportunity to become knowledgeable about what your book launch will look like and to also negotiate terms with your publisher based on what aspects of marketing fall on the author’s shoulders. You have a lot more control over that process than you might think. It means shifting to being proactive about your role in the process.
I’ve been editing and teaching writing for the past twenty years, in addition to having my own work published and running a small press. I have seen the authors who make the most progress and feel the most successful are the ones who recognize that essential quality of focusing on what they have control of, owning up to the fact that all art needs revision, and embracing that you’re never done, you simply give-up and declare it “good enough” and move onto another project.
Embrace that you are doing your best work now. Breathe into the comfort of patience and meditatively approaching your work with the grace and love that it requires to reach the hands of readers. They’re out there waiting for your work to reach their hands!