A couple of days ago I listened to a live talk on Facebook by publisher Scott Pack on the five most common mistakes people make when submitting their manuscripts. The most interesting point to me was when Scott said that in his experience about half the people who submit are sending a manuscript too early. He said some of these manuscripts might even have been very good after a third or fourth draft, but they were rejected. The reason this struck a chord with me is that I have done this myself many times. Caught up in the exhilaration of finishing a book, I’ve rushed it off into the outside world without another thought. If you think about it, it’s like pushing your baby out of the door and into the cold alone without even a coat and hat. In fact you haven’t put any clothes on them at all! They are not going to survive!
How do you resist the temptation to submit too early? It’s difficult, but you have to start thinking in terms of first draft, second draft, third draft and so on and move your expectations so that submitting becomes connected with the fifth draft, or the sixth one, or whenever you decide you can’t possibly do any more to improve your work. The first draft is just a sketch. Or the naked baby again. Don’t let anyone see your work naked!
It was a big leap for me when I understood that in the first draft anything goes because no one will see it and it’s not going anywhere. You’re free to make mistakes, experiment, write huge chunks that will never be used, or introduce characters that make absolutely no sense later. It doesn’t matter, because the editing stage will take care of all that. Every time you edit or redraft your work you will see a huge improvement.
Everyone’s different of course, but to give you an example this is how my own drafting process goes:
- First draft – write longhand in a notebook, preferably using the same pen. Lose the pen. Panic. The muse has gone! Try writing with another pen. Realise it’s going to be okay. Maybe even better. Phew. Find the original pen. Panic.
- Second draft – type up first draft on to the computer, editing as I go. Correct the problems at the beginning caused by having a different middle and end to the ones I intended.
- Third draft – correct printed out second draft using a pen (any pen – the superstition has mysteriously gone). Perform a massive facelift plus possibly invasive surgery (of the manuscript, not me). Result can be a fifty percent improvement (of the manuscript, definitely not me).
- Fourth draft – print out third draft and put away in cupboard. Agonising wait, preferably for a month. Desired outcome: the ‘I don’t remember writing this!’ effect. Edit again feeling like an older, wiser person.
- Final fifth draft – the paranoia edit. Recheck on screen or paper, tidying, honing and searching for typos and cliches. Realise I’ve used the word ‘look’ a million times on one page. Wear out shift + f7 looking for alternatives. Gah!
Bing! It’s ready. Submit and prepare to repeat stages 3-5 if rejected. Meanwhile buy new notebook and pen and start next project at stage 1.
You can still read Scott’s broadcast on Reedsy’s Facebook page to find out about the other common mistakes. The question and answer session at the end was very useful too.