What does it mean to write the best novel you can? I think I might finally have the answer.
Over the weekend I attended Left Coast Crime in Sacramento. It was a great conference this year, filled to the brim with entertaining and informative panels, including a sort of "writing track" that featured panels about getting an agent, self-publishing, and the business of writing.
One session included a panel of two agents, a freelance editor, and Keith Kahla, Executive Editor at St. Martin's Press. I mention Mr. Kahla by name because he answered what I believe is an important question–one that I've been wondering about since I started writing DIARY OF BEDLAM.
As writers, we're always told to write the best novel we can. Make sure it's polished. Then, and only then, do we take the next step in the publishing process. For me, the next step is finding an agent.
But what does it mean to write the "best novel you can?" How good is good enough? Admittedly, the answer changes depending upon who you ask; no question the manuscript has to be polished, but it also has to be saleable. The structure and plot and characterizations need to be well-crafted, but it also has to be saleable.
Let's for the moment forget about the questions of grammar and spelling. We'll assume that your novel is perfect in this respect. Let's also assume that your novel's concept is saleable, that is, there's a market for it. It's a big assumption, sure, but there's no point in continuing this conversation if your novel isn't saleable (this goes for self-publishing too).
So assuming the above, let's ask the question again: "What does it mean to write the best novel you can?"
It means, according to Mr. Kahla (and forgive me, I'm paraphrasing his actual statement), that when it first comes to him, the novel must be to a standard that if no changes whatsoever are made, he'd still be comfortable publishing it.
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. There are some aspects of the publishing process that the writer still has some control over, and revisions are one of them. Revisions to the story are essentially suggestions, and if the author feels strongly against a particular change, he/she can argue against it. If an agent or editor doesn't feel comfortable publishing it from the very beginning, there's no guarantee it will eventually become something they will feel comfortable publishing.
Now that I have the answer to the question, at least according to one editor, I have to admit it's a tall and daunting order. I'm finishing the last hundred pages of copy editing DOB today and in my non-expert opinion, the novel is ready for the printing press. But I thought that a year ago when I first started querying, only to begin a huge revision on it three months later when a few agents suggested it. There's no doubt they were right–the novel is 100 percent better now.
There's only one thing I'm absolutely sure about when it comes to writing and publishing a novel–there will always be something else to learn, something else that can be done to improve the manuscript. Beyond that, there's no certainty. But for now, I'm glad to have an answer to one more question.