A series of guest articles from Sunday Times bestselling author GILLIAN McALLISTER on getting agented and published. First up, how to know when your manuscript is ready to go out into the world.
Perhaps I am unusual, but I seem to spend most of my writing life editing. A first draft takes me about three months, but it takes me six-to-nine months to deliver a novel I’m happy with. The rest is editing. And so, after those months of writing and self-editing, there is even more editing: implementing my beta readers’ changes, my agent’s suggestions, and, finally, my publisher’s.
But how do you know it’s ready? Well, there’s no magic formula, but here are some signs.
Something happens when you read it
The last thing I do before delivering a book – when I was querying agents and also now that I have a publisher – is read it in a different font and in a different form. I usually transfer it to my kindle or print it. I spot a lot of typos that way. But, when undertaking that last read-through, if it’s ready, something happens: you love it, or parts of it. It feels guilty, that frisson of pleasure as you read your own words back to yourself (how narcissistic we are!), but part of you, deep down, thinks: I like this, and, more importantly: I would read this. Because, after all, in all of us there is a voracious reader, with her own tastes and preferences, and (for me) reading it on a different device taps into the reader part of my mind and helps to remove the writer.
When you picture it, it’s smooth
This is quite an abstract concept and this might just be me, but, when my novels are ready, I can picture the narrative and it has no hiccups. If there is a problem with it, when I imagine my story, my mind is naturally drawn to the problematic area, the part of it that doesn’t quite sing, chapter nine where that coincidence drives the plot forward which might annoy readers, chapter twenty where it sags. The editing process for me is more about ironing out problems and, once they’re done, I can picture my narrative and it’s smooth.
When the editing you’re doing is only tinkering
Let’s be real: agents (and publishers) are going to offer to represent (or publish) your book if they love it. A few misplaced commas are not going to change that. Really, they’re not. I would never advise not proofreading a novel before sending it out into the world, but it has to end somewhere and so many writers I know get stuck in this tinkering stage. I think it is a manifestation of fear, but fear is rubbish and useless and all it does is stop us doing things. So, be a little reckless at this stage. You’ve proofread it, you’re pretty sure you’ve found most of the errors, now press send.
When you feel like you could bump into your characters in the street and know them
The two biggest elements of a novel for me are plot and characterisation. If they’re not right, the prose hardly matters. And so a large part of editing my work is making sure the plot makes sense and is paced correctly, and making sure the characters are fleshed out and real (even the characters who only have two scenes). I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. My process begins with mind-maps and character questionnaires. I then try to make my characters behave consistently in line with those traits (which usually directly contradicts what I want my plot to do, of course…) but then in the later drafts, I try to layer them, like onions. What does this tall, serious man like to do? Perhaps he plays the piano? Ah – and perhaps he’s embarrassed by it, finds it too theatrical? And maybe he feels inadequate compared to his brother? And maybe his brother plays on that? And so on. And so by the end of the last draft, I feel like I know them. A small test is pretending that they are standing next to you in conversation with people: what would they say? How would they react to what just happened? How do they look? Once you know this, and could pick them out of a line-up, you’re there.
You are quite sick of it
I’m trying to make these articles not be cliched or untrue, and I’m not a perfect writer. It’s true for me that when I am absolutely sick of my novel, that usually means it’s done. Or perhaps it means that I have done all I can. Or perhaps it is just the unconscious mind’s way of telling me we’re at the end of the road and it’s time for somebody else to read it. Whatever it is, I reach a point with most novels when I would rather do anything but continue to edit them. If there was a huge plot problem (see number two, above), I wouldn’t feel this way (indeed, I feel very frightened when I know I have a huge plot problem). So, this stage is probably a symptom of it being ready. It’s fine to think: do you know what, I like it, and it’s good enough.
Bonus number SIX
Novels are never finished
I think a lot of writing articles emphasise the need to perfect and polish one’s work, so as not to squander anyone who may be interested in the book but thinks it needs work. However there is a counter argument to this, which is that most authors are perfectionists, and if you truly buy into perfectionism, you’ll never finish anything. Part of finishing, for me, is accepting that (even at page proof stage) there are things I will wince at, things I want to change, and things that I will alter and then alter back in the next draft. Novels are never truly finished: you create a living thing when you write. At some stage, you have to send it out into the world, not quite perfect, but perfect to you.”
Gillian McAllister is a former lawyer and Sunday Times Top 10 bestselling author of Everything But The Truth, Anything You Do Say, No Further Questions, The Evidence Against You, How to Disappear and That Night.
Her latest release is Wrong Place Wrong Time which has been sold in over 35 languages.
She lives out in the countryside with her husband, son and dog. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @gillianmauthor. She also blogs at www.gillianmcallister.com.
Biography info updated April 2023
We receive a small sales commission from Bookshop.org for any book bought through our shop page. 100% of this commission goes towards the funding of our free entries scheme for writers on a low income.