Take My Advice… Please
By Jeff Salter
If you are known to be a published author, sooner or later you’re going to have conversations with people who act like writing is no big deal and they could toss off a manuscript in no time… if only they were sufficiently interested and/or motivated. I’ve had several of these conversations — but the one which most sticks in my mind is someone who had an excellent grounding in literature and presumably was sincere in his confident belief that “if [he] could manage to take off time from work, [he] could knock out a novel in two weeks.”
That’s one of the good things about the NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – each November… in which aspiring novelists are encouraged to throw reservations to the wind and crank out 50,000 words in 30 days. Many do. But some discover – as I believe my aforementioned acquaintance would – that it ain’t quite as easy as it looks.
To people who engage me in such conversations, I do NOT pour cold water on their delusions. In fact I encourage them to try to carve out that time, commit to putting words on paper, and make an earnest effort to complete a poem / story / novella / novel. But I also know many of them won’t – perhaps can’t – for whatever reasons. And there are many legitimate reasons, including, time, stress, environment, relationships, finances, employment, etc.
Take My Advice, Please
I’ve encountered other people who DO write already, DO exhibit a commitment to produce words about [something], and DO wish one day to see that project completed and published. When these folks ask for my advice, which many have done, these are some of the things I tell them:
Find someone whose opinion you value, who DOES possess a grounding in literature and / or writing, who is hopefully knowledgeable in the genre you’re writing, who is willing to provide honest and constructive criticism — and ask if they’re willing to look over your manuscript.
Sometimes family members are NOT the best choices for this function, as they can be either too “soft” in their feedback… or too “hard.” Sometimes close friends are NOT the best choices… for some of the same reasons. You never want a critique of your project to damage a good friendship. Sometimes co-workers are NOT the best choices… since you don’t want a working relationship to be adversely affected. I suggest you find someone who has some degree of distance from you, but who also genuinely wants to help you in your writing career. This could be a trusted mentor, teacher, or professor… as three possibilities.
Are You Too Rigid to ACCEPT Constructive Criticism?
I went through a phase – as I suspect many other writers have also done – early in my writing life when I really did not want anyone to make any SUGGESTIONS about my manuscript… even though that was my stated request. What I truly wanted, however, was praise and respect.
I think many – perhaps most – young writers go through a phase when they believe their iteration is solid gold, completely perfect, worthy of global honors. Writers’ egos are often fragile things, and the wrong kind of feedback – whether too critical or overly praiseful – can set back a writer’s development (rather than advance it). This is why it’s so important that you find the right type of person to provide that feedback.
Equally important is your willingness to swallow your justifiable pride (at your composition) and ACCEPT the feedback you’ve requested from someone you trusted. Otherwise, this is merely an exercise of searching until you find a reader who merely lavishes praise – partly or wholly empty – but dares not tell you the truth.
This is very difficult terrain in the developmental phase of an aspiring author’s life. I’ve met many adults who “used to write” as youngsters, but were dissuaded because they showed their work to the wrong people and got feedback that basically killed their creative drive. I’ve also met people who seem to have been given nothing but the highest praise for every syllable they wrote… and therefore believe they’re the greatest writers on God’s green earth. Both extremes are damaging.
Revise, Revise, Revise
I’ll state this clearly and I believe it’s true 99% of the time — your First Draft is NOT perfect. Nor is your Second Draft. And probably not even your Third Draft. Roll up your sleeves and go back through your story with a critical eye. Folks, I’ve found issues in a manuscript after five or six drafts, plus three rounds of edits. It’s EASY for writing problems to slip though the cracks and it’s HARD for the author to find them all, even WITH multiple rounds by professional editors.
Assuming you’ve already completed some manuscript, try to locate a trusted Beta Reader. Using some of the same criteria I suggest in the first section (above), it needs to be someone with grounding in literature and the mechanics of writing, who is hopefully knowledgeable in the genre you’re writing, and who is willing to provide honest and constructive criticism.
As with the other category (feedback) you must be willing to value and diligently consider the recommendations from that Beta Reader. Does that mean you have to accept / utilize every single suggestion? No. But if you find yourself just discarding everything your Beta Reader recommended, then why did you bother?
Another point here: do NOT send your Beta Reader a very rough or incomplete draft. The last thing you want them to be distracted by are your omissions or continuity issues that would be cleaned up on a later draft anyway. Wait until you have a solid, complete second or third draft before you send it to your Beta Reader. Don’t waste their time on something that you haven’t even finished.
“But what if I need to know whether I’m headed in the right direction?” you may ask. Well, I think it’s okay to consult a trusted Beta Reader about a project in progress… but keep it in general terms. Do NOT dash off an incomplete first draft, and send it to a Beta — that wastes the time and effort of the Beta and dilutes the usefulness of that Beta’s feedback.
I’ve had marvelous results with my beta readers. And even though I don’t always like what they tell me, I’ve earned to trust it and – in most cases – follow their advice. One good example was when my Reader pointed out that having this particular exchange (between the primary characters) where it was, wrecked the momentum and mood of the scene where I’d written it. After re-reading that chapter, I realized the Reader was correct, and I re-wrote parts of one or two earlier chapters to allow me to have that exchange EARLIER, before the climactic scene.
Another example was when one of my two Beta Readers told me that I had too many scenes in the same location and I needed to move some of those scenes to other settings. At first I dismissed the advice – partly because it would require so much time and effort to redo all those scenes. But later, when my other Beta Reader said basically the same thing, I realized I was wrong and simply had to correct that flaw. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but it made for a much better story.
Deal With a Professional Editor
Here’s the advice I hand out most often, and – surprisingly – it’s almost always ignored. And many times the individual tells me straight out that they won’t do what I suggest. That is to have your manuscript go through at least one professional editor before you submit it somewhere significant (whether that’s a contest, an agent, or a publisher). A professional editor is experienced in spotting abrupt shifts, too-lengthy passages, un-motivated characters, unrealistic dialog, etc. A person who happens to be a good proofreader is NOT necessarily a great editor… and if you go that route you may end up with a manuscript that’s perfectly spelled, but NOT assembled well.
“But editors cost money,” you may say. Yes, they do. Many charge you a penny a word, which would be $600 for a 60,000 word novel. [There are many free-lancer editors who charge lesser fees, but beware of “discounts” that sound too good to be true. I see a LOT of authors complain that they paid for an editor, but the editor apparently just scanned the manuscript. Ask for references before you contract with an editor. A good editor will not be offended.]
If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a traditional royalty publishing outfit, the publisher fronts the cost of the editors, proofers, cover artists, etc. — so it’s possible you won’t be out-of-pocket anything. But many authors “self-publish” – cutting out the middleman, so to speak – and therefore must pay for each stage of the publishing process. And some of those authors are tempted to cut corners, thinking, “I don’t really need an editor.” But you do… truly you do. I know of one example where an individual paid to have a work printed… but obviously declined to pay for the EDITING of that manuscript. The result was – and I’m not exaggerating – an average of six typographical errors per page in the published work. I’m sure that author thought the story was in great shape and didn’t “need” the service of a paid editor. Wrong. If a 100-page book has 600 typographical errors, that’s a travesty. Folks, you get what you pay for… and you also DON’T get what you REFUSE to pay for. Don’t be the author who thinks their manuscript is clean as a whistle, simply because you’re so close to the story that you no longer see all the problems.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
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In a past blog, I covered some general advice (about life). If you’re curious, here’s the link:
[JLS # 487]