I’m well into editing Act III of my portal fantasy manuscript, and I’ve reached that point where I can’t tell if I’m making the book any better or not.
Since my initial read-through, I’ve known the final hundred pages are where the major edits need to happen. But now that I’m in the thick of it, I keep on second-guessing myself. Does deleting this scene pick up the pacing without sacrificing characterization? Do the changes I’ve already made to the timeline now make this plot point redundant? Will reintroducing this character from Act II make this sequence more cohesive, or will it simply add noise?
I’m partly shook up because this week I received feedback on my query letter and sample chapter for my zombie novel from someone who works in the industry. Which, don’t get me wrong, is great. I’m very appreciative for professional feedback. However, I was disheartened that she basically said, “There’s too much exposition; there’s too much description; the pacing is too slow.” If anything, I’d previously wondered if too much happens in the prologue, so to have someone suggest the complete opposite has me questioning my judgment as a writer and editor.
It also doesn’t help that many agents’ form rejections include some version of, “The publishing industry is subjective; just because I don’t resonant with your story doesn’t mean another agent won’t want it.” In other words, what one person finds compelling may not grab a different reader, and what someone considers fast-paced may just be normally paced for another. This becomes self-evident if I simply talk to my friends about what movies and books they’re currently enjoying.
As an editor, I’ve been on the other side of the desk and wondered the same thing. I can be deep into an edit—on a nonfiction or fiction project—where I’m restructuring content, suggesting significant additions, streamlining the prose. And I catch myself asking questions: Will readers engage better with the content after these edits? Will this strengthen the storytelling? Am I staying true to the author’s voice? Of course, at some level these questions are simply good practice to keep editors in their “place” as supporters. But the implicit question under the questions remains: For whom are these edits better? After all, not all readers are made equal.
I remember reading a blog post from N. K. Jemisin after she published The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She described how she worked on several manuscripts that she thought were the “right” kind of books for the market, but they never went anywhere. Then she decided to write the book she actually wanted to read, and out came Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was a positive blog post, encouraging new writers to write for themselves and write from the heart. And on good days, I agree with her.
But when I’m 230 pages into editing a manuscript and not sure whether I’m making it any better, I instead ask: It’s fine and dandy that I like what I’m writing, but will anyone else resonant with it?