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Writing through doubt and fear, and you can, too!

The Agony of Early Drafts – Should YOU Keep Writing? (Good Question)

Note: This is a guest post by Natasa Lekic, she is the founder of NY Book Editors, which connects independent authors to highly experienced editors. She’s a big fan of what authors manage to do when they believe in themselves.

The question every writer with an early draft wants to ask editors and literary agents is, “Should I keep writing?” They want to know if it’s any good, otherwise they’ll quit wasting their time. It sounds like a reasonable inquiry…

The-Art-of-Editing-a-First-Draft

Shouldn’t editors and agents, who have seen countless manuscripts at all stages of their evolution, be able to make that judgment call? You’re simply asking a professional, much like a car mechanic, whether you should scrap the car or not.

The only problem is, a manuscript contains many more possibilities than a car. Take Alex Brunkhorst as an example.

Alex had been developing her manuscript for over a year, writing every morning, alongside a demanding full-time job. Her level of commitment matched her ambitions. She wanted to find a top agent and a major publisher.

The only problem was the manuscript itself. “It lacked a cohesive plot and the pacing always seemed off … but I didn’t know how to fix that. A well-known literary agent passed on the book because she deemed it “unsaleable” and I was so devastated I almost put it down for good,” said Alex.

Alex’s editor at NY Book Editors also felt there were big-picture issues that needed to be addressed. Most authors would have been daunted by the scope of the changes. They might even have taken it as a sign to stop writing. Alex did exactly the opposite.

“This was one of the first times that I had experienced flat-out rejection and was able to believe in myself and my work enough to stick with it. It was a huge lesson for me, and it’s made me more resilient and brave in all aspects of my life,” she said.

A few weeks later, she came back to her editor. All the advice had been incorporated – seamlessly – into the manuscript.

Alex and her editor kept going at a more advanced level. Alex would revise a chapter at a time and send it over for an edit. Every time Alex got an edit, she’d study each and every change, whether it was a pacing issue or a word choice or a dialogue problem. Every edit contained a lesson.

Alex didn’t just accept the changes, she absorbed them. Chapter by chapter, her writing got better and better until ultimately, her editor didn’t have much to do. It was a stunning transformation.

In four months, the manuscript was reengineered and ready for submission.

“When I sent out my manuscript to agents I didn’t sleep for three days, hoping I would get one or two interested enough to represent me. I was so fortunate that I ended up with a lot of interest — from all different types of agents, some commercial, some more literary, … some who had already shepherded authors to the bestseller list. I flew to New York (I live in LA) and I took three days of meetings with agents. I ended up choosing Michelle Brower at Folio Literary.”

The world rights to The Gilded Life of Matilda Duplaine, a book that was considered “unsaleable”, was sold in a pre-empt deal to Erika Imranyi at Harlequin/MIRA for six-figures. (A pre-empt is a deal that’s offered before the book is auctioned.) Alex retained the film rights and CAA is taking them out in January.

Books that are initially considered unsaleable get sold all the time. Early drafts have a sly way of confounding everyone’s expectations, which is what’s so marvelous – and frustrating – about the art of writing.

Early drafts have a sly way of confounding everyone’s expectations. (Click to Tweet)

The reason why no one, not even editors with a slew of fancy credentials and New York Times bestsellers, can tell you whether you should continue writing is because they’ve all worked with authors like Alex. Given time, practice, and persistence, some authors wield an unpredictable magic on their work.

Asking an industry veteran to take a look at an early draft and tell you whether you should “keep writing” is like asking them to predict the future. There’s no telling what an early draft can become. Weak drafts have turned into splendid books; promising drafts have deteriorated into duds.

For better or worse, manuscripts contain a multitude of possibilities.

You may be disappointed by today’s draft, but remember that an early draft is no indication of anything. The best advice anyone can give you is: keep at it. No one knows what you have there.

Do you have a question you would like to ask an editor?

Here’s an opportunity to ask – in the comments.

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  • Mudpie411

    I find it hard to believe that an editor is going to take that much time with a new writer unless they are being paid per edit.

    • http://www.positivewriter.com/ Bryan Hutchinson

      Editing is a job. Why would it be free?

    • Mudpie411

      I thought there was a reply to my comment which I can’t seem to find here. I’m not implying that editing should be free. I’m only saying that the article made it sound like the editor was doing her a favor over and above the job. I’m sure that kind of instruction is worth the price; but the article should mention something about that cost.

      • http://nybookeditors.com NY Book Editors

        The intention of the article is to show that no one, including agents, editors, and even publishers, know what a manuscript can become. In this particular example, Alex sought editing help as an independent author because it was the clearest way to show the progression of a manuscript.

        However, many authors who have publishers go through the same process. Publishers often acquire manuscripts based on proposals or early drafts, only to find that there’s more work involved than they expected. Some of these manuscripts never get published. Others improve over the course of a year with the help of an in-house editor and become books.

        • Mudpie411

          Thanks for the information. Having never published any of my own work, I admit to being woefully ignorant of the publishing process.

          • http://nybookeditors.com NY Book Editors

            Are you interested in learning how to approach literary agents? Here’s a post on query letters: http://nybookeditors.com/2014/08/2014811/

          • Mudpie411

            Thanks! I really appreciate it. =)

  • Susan Mary Malone

    Great post, Natasa! I work with new writers every day. You never know who’s going to take the bit and run with it! Tenacity, persistence, fortitude–the 3 Keys to writing success.

    • NY Book Editors

      Exactly! So glad you agree. Too many authors think it comes down to a talent that’s obvious from the very beginning.

    • http://www.jrdchalktalk.com Jacquelyn Delcamp

      Completely agree with this!

  • http://www.jrdchalktalk.com Jacquelyn Delcamp

    Fascinating. Mostly because as I share my work more with less fear, I know that’s essentially what I ask a lot of veterans…should I keep writing? Is this good enough? TELL ME I AM GOOD ENOUGH.
    Realistically, your writing won’t go anywhere without some input but it especially goes nowhere if you don’t put it down.
    Editing is really a part of writing and it definitely makes you better. Props to her for investing in her writing…it obviously paid off. Loved this. There are lots of things I want to ask editors: Is there too much, too little to send? What is a sufficient piece to work with? Is it best to have a full first draft and then take that apart or begin something and see how an editor can help shape an idea?

    Thanks Bryan, per usual, great article. Thanks Natasa for sharing her insight.

    • http://nybookeditors.com NY Book Editors

      “Is it good enough?” was going to be the title of the post!

      To answer your question, there’s never too much to send, but there is too little. If you have a excessively long manuscript, an editor can give you big-picture advice on what to cut, how to divide it into two books, etc.

      On the other hand, there’s no optimal length for a partial draft. Some writers get coaching in the early stages, when they have at least 10,000 words. Coaching helps them develop the concept, which is especially useful in non-fiction.

      For fiction, it’s usually best to have a full first draft. Even if it’s taken apart, the work you’ve done isn’t wasted. After five years of writing, Junot Diaz threw hundreds of pages away – and kept 75. The result, eventually, became THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.

      The discarded pages were an in-depth exploration of Wao’s mother, which informed Diaz’s future work. It’s important for the author, especially in fiction, to explore the boundaries of his own narrative. Once you find you can’t do anything more for it on your own, it’s probably time to work with an editor.

      At that stage, if you’ve written a full draft, the editor will have a comprehensive idea of your work and you’ll understand the nuances of your own story. So, even if substantial changes follow, the result will be much richer.

  • http://www.mudpiewriting.com/ Marcy Mason McKay

    What an interesting concept, Natasa! It’s like literary matchmaking. You’ve given me great food-for-thought and I appreciate you sharing Alex’ story.

    • http://nybookeditors.com NY Book Editors

      Literary matchmaking is a great way of putting it! Thank you, I’m going to use that.

      The relationship between an author and an editor has many dimensions that often
      aren’t considered. Beyond the basics, genre, it’s important to consider style and how developed the work is. Most editors have strong preferences.

      The idea was to mimic the acquiring editor’s process. Editors should only work on manuscripts they love. It sounds corny, but when you pair people with similar sensibilities and interests, you get the most productive relationships.

      Literary matchmaking! Perfect description. Thanks again!

      • http://www.mudpiewriting.com/ Marcy Mason McKay

        I’m delighted you like “literary matchmaking.” The phrase is officially yours now and forever.
        What NY Book Editors is doing is simple, but brilliant. Acquisition editors no longer have time to edit anymore, so your agency is helping books and authors through that messy birthing process. I LOVE IT!

        • http://nybookeditors.com NY Book Editors

          Exactly! You must be in the industry!

          Editing is moving further and further upstream. In-house editors don’t have as much time to edit, so they look for manuscripts that don’t require heavy lifting.

          • http://www.mudpiewriting.com/ Marcy Mason McKay

            HA! Nope, I’ve just been writing a LONG time + I have three traditionally-published authors in my weekly writing group, so I know how to play the game. 🙂

  • http://williamballard.weebly.com/ William Ballard

    Great post once again!

    I especially enjoyed the part about not just listening to an editors critiques but absorbing them. That is excellent advice!

    Become a sponge and then drip the liquidation of the critique into the manuscript. This brings forth perfection.

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  • http://www.dawncaval.com Dawn Atkin

    Great post that clearly demonstrates how essential tenacity and persistence are.
    As a yet unpublished, albeit tenacious, writer I am learning about the fickle and changing world of publishing, both traditional and independent.

    I’m currently seeking a suitable manuscript assessment / development service to assist with structural advice for my planned re-write. Of course this service is one in which I will invest the required payment.

    I do often wonder though how much do I/ we need to invest, both time and money, before I/we realise it may be time to let the work go and start a fresh new project.

    Thanks for the post.
    And the link provided in one of the earlier comments on how to approach literary agents.

    Regards Dawn

  • Tasha Seegmiller

    I loved this. I’m working through a book right now that had 40k in a draft before I realized it had a great concept but a gazillion things wrong – starting point, age of characters, structure. I scraped it, started totally over and love it (except for when I hate it). Thanks for reminding us the work is worth it.

  • http://www.myfreelancelife.com/ Williesha Morris

    This is a lot of encouragement for me. Some days I wonder if I should be working o this book at all!

  • http://unleashthewritestuff.com/ Joe Kovacs

    Natasa, thanks for this very useful post. After I finished my second novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, I couldn’t get agency representation (though I did generate some interest). Eventually, Kim Witherspoon of Inkwell Literary Management wrote me a letter explaining what she felt some of the fundamental flaws were in the story though she also encouraged me to keep writing.

    I ended up hiring an editor who completely leveled me with her suggestions. She suggested *gasp* cutting the first 200 pages. As soon as I read her reasons why, I understood and realized she was right. I ended up rewriting fully 70 to 75% percent of the story. There were character arc issues, as well. When I finally finished the rewrite in summer 2013, I was ready to look for an agent.

    But as it turned out, independent publishing, social networks and the increasing hardship of breaking into a publishing establishment that seems, in some ways, less risk-averse than it once was, created a whole new set of hardships. Writers need to build an audience to become attractive to agents. Knowing how to market yourself has become more important than ever.

    But I do believe the editing process that I went through, though it was time-consuming and expensive, helped me ultimately write a much better novel. That was, without a doubt, worth it.

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