Self-editing is hard to do
165, 000. That’s the total word count for my first draft of Ava, before editing. No kidding.
I sweated over that draft, lost sleep over it, obsessed over it for months on end. It was my first-born work of fiction and I was so proud. I fed my manuscript constantly, convinced that the best way to nourish a growing book was to heap words—any words—onto the pages. No detail was too small to include, and I assured myself that readers would absolutely, positively want to share in these tidbits.
For nearly a year I kept right on stuffing and stuffing, never editing even once. For a solid 52 weeks, I was certain I was creating the best story ever written. And so I kept on writing and writing. By the twelfth month, my manuscript had ballooned into a fleshy entity so large I needed more than one ream of paper to print it out.
Bigger is always better, right?
Not so much.
Still, when it came to my book, I was blind. I was unreachable. The book was perfect, I insisted. Yes, I was that stereotypical newbie writer, the one clinging to the naive belief that each and every word I had added was critical for reader enjoyment.
The truth? I wasn’t ready to put my book on a diet.
I enjoyed the sensation of all those ideas pouring out of my brain. Editing? No way! I felt real pleasure as the words rolled down my arms, gained speed, and sent my fingers into a fever-pitch dance on my keyboard. The singular thrill generated by layering sentence after sentence on page after page was something I now craved, had to have in my life
I loved it all.
But change is inevitable.
Even in the throes of absolute bliss, I understood one truth. If I didn’t embrace constructive criticism, if I didn’t evolve right alongside my characters, then I was destined to become another one of those amateur writers with a dusty manuscript on the bottom shelf of an old bookcase.
Asking for constructive criticism
Finally, I was ready to put my paper baby into the arms of family members and friends who were kind enough to read and critique it. Yes, it was time for the beta readers. (This is a respected site for connecting with beta readers.) Mind you, these beta readers were serious book lovers, with strong wills and warm hearts. They lived in different states, had completely different professions, and ranged in age from twenties to seventies.
Above all, I sought these particular individuals because I knew how to read their faces: the Morse-code blink, the lopsided smile, the chin pinch, the double-eye glaze. Each person had a different tell, a different truth meter, and I had a decoder ring. Most of my beta readers had been in my life since childhood. The few that I’d met in adulthood somehow felt like old friends from the start.
Why loyalty matters
My newbie-writer self knew that the sting of a first critique would be softened by their carefully chosen words. Equally, I knew their faces would tell me if they’d read all those pages out of loyalty or interest.
Loyalty won in a landslide. It is great to know who really cares for you enough to read your (165,000 word) first draft of your first novel. But their unified answer was clear: I had a lot of editing work in front of me.
Ready for change, I sat back down in front of my computer, opened a new page, and started the process of editing my beloved first draft of my first novel. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I’ve had my share of peaks and valleys, my moments of crushing despair, my euphoric highs.
Through it all, my cherished beta readers stayed with me, stayed supportive, as I completed four drafts over two years, as I learned the discipline of writing. I am happy to report that Ava is now a relatively trim 100,000 words.
But the real lesson I learned? Nothing builds confidence like loyalty.