Turbo-Charge Your Story!

We would all like our novels to be as good as they can be. Nobody wants to publish second-rate work! The temptation, when one finishes a draft, is to sit back and feel proud of one’s work. And that’s appropriate! But typing “THE END” is not the end of the story.

Yesterday I finished the 3rd draft of my next novel. That’s right, not the 1st or 2nd draft — the 3rd. In a week or two I’m planning to pay a developmental editor quite a lot of money to read it and make suggestions. (We’re talking $2,500.) So it occurred to me that before I spend the money, I ought to put on my own developmental editor hat. Nobody knows the book better than I do, right? Are there weaknesses? Things I ought to reconsider? Plot points that I’ve neglected? Stuff I can safely cut?

I opened up a new text file in Scrivener. Before I even opened the file, I decided I would make a list of 20 things in the book that could use a little more attention.

Twenty? That seems like an awful lot! This is the 3rd draft, for Pete’s sake! Shouldn’t everything be nailed down by now? Hah. An hour later, I have a solid list of 20 items to look at, most of which I’m sure I’ll want to fix. What kinds of things? Let’s take a look.

In the big denouement, the detective makes a couple of brilliant guesses about events that happened months before and/or far offstage. Maybe I need to give him better sources of information.

One of the characters seems rather undeveloped. I need to look at all of the scenes where she appears and try to make her stronger and more consistent.

The footman reveals that a couple of suspects visited the murdered man a few hours before his death. But nobody is in a position to know or say what was discussed in those visits. Those characters are already acting suspicious enough; I think I can cut that bit.

Naturally there’s a happy ending! But the young heroine has just gone through some very significant emotional trauma. In the last chapter she seems, frankly, much too chipper. I need a happy ending, but I also need to have her showing a little distress, a little lingering pain.

I could list other items, but I trust my point is clear. Even when you think it’s over, it ain’t over. There’s still more work to be done. I’ve been thinking of this as yet another self-published book, and that’s probably where it will end up. Spending $2,500 on a self-published book seems quite extravagant! But the editor I’m thinking of hiring has endorsements on her website from a couple of authors who landed professional book deals after working with her. So maybe it won’t hurt me to go the extra mile.

Above all, you have to be willing to be brutal with yourself about what’s working and what’s not. Failure to be brutal is partly a matter of being defensive, and it’s partly just sheer obliviousness. As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, there are unknown unknowns. That’s why we hire outside editors. But if you’ve studied the craft, you’ll already have, at your fingertips or lurking in the back of your brain, quite a lot of knowledge about how your work could be improved. Use it.

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