By Guest Columnist Mike Nappa
Mike Nappa is founder of Nappaland Literary Agency, and author of 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected, available wherever books are sold.
The woman asked a sensible question; she deserved a practical answer.
I was sitting on an “Agents & Editors” panel at a writer’s conference when she took the microphone. “I’ve been working on revising my manuscript,” she said to all of us in the crowded ballroom, “and I think it’s getting better. But how do I know when I should stop revising and start sending it out? How do I know when my book is done?”
Good question, I thought. And one with an easy answer.
Then the experts around me started hemming and hawing and making these kinds of abstract noises in response:
“Well, a book is never REALLY finished, so you have to just choose a stopping point and hope for the best…”
“It’s like falling in love. When your book is ready, you just know.”
“When I wrote my last award-winning book [insert some random story about how great I am that has nothing to do with your question here]…”
Finally I could take it no longer, so I stole a microphone and said what I thought was obvious, and which is the process I’ve used to pen more than 50 books over the last 20 years:
You write a book four times.
When you’ve finished the fourth writing, you’re done—or at least ready to show your manuscript to an agent or editor.
Here, briefly, is how that process works:
1. The Close-In Writing
The basic method: You write a day’s worth of work (either fiction or nonfiction)—whatever that means for you. Next day, before you write anything new, you revise and edit the previous day’s work. This is the “close-in writing,” and becomes the first draft—the first time your write your book.
2. The Close-In Edit
When the entire first draft is complete, you go back through and, beginning with word one to the end, you revise and edit the entire manuscript on your computer. This is the “close-in edit,” and becomes your second draft: the second time you write your book.
3. The Distance (or “Hand”) Edit
Next, you print a hard copy of the second draft of your entire manuscript. Beginning with word one to the end, you hand-edit the hard copy, scrawling notes and profanities to yourself all the way through the margins. Then, using your hand-edit notes as a reference, you go back into your computer file and revise the manuscript as needed. This is the “distance edit,” and becomes your third draft: the third time you’ve written your book.
4. The Oral Edit
Finally, you print a new hard copy and read your entire manuscript aloud. Read it to the walls, to your spouse, to the patrons at Starbucks, to your dog, to the bowl of soggy Cocoa Puffs left over from breakfast. Doesn’t matter who’s in the room, only that you can hear yourself reading it. Start with word one and don’t stop until you read the last word. Yes, it may take you several days, but that’s OK. Keep reading every word out loud until you’re done.
As you read, note any places where the phrasing causes you to stumble, the wording feels confusing or out of place, or your mind seems to wander from the text in front of you. Those places need to be cut or rewritten, so as you’re reading aloud, pause to make notes as to what to do to improve them. When you’re done, incorporate your notes into the computer file of your manuscript. You’ve now finished the “oral edit”—and written your book four times.
At this point, you will be: a) extremely sick of your book, but b) finished.
Yes, this is a tedious, tiring process. But it works. If you write your book four times, chances are very good that when you’re done it will be a finely-crafted work of art … or at least undoubtedly something much better than when you started.
I thought writing a book four times was just common sense, and that most every writer/editor/agent already knew about it.
The reaction at that writer’s conference showed me otherwise.
The important thing, though, is that now you know how to tell when your book is finished. So if you’re thinking of pitching your latest masterwork to my agency or somewhere else in the industry, do us all a favor before you send it:
Write your book four times.
Then it should be ready.