I'm so busy that if I didn't spend at least three
hours a day in prayer I'd never get everything done.
- Martin Luther
People can make money from bad books. They do it all the time. They churn out romantic slush or gung-ho macho fantasy or how-to-succeed manuals or pornography or any page-filling rubbish for which there is a recognised market. By contrast, writers whose sights are set higher than the lowest common denominator of public taste devote time and effort to careful self-criticism and/or evaluation by experts qualified to guide them in honing their talent.
That poses problems. How many drafts does it take before a MS has reached perfection (or as near perfection as you can reasonably manage)? How firmly should you stick to your guns when your publisher or agent is suggesting further revision to you? Should you model yourself on other authors whose work you admire? In brief, how much attention do you pay to quality control?
The relationship of author and manuscript might be compared to that between parent and child. There is a fundamental bond between them. Your book is yours. It comes out of you. But you have in mind its eventual independence. Therefore, you have to train it to stand on its own feet. That involves a subtle balance of loving nurture and firm discipline. Over-indulge your brainchild and you spoil it. Over-restrain it and it may be too weak to survive in today's ruthless marketplace. Perhaps some examples might help.
Over-indulgence: The 'purple passage' is anathema to a novel. Lengthy, 'poetic' descriptions clog the narrative and prompt readers to skip over paragraphs (or even pages) of beautiful prose. Unselective use of data can have a similar effect. I sometimes come across a book whose author appears to be saying to me, 'I've spent five years researching this and you're going to get every single second of it.' Quality control often entails ruthless employment of 'scissors', cutting out whatever is not relevant to the text.
Over-restraint: This sometimes comes down to laziness, a failure to provide the reader with the background information he/she needs. If I am engaged on a novel I have clear pictures in my mind of my main characters. This may tempt me to give them words or actions that are, to me, absolutely credible. But if I have not built up images of those characters in the mind of the reader, he/she might not understand their motivation. That's the point at which I lose their willing suspension of disbelief. If, in a work of non-fiction I am arguing an important point, I need to be aware of the main counter-arguments that might be advanced and deal with them honestly. Quality control has much to do with getting the balance right.
How much should we be influenced by the 'guidance' offered by other people? The inspiration, the ideas, the vision are yours. Should you allow others to modify them in the interests of quality control? That's not an easy question. A second opinion is always useful. It's very easy to get so close to your MS that you cannot see problems that are obvious to someone coming to it fresh. But don't show it to your spouse or your best friend, or anyone who can be relied on to tell you what you want to hear - that your book is 'wonderful'. An experienced agent or editor is likely to be your best guide. If an expert makes suggestions, be humble enough to consider them carefully. But always apply one simple test: 'Is this suggested change going to say more clearly what I want to say or is it offered in the interests of marketing strategy. Don't abandon your vision in the hope of selling more copies.
Ultimately quality control is down to you. How much tinkering should you do to your first draft? One piece of advice often given is, 'Put the MS away for a couple of weeks; then read it through.' You will usually find that standing back from your work in this way enables you to see its good and bad points more clearly. This process should not be repeated too often. The moment you find yourself beginning to get bored is the time to stop messing, get the book out there and let the readers decide.
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