Gina Damico has an entertaining post comparing the five stages of the editing process to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. It’s funny stuff, and it’s doubtless fresh in her mind since she just wrapped up galley proofs for her debut novel, Croak. So I’d trust her if I were you.
I’ve found similar reactions in editing Too Close to Miss, only it’s a repeated process. I wrote a first draft that was all right. I got some initial feedback and launched into rewrites. I set it aside, came back to it several months later, and revised a bunch more. I got feedback from my beta readers and wrote a few more chapters. Then I revised those. Then I got an editor, got her feedback, and made some revisions based on that. Each time, the same cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The process is grueling and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone who wasn’t making something they loved. But getting beat down so many times taught me something important: how to tell when your novel is ready.
If someone comes up to you and starts raving about their book, about how they’re so certain that they have an original story and a compelling voice, and how the characters are so real and yet entertaining, and the plot keeps the reader hooked from page one, and how the door’s left open not just for two sequels but for three prequels, and on and on … I would bet they’re not ready.
I say this not out of some deep knowledge of writing or publishing – I have neither – but based on my own personal experience. I was most enthusiastic about Too Close to Miss back when I finished my first draft. It reeked of newness and possibility. It also reeked of an undeveloped protagonist, an improbable series of plot twists and a hazy grounding in the legal devices that drove the story. It wasn’t saleable. I just didn’t know it yet.
On the other hand, if someone mentions their book with frazzled resignation, their eyes heavy from lack of sleep, hitting SEND with a prayer that please, please, just let the editor take this one; let me be done with it so I can move on with my life, so I can discharge this obsession I somehow gave myself and rejoin the waking world … if the best they can muster is, “it’s in its fifth draft, we’ll see,” then the novel is probably ready. Maybe one more polish.
The beauty of the legacy publishing model is the wealth of gatekeepers to ensure that you get to that necessary state of fatigue, that you pick your beaten manuscript up off the mat as many times as you have to in order to win the bout. If you self-publish, as I’m about to, you don’t have that gauntlet. You could fling your crappy first draft on the Internet, like a prelate burying plague victims, and avoid any sort of criticism whatsoever.
But if self-publishing is going to hold its own against the legacy model, authors need to produce work of the same quality. So instead of someone else telling you that your novel is ready, you need to tell yourself. And the way to tell yourself is by asking if you’re sick of it yet. If you are, then that’s a good sign.