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How to revise a novel until it’s perfect (or not)

By Laurence MacNaughton

Dear Laurence: I recently got a request for pages from an agent that I pitched to at a conference. At the same time, I had also submitted my query to a workshop, and that editor emailed me and requested pages, too. I didn’t realize I would get this kind of response, so I was caught unprepared. What do I do? I told them both that I would get the manuscript back to them in two months.

Now, time is running out, and I’m trying to get this thing done. I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. just about every morning to work on it (I have a pre-schooler and a third-grader that demand my attention 24/7).

Meanwhile, this manuscript has become a nightmare. I want to change some things, and I’m bogged down with tons of research. I’m about ready to weave my hair to the carpet.

Any words of wisdom on how I can make my deadline? –Desperate

Dear Desperate: First, give yourself a pat on the back. Good job getting the page requests! Sounds to me like you’ve set yourself a deadline (which is good), but you’re getting bogged down by new research (which is bad). Here’s my advice:

Stop doing the research.

I know that sounds flip. But bear with me, because I struggle with this issue all the time. And I keep discovering, over and over, that getting it written is more important than getting it right.

I’m a full-time writer and editor. I’m constantly bumping up against deadlines, so I understand what you’re feeling. Even a self-imposed deadline is still a deadline.

I’ve found that the only way for me to finish writing something is to squelch my natural perfectionism. In fact, I’ve pinned this quote above my desk (paraphrased from master copywriter Bob Bly):

“Perfection does not exist. Just focus on consistently hitting 95% and you’ll maximize both audience satisfaction and return on your time investment.”

In other words, after something is 95% good, you really don’t gain that much more result from pouring more time into it. There comes a point where it doesn’t really get any better, it’s just different. You might be at — or very near — that point already. So take the material that you already have, give it a final polish, and send it in. No hair-weaving allowed! 

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