I reviewed a novel manuscript recently for a distant relative (probably a mistake), and after reading only a few pages, I could tell this was a first draft in need of serious work. After I politely informed the writer of my thoughts and braced for impact, he took his writing to have it self-published as it was. I’m certainly not against self-publishing, but in this case, it was a cop-out because he did not have the passion to fix the initial mistakes. He thought the first draft was “perfect.”
How about you? If you’re willing to spend the enormous amount of time and energy it takes to write a manuscript, are you also willing to invest just as much (if not more) time and energy into revision?
The first thing to realize is that bad first drafts are okay. There’s no shame in not bringing forth your masterpiece on the first try. The shame is in thinking that you’re writing on stone. In fact, assume that your first draft will suck. If you realize this from the beginning, then editors’ comments and your own changes will feel less like losing a limb and more like a flesh wound (they’ll still hurt some, yes).
Once you’re finished writing, remember that nothing is sacrosanct. In fact, I tell writers that they should most carefully consider the parts they deem their “favorite,” be it a scene, a line, or a character. Why? Because 99% of the time “favorites” are overwrought and stilted. Perhaps this is because the parts we love are the parts that we have spent too much time cultivating and adding flourish to. Or conversely, we love them so much we’ve been unable to see them clearly, or unwilling to change or improve them.
Sometimes you simply have to kill your babies and move on. Never put anything above your ultimate goal: your best possible manuscript. If you do, you’ve limited what you can do to fix your work. If you have to rip out an entire plot element and rewrite most of the manuscript, then do it. Need to cut a character that doesn’t add enough to the story? Then go for it—even if you think they’re hilarious or intriguing.
Finally, keep in mind that word count guidelines do not mean “words I still need to add.” In fact, I would recommend only having a general idea of the number of words you have until after you’ve finished the first draft. If you’ve gone too long, look to cut unnecessary scenes, verbose dialog or explication, and periphrastic phrasing (e.g., in order to show that). If it’s not long enough, well, time to work up a new outline and a fresh perspective. Don’t just add words to beef it up.
What about you? What helps you keep the fire burning during revision?