Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Giving Birth

I asked several published authors this question: When do you decide your manuscript is ready to go out? How many people read it first? How many rewrites?

Follow the links. Buy their books. I've read works from each of them, and each is first-rate. A ton of thanks to them for answering my question.

Here are their responses, in the order I received them:



Erica Orloff (speaking specifically about her first novel, Spanish Disco) says--
For me, I had always been--for years--in what I knew was a really talented writers' group. A combination of good critics and brilliant craftspeople . . . and I worked on it with them continually for six months, honing and refining, and when it was finished, I was pretty sure it was as well-edited and good as it could be. My agent sold it in three months--and my editor
asked for no comprehensive changes. I think my group had accurate instincts.

JA Konrath, author of the Jaqueline “Jack” Daniels thriller series, says--
By the time I type THE END, the book has had two revisions, because I rewrite as I write. Then I go over it once more to make sure it gels, and give it to a select cadre of beta readers (which include several bigshot authors) and incorporate their suggestions.

From there, it's to my agent, and more rewriting.

If it's a book I'm under contract for, my editor usually asks for more changes, and then the line editor has a final shot.

So I'd say there are at least 6-7 rewrites between first draft and publication.

Aaron Lazar, author of the Gus Legarde mystery series, says--
I have an inner circle of at least a dozen people whose skills range from tough writing critics to readers who simply want to follow the series, but who are happy to catch my typos.

After my inner circle has fed back to me (and meanwhile I've written another book, usually), I will go over it, rewriting it carefully. Choosing the best verb, eradicating phrases I've grown to dislike, and trying to smooth the text and plot to perfection. I usually end up doing this a couple of times before considering submitting it. Then, if I get a publisher to request it, I often polish it again before it goes out. All in all, it probably gets revamped a dozen times before it's actually published, including two or three revisions by editors.

Tess Gerritsen, whose thrillers can consistently be found on the NYT bestseller list, says--
I don't let ANYONE read my manuscript until I feel it's ready for publication. Which means my ms's go through about six or seven drafts before I feel they're done. I want the writing to be clean and polished, and I want all questions of logic fixed. Then I let my husband read it for typos. Then it goes out to my agent and editor.

My editor once told me that I was one of very few authors whose manuscripts come in just about ready for the printer, and how much she appreciates that.

Marcus Sakey, whose debut The Blade Itself hit the stores a couple of weeks ago, says--
I write the whole thing, beginning to end, trying to avoid major backtracking. I'm always polishing as I go, but I focus on forward motion. Once I finish, I send it out to my parents and a handful of friends while I let it cool, a month-long process that involves an obnoxious amount of moviegoing and X-Box playing. Then I sit down, read the whole thing in a day, look at the feedback from my readers, marker the hell out of the manuscript, and roll up my sleeves. When I finish that rewrite, the book is ready to go to my agent.

PJ Parrish, who writes the Edgar-nominated Louis Kincaid mystery series, says--
This is a very hard question for me. I am a big believer in rewriting. To me, this is where the book is truly made. I quote this every time I teach writing: The first draft is made with the heart; the second, third, tenth is with the head. Maybe it is because our books are so plot intensive, our bread-crumb trail of clues so long and winding, but we HAVE to rewrite just to get things to work. For our newest, "A Thousand Bones," we rewrote three times then were still rewriting whole chapters after the copyeditor was done with it. My husband came over to me one night and sighed, "It's time. Let it go."

Now the hard part. I can't let it go. As my co-author and sister Kelly knows, I am a perfectionist who labors over each and every line like I will never get another crack at it. Then when something is finished, I go back and smooth it, polish it, gnaw away at it like a stray dog guarding its last bone. This, of course, is anal and as bad as not rewriting at all.

Because you gotta know when enough is enough. You gotta just heft up your courage and fling your baby -- warts and all -- out there and take your shots to the gut. As that great 20th century philospher Sting once said: If you love somebody, set them free. That applies to ex lovers, adult children and manuscripts.

Because you have to know when to let your baby go.

Sean Chercover, whose debut Big City, Bad Blood was recently released to rave reviews, says--
I'm constantly re-writing and tweaking as I go along, so by the time I get to the end, it's not really a first draft anymore. I also give it to my wife and parents in about 50-page chunks as I go, so I'm getting feedback, some of which I listen to and some of which I don't. Anyway, I take a break after I get to the end, while my early readers get a chance to look at the thing as a whole. At this point, there are a couple of friends who will see it for the first time, because my wife and parents have seen it quite a bit, and I need some "fresh eyes". Then I read it again and dive back in for revisions.At that point, it had better be ready to go out, at least to my agent. Then my agent reads it and I get her feedback, and tweak it again. Then my editor reads it, and I get her notes.

But having said all that, I'm not sure that I ever "know" that it is ready to go out. I just get to the point where I've really done all I know how to do. My wife may say something like, "Okay, now you're spending weeks obsessing over commas. It's time to stop." That helps.


My thanks again to all these authors.

Anyone notice a trend here?

I recently finished a novel I’d been working on for six months, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment when I finally typed THE END.

Now I’m anxious to start querying agents. My goal is to have a book deal by year’s end. But how do I know when the manuscript is ready for, if not the world, at least an agent’s eyes? Should I blitz the field with queries, like some writers do, or should I be selective and only send to a few agents at a time? Should I start licking envelopes?

No.

My son was a preemie. Five-and-a-half weeks. I witnessed the miracle of his birth, and then got to watch him through the glass walls of an incubator for several days, being fed through a tube. He did fine. He’s fourteen now, and six-feet tall already.

But being a preemie is never the ideal. A fully-developed baby fares much better in the world.

Same with books.

Tagging a first draft with The End is a first-degree misnomer, when you get down to it. Finishing the first draft is a milestone, to be sure, and anyone who has done it knows how much work it takes.

But, for most of us, it’s a far cry from actually being finished.

Two published authors (one who worked as a book editor for a decade) are reading my manuscript and offering feedback. A third has agreed to do the same after his deadline has passed. I’ve given it to several friends and family members, getting takes from the layperson’s POV.

Ernest Hemingway said, “A book is never really finished, it’s just due.”

Since this is my first novel, I have the luxury of taking as much time as I need to get it right. I don’t have a deadline (other than my self-imposed one). But here’s the thing I have to keep reminding myself:

It’s never going to be perfect.

Like a chick from the nest, you have to eventually let it go. Multiple rewrites are essential, but if you’re not careful you can edit the soul out of a book. You have to know when to let go, when enough is enough.

So how will I know?

My plan: After I get the feedback from my readers, I’m going to do one major rewrite and a polish. Then I’m going to give my baby wings. I’m going to start querying agents. When I find representation, there will probably be another rewrite. When a publisher buys the book, probably more.

Is it worth it? Putting all that effort into something you know will never be perfect? Something you might never earn a dime from? Is nurturing your baby to maturity worth the blood, sweat and tears?

Only if you want to be a writer.

19 Comments:

Blogger Blind Camel said...

Enjoying your blog, Jude. Am following the same path, only I'm at the head of the trail instead of the end. (I've got a couple hundred pages of manuscript, truth be told, and a whole heck of a lot of self-doubt.)

Thanks for sharing, and I'm rooting for you...

- Scott

12:34 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks!

You're in good company up there in Chicago.

Believe me, self-doubt is something that plagues every writer, at every level. Keep at it and finish the book. Once you do, all things are possible.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Superb post, Jude. And you've hit the nail on the head, once again. (to perpetuate a nice cliche'!) It will *never* be perfect. You'll go back to it in five years, long after you've published, and will cringe at certain things - wishing to God you could change them. But it won't matter to your loyal readers - they aren't in it for the pure joy of perfect prose. They just want a damn fine story.

It's funny, but in our writers' world, we all care so much about the details. How often we've used that "forbidden phrase," who publishes our books, or which agent we snag. Part of that is due to our need to actually get paid for our craft, searching for validation, and possibly earning a little prestige.

But when your readers dig into your book, they usually don't notice who the publisher is. Rarely. When you grow your community of readers/fans, you'll find an amazingly non-critical, loving bunch of people. They just want a good story that moves them, transports them, gives them the adventure they'll probably never have. Long as it flows and reads seamlessly, paints a great picture - they'll be yours for life.

You've learned the most important aspect of this - it will never be perfect. Try to get as close as you can to the best you can possibly do, then let it go. And you'll do fine. 'Cause your writing and your book are splendid.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Blind Camel said...

Thanks, Jude. Much appreciated.

I need to find some "good company" up here. Right now I'm writing in a vacuum.

I've got an undegraduate B.A. in Creative Writing. Publications on RollingStone.com and Playboy.com, plus BrandWeek and CIO and other tech/trade rags (all non-fiction, of course). Nearly 20 years of professional writing experience. I'm not a nut or a novice. So how do I find an appropriate gang to write within?

I'll even let them do the "beat in" ritual...

Not your problem, of course, but your generosity thus far inspired some hope...not to mention the usual neediness and desperation.

- Scott

8:56 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Aaron!

It's a scary thing, pushing your baby out into the cold cruel world. You know some battle scars are inevitable, but pray that you've nurtured it enough to wade through the slush and survive.

And, with a little luck, to thrive.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Scott,

If you're interested in a critique group, I would say finish your novel first and then check into a professional organization like Mystery Writers of America. They can steer you toward groups in your area.

And there's a slew of published authors up there with blogs and websites. Try jakonrath.com to start. Lots of good writing tips on his site.

Good luck!

9:18 AM  
Blogger Blind Camel said...

Thanks again, Jude.

I've been reading JA's website, plus a lot of the other Chicago blog/websites (esp. the Chicago Collective site).

Finish the novel. That seems to be everyone's best/first advice. I was so hoping there was some other thing I could do first.

:-)

Onward!

9:51 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Scott,

I can understand wanting to know, 200 pages in, if you're on the right track or not. But, in my experience, it's better to just slog on through to the end. If you seek feedback prematurely, you'll be chasing your tail a lot and might NEVER finish.

We all--and I mean writers at every level--have days when everything seems like crap, when we seriously consider torching the manuscript and the hard drive it rode in on. You just have to get through it.

Relatively few people ever actually finish a novel. Be one of the ones who do. It's frustrating getting there, but there's no feeling quite like it.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Blind Camel said...

My man, you have no idea how helpful that advice is. Sad to say, but it's as if I can't hear it enough.

A big thanks, and a guarantee I'll pony up for your novel the moment it's available for pre-order on Amazon.

- Scott

10:46 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Oooh, Jude! Look how many books you've already sold. :)
Nice to see you back! Your last post was 'The End' And, well...I was beginning to think it was the end of the blog! :P

As always, I am in awe of your thorough and analytical approach. You've definitely got the left and right brain balance going on. Love the analogy of the preemie. And I think you're dead on. Many unpublished writers are intimidated by the reported agent rejection rate--myself included. But I think if more writers were to focus on putting the best foot forward in the first place, this rate would not be so astronomical.
With the loving care you've given this, the careful research you've done, and the heavy hitters you have in your corner, I know your query is going to wow agents.

Haven't even read your stuff and I know you're not just any ol' writer, but a novelist in your heart.

note to Scott, you've been given great advice here! Without a finished product, it is difficult for a critique partner to put things in perspective. In addition, you run the risk of to-ing and fro-ing in an effort to make your vision of 'the end' match that of your critiques, which can make reaching 'the end difficult to impossible. Did it once and it stopped me in my tracks. Feedback is golden. If you just need to hear, "Gee this is great, I'd read further," get a couple of honest buddies to beta read for you.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Lainey,

Thanks so much!

You're right about too many writers jumping the gun on submissions. If more people made 'we will serve no wine before its time' their mantra, I bet the rejection rate would go way down.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Scott:
I can't claim this advice as my own, but a lot of writers say "You can fix crap." In other words, if you decide it sucks, you can go fix it. But you have to have something TO fix. :-)

Jude . . . great post. Sooner or later, you have to cut the cosmic umbilical cord and send out the manuscript!

E

1:31 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Erica!

I have those cord-cutting scissors in hand, ready to snip!

1:44 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

I'm just loving this post, especially as it grows! Thank you so much for collecting and sharing this information!

10:12 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Spy,

Thanks!

It was great hearing back from these authors. So generous of them to offer their insights.

11:17 PM  
Blogger ORION said...

Jude I just followed you here from Miss Snark.
This was really a great blog entry. Well done!
I too have trusted beta readers and it's always interesting to see how other authors do it.
Kudos to you for writing this.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Orion!

It was a blast putting this together.

9:39 PM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Jesus Jude! Are you still in labor?

I thought you'd be potty training by now. :)

9:32 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

LOL Lainey! I think they're going to have to induce.

Actually, if everything goes well, I'll be sending it out in the next week or two. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

After I "deliver," I'll probably have to write a Post-Partum Depression blog. ;)

4:24 PM  

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