I believe the single most important factor in publishing success is having a strong manuscript. (There are other factors—mostly (a) rolling up your sleeves and doing some serious, organized, thorough research, (b) querying in an intelligent, friendly-yet-business-like, non-sociopathic manner, and (c) the willingness to work with your agent and/or editor to further improve the story, once they’ve taken you on. Most of these are covered in Parts 3 & 4, coming up soon.)
But having a strong manuscript is by far the biggest part of it, and without it, it won’t matter how much you network and schmooze and spam. You can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript—you can only write them into liking it, by doing a great job of crafting it. However, you can easily talk someone out of wanting to read it, so pay attention to (b) above.
“Writing craft” can be an endless topic—and there are a lot of good books on the subject, as discussed here—so I’m only going to touch on two fundamentals: story creation and revision. In other words, the beginning and end of the novel writing process.
Story Creation: Many writing books, podcasts, blogs, etc. focus on the process of plot outlining, some to the point of methodically laying out prescribed beats and when to hit them. Yet many writers are self-proclaimed pantsers to one degree or another. Stephen King famously “doesn’t plot,” and I recall hearing a million-selling British thriller writer say he rarely knows where he’s going beyond the next five pages.
So what’s up with these seemingly conflicting paradigms? Is one method better and the other a waste of time? I don’t think so. They both clearly work well for different writers, and many (most?) of us are actually somewhere in between, sometimes going from plotting to pantsing on the same project.
But here’s another angle on the ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ issue:
They’re actually the same thing.
With both of them, your brain creates a plot and follows it to the end of the story. The difference being simply when the major plot points are decided upon.
Consider two cooks, baking the same dessert in different kitchens. (Let’s say bread pudding, because…bread pudding.) One gets out the recipe card, lays out the ingredients, follows the instructions—maybe varying them slightly according to her taste—and gets a tasty dessert.
The other has cooked (and as important, eaten with attention) quite a bit, and has a pretty good idea what to put in the dish to get something she thinks her guests will like. So she jumps right in, adding the basic ingredients she thinks belong in this particular bread pudding, maybe varying the spices slightly according to her intuitive sense of what will work. And gets a tasty dessert.
They both chose to use specific amounts of specific ingredients to arrive at roughly similar results. But in one case, the measurements were mostly determined ahead of time, while in the other, they were mostly determined during the process… which doesn’t mean they were just randomly guessed at.
It’s the same with plot construction. It’s not that the pantser just wildly throws stuff into the manuscript at random. It’s that they've read enough and/or written enough and/or thought about it enough that they have internalized the fundamental process of “story,” and don’t necessarily need to write it all down… any more than a cook needs to dig out a recipe to whip up a batch of waffles. But they’re still following the basic principles of good storytelling.
So we get to a little sub-secret: Read. A lot. In a lot of genres. And age ranges. Try to read good stories, well-loved stories, award winning stories, innovative stories, popular stories, classic stories, experimental stories. And those interesting little bastard mutt stories nobody else seems to love... but which speak to you anyway. (Those are the best stories, of course.)
You will absorb storytelling, and you will naturally absorb more of the type of storytelling that resonates most with you. And later, when you’re in the middle of your manuscript—whether plotted or pantsed or somewhere in between—and your brain throws out a flyer that wasn’t exactly in the masterplan, give that little bastard mutt of an idea a chance to develop into a contender before tossing it.
Story Revision: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a draft—my own or someone else’s—that couldn’t be substantially improved through thoughtful and thorough revision. But more important than what I think, virtually every editor I’ve seen discuss craft has said the same thing. We’ve talked about what an editor actually does in detail before, but here’s the TL;DR: Scraping a manuscript for mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, grammar, and basic continuity--ISN’T EDITING (nor is it revision). And does almost nothing to improve the fundamental story contained within the manuscript. (Yes, you still absolutely need to do it before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor—or “pressing publish”—but that’s beside the point.)
Just today I heard an editor say she cringes when she sees an aspiring writer doing first-round revisions at the sentence level, agonizing over commas, etc., because at that point the priority should be revision based on story development, making the story as strong and impactful as possible… tightening up dragging sections, making scenes carry their weight and have as much emotional resonance as possible. (Plus it’s pretty inefficient to worry about commas first, when the whole paragraph or page is likely to change… or be cut entirely.)
I filed the following under “Important Things I Have Learned…”
I have learned that when I write something I think is great as-is and I give it a quick spit-shine and excitedly send it out… it doesn’t get published. With everything I’ve ever had published, I did judicious post-first-draft work before submission.
And… this holds true for every author I know.
So please learn from my mistakes—if you write something you think is awesome and you’re proud of it, resist the urge to quickly spell check it, have your friend-with-English-degree read it and give you the thumbs up, then submit it. Because it probably is awesome, and you probably should be proud of it. So you should give it the best chance to succeed against all the other (likely more polished) works it’s up against. Because after an agent has passed on a manuscript, they’re typically disinclined to ever look at it again, even if you realize the error of your ways and do the work to make it “ready for primetime.” (And with editors it’s even worse, as once an editor at a given imprint has passed on a manuscript, all the other editors at that imprint typically won’t look at it, either.)
So that’s my .02 on the beginning and the completion of the novel writing process. In between, it’s just a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Which we’ll talk about next time…
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.