I’ve recently finished revising my second previously-published book for re-release by a different publisher. The whole process – seeing my work through yet another lens, after having spent well over ten years working the book to a polished draft prior to submissions, and then going through it with the editor of the original publishing house – has been an eye-opening experience. During this time I’ve also seen good friends working hard at their own revisions in fervent hopes of their creative “child” finding its home in the publishing world.
How do we know when a book is finally “ready”? During this process with Timefall (which is the new title for the combined Collapse of the Veil and Crossings), I was shocked on more than a few occasions by things that had slipped past me during those ten-plus years of work, and had also slipped by the first editor. These different sets of eyes (I’s?) all come to a manuscript with subjective lenses, and these multiple perspectives quickly demonstrate the value of critiquing in a writers’ group. We all laugh when caught red-faced: “But isn’t it obvious? I can see it all in my head!”
I’d always figured I was reasonably good with characters, and their motivations and goals, so it was quite a surprise to see in the Track Changes margin: “Out of character”. Fortunately this mostly happened with the secondary characters. But it’s a clear reminder that ALL of our characters need to be in our story for specific reasons, each with their own agendas, and flaws, that drive the conflict arc of the character-driven novel. “Out of character!” was a useful reminder to examine what a character’s response would actually be, and how long that response would play out – and working out a more realistic response led me to subtle shifts that freshened the protagonist’s response as well.
And … responses? Oops! Character X said/did something. Why didn’t Character Y respond? Caught up in one character’s point of view, and with the scene goal in sight, umm…..maybe things got rushed ahead just a little too fast, without honouring the perspective of Character Y? Definitely worth thinking about…
The choreography within a scene, again in the Track Changes balloon: “And Tyler is where?” This round of re-revisions got me looking long and hard at the mother-instinct not only in my teen mom protagonist, but also in her mother. The baby is a pivotal character in the book, and needed to be accounted for in all the scenes where he is present. Oops…. And lo and behold, in a high drama scene where (this time around) I caught myself on two giant faux pas that the present (excellent) editor didn’t catch…whoa! There those Big Issues were, staring me in the face. By honouring each character’s integrity in the height of the emergency, the way unfolded to show both characters in realistic action together; this, in turn, also served to reinforce a tentative reconciliation. The shifts needed to play this out were amazingly simple to work in and, better yet, had all my characters accounted for. It is so easy for characters to fade out of a scene before they’ve actually exited. So this was another wake-up call: Characters are in a scene for a reason. If we’ve put them there, they need to have a tangible role to play whether it’s a speaking part or an action part. If they’re a secondary character, their presence has to have some kind of impact on what the protagonist is doing. And if the secondary characters happen to be more articulate/active than a more-reserved protagonist, our protagonist still must be truly “present” in a sensory and mental way, rather than simply to listen to what the other guys are all talking about.
When is a manuscript truly ready? Such a tough question! Sometimes deadlines will get us up and hopping, maybe with a hint of panic. If we stop and second-guess ourselves too many times, searching for the right word, the most evocative image, we can take the proverbial “forever” to get done – and too much of this can kill the spark that ignited earlier drafts. Yikes…we don’t want to do that! When considering this question nearly forty years ago I used certain criteria, and for the most part I still adhere to them: If it’s as good as I can possibly make it; if I still get excited (re)reading it (for the umpteenth time!) and can experience my narrative through the emotional lens of my protagonist and in a sensory way; if I’ve read chunks of it aloud to my computer monitor and the words sound pleasing and have a good feel on my tongue, then yes, maybe it’s okay to let it go. That is, of course, after careful scrutiny: Are the characters believable, and consistent? Is the plot believable, and the goal worthwhile? Is there strong enough motivation, with further conflict arising from the interplay of the characters’ diverse goals and motivations? Is there a satisfying resolution that resonates beyond “The End”? Yes? Then maybe it’s okay to hit send.
But maybe a book is never truly finished. For once it’s out there in the world, it will be re-created every time a reader plunges into our story – through yet another set of eyes.