The Life Cycle of a Manuscript

On a recent episode of Geek Gab, a listener asked me an excellent question: when is a manuscript ready for an editor? That questions got me thinking about my own writing and editing process, because to my knowledge no two writers follow exactly the same steps.

Honestly, my approach to preparing works for submission has varied depending on the length, market, and even genre of the piece; and my system continues to evolve as I learn more from experience and research. (NB: I highly recommend On Writing by Stephen King, especially for newcomers to the craft.)

Nevertheless, I thought I'd give a rundown of my current favored method for writing and revising manuscripts. Who knows? Someone may find it useful.

Outline: most fiction authors create outlines of their novels before the writing actually starts. There's no set format or length for outlines; they can range in size from scene-by-scene summaries of the book to one or two page sketches. Some authors (like King) don't outline at all. Trial and error have shown me that I am not one of them. My novel outlines generally run 5-10 pages; for short stories it's usually 1 or 2--enough to set the bounds of the story and chart the narrative structure.

By way of explanation, I tend to structure each of my novels as a succession of multiple three act or seven point narratives within an overarching frame. So I make sure to note every hook, complication, climax, and resolution in the outline.

First Draft: when I start writing, I more or less follow the outline, filling in the blanks while giving myself enough flexibility to draw outside the lines if it serves the story. I estimate that I stick to the outline about 60 percent of the time, and about 40 percent is improvised.

Only I ever see my first draft. It's not for anyone else.

Second Draft: after letting the first draft ferment a while--sometimes a few weeks--I'll go back for a second pass. This part always involves trimming tons of unnecessary words; sometimes cutting whole scenes to improve pacing. I'll also double check spelling and grammar.

Beta Readers: a lot of writers I talk to swear by writing groups. I wholeheartedly agree in principle; I've even made more than one failed attempt to assemble a writing group in my area. Luckily I'm blessed with a cadre of far-flung but hardcore (and brutally honest) beta readers. They read draft 2 and send me feedback.

Third Draft: I read my beta readers' feedback and make any changes that 1) I immediately agree with or 2) two or three of them independently suggest. Draft 3 includes another spelling/grammar/pacing/continuity check.

Submission: if I've written a short story, it now gets submitted to my chosen market. If it's a novel, Draft 3 goes to...

Editing: so far, I've had one novel-length manuscript professionally edited. I was so impressed with the results, provided by the brilliantly superversive L. Jagi Lamplighter, that I plan on hiring a knowledgeable, experienced freelancer to edit every novel that I intend to publish independently.

Final Draft: finally (for a novel), I write a final draft based on the editor's suggestions. I can honestly say that I used pretty much all of her advice last time. Since editors specialize in fixing stories, I don't see my policy changing any time soon.

So that's how I do things, at least for the time being. Hopefully someone will find it helpful. Suggestions for improvement are always welcome.

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