In an effort to blog more often (and to, you know, help people), I'm going to try doing posts with writing advice in a series I'll call Write Like the Prose. Feel free to comment or email me with questions, either on the topic or on other topics you'd like to see. For this inaugural post, I'd like to talk a bit about revisions.
I feel like this is particularly relevant right now because November is wrapping up, and many writers are about to cross the finish line on their National Novel Writing Month project. Congrats! Really - that's hard work, and you should be proud. However, it's not really the end of writing a book, it's only the beginning. I like to say it took 6 weeks to draft my first novel, but another 46 weeks of revising before it was fit for human consumption. I'm not exaggerating.
Most agents I know close to queries around this time of year, and yes, it's so they can catch up on an inbox and requested manuscripts that have built up over the past 10 months or so. But there's a sneaky reason, too: they want to avoid all the NaNoWriMo projects. Too many amateur writers type "The End" and then read their magnum opus giddily, fixing typos and adding punctuation and tweaking details, thinking that's what editing is.
Full disclosure: I was one of those amateurs. For about three months.
First of all, you need test readers. (There are many levels of readers, but that's another post) If you balk at sharing your work with others, no bueno. In theory, thousands of people will be reading this book someday. You need to start getting used to it. But your readers will tell you where things are confusing or boring and where they want more or less description. That's a start. The point is: You can't see the flaws in your baby. You also need time away from your story so you can see those flaws.
Before I get side-tracked on critiques, I'm roping this conversation back into the ring. While you should correct or make note of anything that needs fixing, the first round of revisions is for big picture stuff. Be prepared to cut or change entire plot lines. Discard extraneous characters. Combine events where you can to pick up the pace. Change some events to keep things from being too repetitive/familiar.
Okay, the next round of revising is on a smaller level. You've gone from designing and moving things around in your garden to trimming the hedges, pruning the roses, and making sleek paths from one section to the next. You're fixing chapters and paragraphs and dialogue and keeping your characters consistent.
Round Three: pull the weeds and sweep things up. NOW you fix your punctuation. NOW you tweak your word choices. If you spend your early revisions beautifying small plots and arranging flowers, it will break your heart when it all gets undone because you realize you have to tear out that whole section or replant it into something almost unrecognizable. (Didn't intend to make this entirely a garden metaphor, but here we are.) Like I said above, though, that doesn't mean you should ignore typos you see, just like you wouldn't ignore a weed you saw in the early stages.
Then, after you have done all these things, you may consider querying. If you haven't made major changes from your first draft, 99% chance you didn't revise enough. Even Hemingway didn't write things perfectly the first time. You're in good company.
And you may have to do it all again once you have an agent (or in order to get an agent). When said agent recommends alterations (and you don't have to agree with them or make said changes), this is not something you can do in 2-3 days. It can take months. Don't screw up your R&R chance (Revise & Resubmit, which offers of representation or publication can be contingent on, and are often tests of how well you take direction - hint, hint) by sending it back in less than a week. Remember, this is all a long game.
And once you have an agent and then you sell your beautiful, shiny baby to a publisher, prepare to do it all again.
Trust me. Been there. Done that. Three t-shirts to prove it. While it does get easier, I would never classify it as easy.
(Also, I'll confess that it usually takes me two tries to get a major revision right. My agent and my editors are saints for putting up with me sometimes.)