Work in drafts.
Now what do I mean by that?
When we start new stories, we generally create a new file with the working title of the story as the file name. That's all fine and dandy, but what do you do when you finish the draft and start revisions. Do you go back in the same file and begin making changes?
If that's you, stop. Stop what you're doing right now.
Re-save the file "working title draft 2". Trust me on this. Now do your changes like you normally would in this new file, leaving the original intact. Do the same for the next revision, and the next. It's fine to do minor changes on the same document, but when you have plot, character, or setting changes, then you definitely want to have a new file to work with. Yes, you may end up with thirty different files. That's okay.
What's the point? you ask. Well, I'll tell you. Not only will those files serve as reminders of where you started and how far you've come between the first and final drafts. Those files may just save your writing career.
Say you finished the fourth draft of your novel, and you were very happy with it. The story was as close to perfection as you could make it. You queried agents you thought might be interested. You received several rejections and no requests. Some agents didn't even respond.
Now you look at that draft and you realize that maybe chapters nine through eighteen really didn't do much for the plot, and you revise them. Maybe these three secondary characters could be melded into one or taken out altogether. Maybe the thread holding the tapestry that is your story together is weak, and you just realized how to fix it. You've realized how to make your story even better.
So you start revising your original document. Your fourth draft words disappear along with the words of your original draft. You might be able to call them back from the abyss, but it's been months since you came up with those words, and they're as good as dead.
Say you get twenty-thousand, fifty-thousand, or even one-hundred-thousand words into your new draft, getting delete happy with the old words.
Then, you get the email. An agent loved your query and your sample pages, and they want to see more.
You sent that query four months ago.
That draft no longer exists.
What do you do?
Do you send the revised version that isn't yet finished? Do you turn down the agent apologizing that you were an idiot and no longer have that draft? Do you tear your hair out and eat it?
No. Because you worked in drafts. You saved each set of changes as a new file. So when the agent requests material, you take that draft and send the material they're looking for. They love the old draft. They think it's stellar. They offer representation. Aren't you glad you kept it?
This is an extreme situation; I understand that. But it could be the situation that determines the difference between landing an agent and crying yourself to sleep every night for the next few months on a missed opportunity.
It's also a great way to see how your stories progress. My first draft is very different from my current draft of my novel. I'm on draft six.
I've worked in drafts ever since I wrote my first novel in junior high. It has at least seven or eight drafts. My second novel had three or four before I left it to die in the recesses of my computer files. I still have them. If I wanted to, I could dig around and find the original first draft to the first ever uncompleted novel I wrote. I probably will someday, and I may begin another draft of it.
And you never know, the first draft of a novel that you publish may be completely different that the novel that's on shelves. You just might have a whole other story that can evolve out of it.