I recently heard of someone who is on her third or fourth draft of a novel. When I asked what type of feedback she had gotten so far from readers, I was a little surprised to hear she hadn’t let anyone read it at all. I could understand not submitting to agents until or not releasing to larger groups for dissection. But going through so many revisions without any outside perspective struck me as a little odd . . . and counterproductive.
As with everything, there is no set rule, and different writers will do different things. Some may write a complete first draft without letting anyone read a word; others may submit chapters to critique groups as they go. Personally, I prefer waiting until the first draft of the story is complete to get feedback, so as not to disrupt the sensitive creative process, but this post isn’t quite about that issue. It’s for beyond. The more extreme. For those who don’t want to show their work to anyone until ‘all the kinks are worked out,’ how long is too long to wait? Should an author elicit feedback on a story he or she knows could be better?
I can think of an argument for both sides. On one hand, it can be a waste of time to get feedback on something with areas for change already marked. A lot of comments/suggestions will either be things the author is already aware of or, simply, irrelevant. Also, there’s nothing like reading a story for the first time. A person may be perfectly willing to read subsequent drafts, but how could he tell if, for example, the surprise at the end better is set up better if he already knows the reveal? By keeping the door shut on a manuscript until all the known problems are worked out, criticism will be more valuable.
But such raises the question: who’s to say what needs to be changed and what doesn’t? Consider a painter who works fifteen years on a piece without letting anyone have even the slightest glance at it. After the fifteen years, when the painter is satisfied it is her best work, she shows it off. After some awkward moments, the painter learns that, all this time, she didn’t know blue and yellow were different colors. She’s been partially colorblind. Epic fail (or, epic win, depending on how one looks at art…but let’s go with fail here for the sake of this post).
My point? We, as individuals, are limited to our perceptions. No one else in existence has the same exact perspective on life as we do. However, what do we write for? To create stories only for our eyes, stories to be burned by mandate of our wills on our dying days? I don’t think so. We write for others to read, interpret, learn from, and enjoy. So, in a way, our own perspective might matter the least. No matter how much you don’t like your writing, letting others read it can be beneficial in starting that second draft. You may already know that X character is weak, or Z plotpoint makes no sense, but you may have never realized that you begin so many sentences with ‘but,’ or that if you take a portion of the middle of the story and make it the beginning, everything will flow much better. Or, and this can be a real kicker, that Y character you were planning to knix? He’s actually the most interesting in the novel, and you should consider including him in more scenes.
That said, what’s the way to go? Again, there is no right answer. I don’t recommend going multiple drafts without at least a second pair of eyes. At the same time, I can remember a few occasions where I jumped the gun in submitting a story to a critique group, where all the comments I received focused on stuff I already knew, instead of deeper mechanics. Personally, I like to finish a first draft and polish the whole thing, fixing any glaring mistakes, and then submit to readers. Even with the elements I don’t like because, who knows, maybe other people will.
So have you been editing your story for the last 5 years? Are you on the fourth, fifth, sixth draft and still haven’t let anyone see it because you know it’s not yet ‘your best?’ I challenge you to let just one reader in. I’d be willing to bet your story will be better off because of it.