The Law of Diminishing Returns

Last week, literary agent and dispenser of great publishing wisdom Nathan Bransford invited his savvy blog readers to answer the question, “How Do You Know When Your Novel is Really Finished?” (If you haven’t already studied the many and diverse responses, click here to see what writers had to say.)

As I consider my own novel-in-progress (I prefer the abbrev. n.i.p. over w.i.p., is that so wrong?), I can imagine I’ll still be editing and re-writing when the Hilton Lunar Resort and Golf Course opens on the moon. (I won’t be able to afford an Earth-view room, but since I’ll be spending most of my time in the Moonbucks coffee shop staring at my MacBook Virtual Netbook Mini-Z it’s not like I’ll be missing anything.)

But this isn’t a post about my writing life, it’s about my role as editor.

Some authors are natural self-editors. With every iteration of the manuscript, their book improves. Theoretically, they could re-write forever, improving incrementally until they’ve created a near-perfect novel. For them, a deadline is a gift – a forced ending place for brilliance that just won’t stop.

But for many authors, there comes a point when rewrites fail to improve a novel in any measurable way, and, in some cases, actually start to make it worse. This may be due to writing fatigue or overfamiliarity with the plot or characters, but whatever the reason, it’s a clear indicator that the novel is “really finished.” (Or at least ready to hand off to someone else for critical review.)

How do you know if you’re about to invoke this law of diminishing returns? Here are a few signs to watch for:

  • Reverting to an earlier version of a scene that you never liked before and still don’t like now
  • Adding tons of new details to an already¬†detail-rich description
  • Skimming through a thesaurus to replace words that work fine, but suddenly don’t seem “fresh” enough
  • Adding dialogue or description that, upon further review, is almost exactly like something you’d written for an earlier scene
  • Ordering a venti white mocha and pouring it onto your laptop keyboard
  • Yelling at your significant other because she’s not as well-written today as she was last week despite all the time you’ve spent with her

If you find yourself in this place, it’s time to let go. If you’re already working with an editor, this is when they earn their paycheck. But prepare yourself. Those recent changes you made in a well-meaning attempt to improve your novel? The editor might just decide to reject them. This is perfectly okay and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer.

It may just mean that you’re done.

Remember that contest? You know, the one I’m hosting where you can win a $40 gift card and (potentially) a collectible Santa Yoda? Well, I just wanted to remind you there’s still time to enter. I’m enjoying the 200-word scenes some of you have already sent – which run the gamut from heavy relational drama to science fiction silliness. Don’t you want to join the writing party? Click¬†here and get to it.

One thought on “The Law of Diminishing Returns

  1. Thanks. This confirms for me that I am done with most of my chapters as I’ve started to do some of the above mentioned things. Just need to rewrite a few choppy chapters to be done…. once and for all.
    Love your blog.

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