Once upon a time, I was the Lone Writer. I drafted my novels, chapter by chapter. Occasionally, I shared them with a single trusted confidant, chapter by chapter. When I did, I got feedback on what worked, chapter by chapter.
This system worked. I published twelve novels with two traditional publishers with this system. (Of course, I shared those novels with my agent, and he (very, very rarely) told me what he thought worked and didn’t work. And once the novels were sold, an editor had input about what worked, chapter by chapter, and overall. A copyeditor had input about continuity and consistency. Sometimes, editorial assistants conveyed their opinions as well. But in the writing stages of my work it was me, all me, with maybe one other person.)
As a side note: I was a member of an SF writing group for a couple of years. The group has been in existence for more than 20 years, and there are around a half-dozen published authors who have participated in the group for all or part of that time. The group mostly handles short stories; I never submitted my novels to it, because it takes several months, if not a year or more, for the group to address novel-length work. I no longer work with that group (but I really enjoy their holiday parties every year!)
Over the years, I’ve shared my work with more people prior to publication. I’m sharing my baseball series with a lot of people — it has to be perfect for a somewhat-new-to-me subset of the romance-reading population, and I have to get my baseball facts right.
But in the past month, I’ve had my eyes opened, regarding the value of multiple readers when a book is in the draft stage. Here’s the story:
Almost eight years ago, I met with my agent to figure out what my next book was going to be. We discussed a “book of the heart”, a non-genre novel that would address serious social themes, examining hard problems in sensitive detail. The book would be YA.
About six years ago, I started to write that book. I completed the first three chapters and sent it to my agent, to make sure that he agreed I was on the right track. And he *hated* it. He felt that I’d started the story at the wrong place. I’d created characters who did not adequately examine the serious issues in the story. The characters were so insular, so claustrophobic, that I could not manipulate them into an interesting novel. I set aside my attempt.
About three years, I figured out a new way to tell the story. I completed three chapters, and I got the go-ahead from my agent. I wrote the rest of the novel and sent it to him. He had a variety of questions, comments, and suggestions. The story has a hugely important moral component — it’s directly stating what characters should and shouldn’t do in certain circumstances. He pointed out places where my moral message was blurred.
For two years, I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote the story. Each time, I shared it with my agent — a man who has represented hundreds of authors, selling to hundreds of publishes, for decades. Each time, he gave me his opinion, and I weighed his suggestions. Some I accepted, and some I rejected, but I continued to reshape the novel.
About a year ago, my agent started shopping around the finally-finished novel. We felt confident about the writing, and we *believed* in the story. And it was rejected at over a dozen publishing houses.
A few months ago, I decided to self-publish this novel of my heart. As is the requirement with Book View Cafe, the publishing co-op that supports all my self-publishing efforts these days, I submitted the book for at least one member to read. In fact, three members read the book.
And they offered *brilliant* critiques.
They saw character arcs that were complete, but could be made higher and longer. They saw secondary characters who functioned as foils, but could be made sharper and of greater contrast. They saw plot problems, where my characters sailed past obstacles that would stop them in the real world. They saw thematic problems, where I was inadvertently conveying certain messages about how the world worked.
And not one of my three Book View Cafe readers saw all of those points.
I’ve spent the past month reworking my novel. I’ve added about 5000 words, key scenes between primary and secondary characters. I’ve taken out and added back another 10,000 words, reshaping interactions. I’ve sharpened my conclusions and made my message inescapable.
And all of these changes were made after one of the shrewdest businessmen in the publishing world had coached me on the novel for years. (Incidentally, none of the rejections we received from editors addressed any of these points directly.)
I’m not sure about the fate of my heart-novel. I’d love to think that my agent will take it in its revised state, send it back to a variety of traditional publishing houses, they’ll read it, fall in love, and make an offer. But I know that editors rarely re-consider work they’ve seen before. I’ll likely continue presenting the work through Book View Cafe (which has its own set of benefits, don’t get me wrong.)
But I’ve just lived through an example of how my writing is made better by others, by critique partners who can study the entire shape of the work. How about you? Do you work with others as you write? Do you share chapter-by-chapter, or complete manuscripts? What works best for you?