When is a story fit to be read? It depends on who’s reading it. Your family may seem genetically programmed to love every word you write. A potential publisher, not so much. By the time you submit your manuscript for publishing, it better have been read by a few more people than just your Mom. Someone has to catch those mistakes and inconsistencies that the writer just can’t see anymore.
A story is infinitely malleable and can change drastically from one draft to the next. Things can get muddy when there are a half-dozen corrections to make throughout the story and I have to adjust conversations and scene details as I go along. Sometimes the smallest change will affect so many places that I may miss one as I scan the story for the umpteenth time.
When I’ve gone through several drafts of a 300-page novel, it can be difficult to remember and track all the changes I’ve made. Each version is still playing out somewhere at the back of my mind, and when I recall a scene it may not be the most current version. I might then rewrite another scene based on that recall and not notice that I’ve contradicted myself. Until someone else goes through it with a fresh eye, I may keep making changes that are not congruent with the effect the last changes had on the story.
I’ve got manuscripts hidden away that I’ve tied into plot knots that I may never be able to unravel on my own. I can’t tell anymore whether they’re good stories or not but can’t give them to someone to read before they’ve been worked on a bit more. As I read them from the top again, I’ll fill the margins with notes, slash whole scenes that make no sense and try to catch all the fallout from those cuts and make appropriate adjustments.
Some authors want to rewrite as few times as possible. They ponder each word before they commit it to paper and edit as they go along. I would worry that I was restricting the creative flow, so I prefer to blurt it all out and sort the details later. My first drafts are full of loose ends, rambling dialogue and painfully boring narration. They’re peppered with run-on sentences and too many adverbs, and I’ll go through them several times before they feel like a story that someone might like to read.
Still, it’s hard not to be apologetic when asking friends to read a new draft of a story that I’ve been working on. I’m grateful to those who agree.
Some like to read for pure entertainment and do me the honor of treating the story as if it were already a book, suspending disbelief as they turn the pages and immerse themselves.
Others grin evilly and sharpen their pencils – I know they’re probably going to stab me in the heart and throw my story into the blender, but they are the ones who find the inconsistencies and glaring mistakes that need fixing. Mistakes like these:
A random character popped up in the middle of a scene. He said something significant but never showed up again in the story. I had cut that particular character but had likely overlooked him in this scene because what he’d said was relevant to the story. My dilemma then was to find someone else in the story who could make that speech or to bring in someone completely new so that the story could progress.
An early draft of Tye Dye Voodoo had two different versions of chapter twelve. I had read it several times before deciding it was ready for others to read. Seems ridiculous that you could read the same chapter twice and not notice, but our brains are pros at skimming over material and seeing only what we want to see, while conveniently glossing over details that don’t make sense.
The characters in one story were too similar to each other. An early reader complained that she couldn’t tell two of my characters apart because I hadn’t made them distinctive enough. She never knew which one was speaking. It didn’t help that I’d given Mabel and Marnie the same hair style and eye color.
One character morphed into another. I had changed a male character to a female because it made more sense to have a woman in that particular role. I wrote the story over several years and somewhere along the way I forgot what I’d done, and the original male character had simply carried on. By the time I noticed, both characters had become integral to the rambling plot.
Some story problems take many hours of rewrites over weeks or months and don’t necessarily fix things as each change I make can affect something else I hadn’t thought of. I might catch these new problems the next time I read over the story or I may completely miss them until another reader or editor catches them for me.
With only four months until the launch of Voodoo Mystery Tour, the sequel to Tye Dye Voodoo, my early readers are indispensable. They keep me on task and catch the ridiculous booboos that I could have sworn were not there the last time I looked. They are my co-conspirators in the creative process as they plod through my cumbersome early drafts and help me to mold my story into shapely fiction.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.”
– Robert Cormier