No writer that I know has ever written a perfect book on the first attempt. Most writers finish the first draft with the full expectation that they will self-edit and get feedback from others. Even if a writer somehow manages to produce a “perfect” first draft, once we get a book contract, there’s very little chance the book will escape a publisher’s in-house rewriting and editing process.
Yes, change is inevitable. But how much change can the average writer expect?
Heather Sunseri recently asked me: How much did The Preacher’s Bride change from the first draft to the final copy?
Although every writer’s editing experience will vary, I’m guessing my experience with The Preacher’s Bride is fairly typical.
After I finished writing the first draft of The Preacher’s Bride, I took approximately twelve weeks to self-edit. My self-editing process has evolved more over time, but I’ve mostly used Three Simple Stages of Self-Editing: First substantive edits (big picture changes), then line edits (scene and paragraph changes), and finally, copy edits (smaller detail changes).
Of course the three types of edits will overlap at times, but starting with the big issues and working my way to small problems, helps me stay focused. I can usually cut and change upward of 5000 words during this stage.
Once I completed my self-editing, The Preacher’s Bride had the input of a several other outside critiques including a beta reader, freelance editor, and three judges (from a contest entry which consisted of the first 15 pages). During this stage of the process, I probably cut or changed close to 5,000 words. It was at this point I completely rewrote the opening chapter into the current version (and Chapter 1 is now available to preview on my Books Page).
It was after these edits, that my book finaled in a nationwide contest for unpublished authors and garnered the attention of my agent. She felt my story was solid enough to send on to a publisher without her edits, and she was able to attain a 3 book deal with Bethany House.
A team of editors at my publishing house read The Preacher’s Bride and came up with a list of things they thought needed to be changed. Many of these changes had to do with story elements they didn’t feel fit their Bethany House readership. Here are a few of rewrites I made at that point:
• I had to re-do theendingof the book. Originally, I had my main character John stay in prison (to replicate what had happened in real life). But I had to have a Happily-Ever-After and so needed to come up with a believable way to get him home by the end of the book.
• I had to add in a new character arc for my hero. At first I had John struggling intensely with the grief of dead wife. But this made him a bit whiny and negative. So I toned down his grief and had to revamp his arc into a struggle with work being more important than his family.
• I had to clarify some of the historical conflict and make sure I wasn’t overwhelming the readers with the Anglican versus Puritan issues.
• I had to take out a subplot thread regarding John’s past and how he ended up with the scars on his back. My editors thought my first reason was too contrived and so I had to figure out another way for him to get his scars that was more believable and fit the story.
I could literally fill pages with all the in-house changes I had to do. Some were more major than others, and in the end I likely changed up to 15,000 more words between two rounds of substantive edits. Then the book went on to receive in-house copy and line edits as well.
In all, from first draft to final copy, the story slowly and pain-stakingly evolved into what it is today. At least a full quarter of the story is completely different from the first draft, if not more. Some of the changes were chopped out in large sections, but most were chipped out in bits here and there.
How did it feel having to make so many changes? Of course some of the changes were easy, especially the early ones. But there were others that I found much more difficult to want to make, particularly some of my publisher’s requests. At the time, I wondered if I was “compromising” my story and making it into someone else’s.
Now in hindsight, especially in light of what readers are beginning to say about the book, I can see the wisdom in ALL the changes my editors asked to make. The story is giving readers a satisfying reading experience, which in turn makes me very, very satisfied.
We would all do well to have the attitude, “I’ll do whatever it takes to make my story better.” And we can do that by staying humble, teachable, and hardworking.
What about you? How much of your story has changed over time from your first draft? And how much are you willing to change and where do you set the limit?