I was preparing for another submission a few days ago, one in which I had to copy deeper into the novel than I had before to paste into the submission document, and I discovered even more suckage to unsuck. It's a little disheartening, really. I've spent a lot of time and energy, and I've abused the heck out of all those poor little computer bits, sending submissions/queries out over and over, saying it was ready.
I thought it was.
After six solid revision efforts and one professional editor's whacking away at it, it damn well should've been.
In a story that admittedly doesn't seem related at first, I had a very hard time on the key concept of shifting frames of reference in graduate quantum mechanics class. The professor explained the esoteric squigglery in the book by asking me to envision taking the room we were in, viewed from one corner, and lifting and rotating that room. Nope, didn't get it. So he tried again, and this time he used hand gestures also when he asked me to envision taking the room we were in, viewed from one corner, and lifting and rotating the room. Nope, still didn't get it. The third time he made his voice a little louder when he explained it yet again in precisely the same terms and gestures he'd used before. I left, frustration following me in a heavy, dark cloud back to the grad student cave where one of my peers explained it a different way and I got it in somewhere around thirty seconds.
I've had agent after agent tell me that my book, while interesting, didn't excite them, didn't make them love it. Unlike the professor in my quantum mechanics class, they had no way of knowing, and, really, no reason to care, that they were giving me the same information I hadn't understood the first time.
Two events that I "got" happened nearly simultaneously, though: I went to the James River Writers Conference and listened to others making the same mistakes I was; and I received a response from a small publisher to whom I'd submitted several weeks ago. Unlike the agents' flowery "nice, but don't love it" responses, her tune was different, as a washcloth is different from a hammer: "it's not ready." Damn. I'm honestly not certain I'd've believed her had it not come with the timing it did, and/or had she not taken the time to edit the Prologue to show me what she was talking about.
Okay, okay, I get it. Shifting frame of reference, I can now do. Gotcha. (reference back to the physics metaphor, in case I lost anybody)
To burden the field with yet another weak simile, writing is like sculpting. It's like it a lot, actually, but in this case I refer to the process of refinement. The first draft really just puts the shape into the piece, so you get, say, kind of an oval-ish chunk that is said to be the head. Maybe it even has eyes and a nose of sorts. Further refinement chips away, chips away, chips away. You bring in some of your most trusted buddies who look at it and point out everywhere it might be improved upon, except that one of them spends the evening talking about how it's too chilly in the room and another disappears frequently to visit the bar. Then you bring in a professional editor who looks at all your lines and balance and--well, whatever stuff is important to a sculptor--and advises you on further changes.
What they don't tell you in writing class, or at least I never heard it (and I didn't sleep all that many times in that class, if I recall correctly), is that after the professional editor sweeps through, you've still got some cleaning up to be done. After the edits have all been made, the changes invariably lay bare some spots that either were problems you didn't see before or weren't problems but are now.
For example, my editor told me to make the cataclysm bigger, since that, after all, is the title of my book (except that it's not, now, but the point still was valid). So I did, but I left somebody out of it: my main character. Oops. Every query letter I've sent out has begun with, in one form or another, "Crystal survives a cataclysm through the powers of her husband," which means she's kinda gotta be there. In fact, it's even better if the cataclysm is seen through her eyes, rather than the not-so-main character of Matt's boss.
Problem is, I read and read and read and read that after I beefed it up and never caught the omission. It wasn't until I was pasting it that the chip caught my eye. Oh, she's there, sort of, in much the same way some of my friends from Alaska are in the movie Big Miracle. You won't see them, though, as they'll be cloaked in the garment of "extra." Likewise, the scene mentions Crystal being there and even participating, but there are eight hundred people in the parking lot about to be swept away by a massive tidal wave. As written before, she was one of them. She needed to be more than that. She is, now, but only after yet another editing session.
At what point is the novel done, then? Some say never, I'm sure, but there's a certain point where you have to quit editing and send it out to the world. What say you?
Tomorrow I'll cover one of my favorite (and most-tweeted) sessions of the conference, One Novel's Journey, and the answer to the above question for the novel discussed may surprise you. Till then, then....