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I’ve been thinking about the often subtle shift that occurs when a collection of words in a document starts to feel like A Book. When my editor called me last Monday and said, “You wrote a book!” I replied, “I guess I did”—which might not be something you’re supposed to say to the person who acquired and plans to publish your book, but I meant it as genuine agreement.
When I was still trying to figure out what belonged in this story, it was hard for me to call it a “book” with my full chest. I poured myself into it, knew that I wanted to write it, but could not look too far beyond my goal of completing a full draft. Only recently did I cross a real, if hazy, threshold: I can now imagine the book it’s going to be. I am able to think of and plan for it as something that will exist in the world and belong to others, in a sense, even more than it belongs to me. I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I began to feel this way, but I know the change is partly due to the fact that after two years of working on something no one else had glimpsed in its totality, I am no longer alone with it—I have finally started sharing it with others.
The day after I spoke with my editor, I was chatting with a couple of friends, both kind and brilliant writers who offered to take a look at the draft after this one. As we talked about the revision process, they mentioned that they’re usually able to tell when something they’ve written isn’t working. It made me realize that I can tell when something is working; when I read a section or a scene and find that I have landed on precisely—or at least very nearly—what I wanted to say. The rest of the time, I’m not sure that I am the best judge of my own writing. (I often find myself thinking of the final stanza of this Merwin poem: “you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good.”)
Letting people I trust read and engage with my work at different stages is an essential part of the revision process. I won’t ask for edits or early reads the moment I finish a draft, nor when I feel it’s as good as it can possibly get, but when I believe I’ve taken it about as far as I can on my own. By then, I have been staring at it for so long that it’s difficult for me to see what’s missing. Others can help me identify not only the gaps, but the things it’s doing well. Sharing it with them also gives me a tiny preview of how it will feel to share it with the wider world—which is one reason why the manuscript I am now revising feels more like a book than it did before.
Over the next month or so, I’ll work on my next draft, relying on my editor to help me make it better. When I share that draft with my trusted early readers, I will ask them to tell me what they think I’m trying to do, so I can see if that lines up with what I’m actually trying to do. I’ll have a list of questions ready for them, so they know which sections and scenes I am still wondering about or wrestling with—the more specific I can be, I have learned, the more helpful the feedback. Eventually, when I think the book might be done, I will show it to a few more readers and see if they agree.