Max, I hear a lot of authors talk about “fresh eyes”. How long is it after finishing a first draft until you go back and begin the process of revision?
Fresh eyes are very important. I like to wait between one and three minutes. Not really. That was a joke. I actually don’t wait at all. I go back and re-read and revise everything all the way through while I’m writing a first draft. By the time I finish, my first chapter is actually draft thirty-nine, my fifth chapter is draft twenty, and so on.
I don’t recommend this. The better method is to bang out a first draft without looking back and only then discover how bad it is. Then at least you have something to improve. You can’t abandon that thing. You’ve invested too much.
But I can’t do that any more because I know it’s bad. I mean, I like to think of it like I’m developing higher standards. But really it’s just that there’s too much counter-evidence to maintain the delusion that I’m capable of writing brilliant first drafts. I’ve seen them. They are not great.
This exacerbates the “fresh eyes” problem, of becoming too close to a book and losing touch with how it appears to a new reader. That’s definitely a real thing, and critical in rewriting. If I could truly re-read drafts through fresh eyes, I could make them a lot better.
But I don’t think the solution is to put it aside for three months. It’s helpful—I have a couple of unpublished novels that I go back and re-read every few years and the fallow period does show me things I didn’t notice before. Usually how something I thought was pretty great actually isn’t. But it’s not enough.
Most writers, including me, need to think about how what they’re writing will play to a new reader all the time, every sentence. There’s some small technique there, clearing your head and forgetting what you already know for a moment, that you need to develop in order to write well. You’re scratching marks on a page; you need to consider what those marks will do inside other people’s brains. It’s better to become good at this and do it often than to wait until you have a finished draft and hope a few months away will do it for you.
The hardest time I have is during feedback from early readers. These are people who are reading something like a fifth or sixth draft, before it goes to my agent or editor. Often I find someone’s feedback truly mystifying, and it won’t make any sense at all until I manage to crawl out of my head and into theirs. That process of figuring out how someone might feel a certain way about the book is tough and confronting but always valuable, even if I do then decide that they’re insane and we should stop being friends. Because at least I’ll have fresh eyes.