Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Writing

I'm not sure how this happened, but--in the last two weeks--I've received four emails from newbie writers, asking for referrals to an editor to "fix" their manuscripts.

Maybe there's a blog or website out there that's recommending new writers hire personal editors. I don't know. Whatever it is, I'd like to address the issue.

In all four of the cases that came to me, I advised that I don't "do" recommendations of the sort they were requesting. In two of the cases, I suggested that the writers send me half a dozen pages from the manuscripts in question: the first because she told me that an editor had given her a quote of $10,000 to doctor her manuscript and the second because he was a friend of a friend.

Both of the writers who sent excerpts to me said they were almost ready to submit to agents/publishers, but wanted to increase their chances for success by using a professional editor to "polish" their work.

My reading of their material led me to a completely different conclusion. The two excerpts I read were riddled with common newbie errors: wild shifts in point-of-view, author intrusions, gaps in logic, grammatical errors, endless monologues and heavy dependence on adverbs. These manuscripts were far from ready to be seen by an agent or editor.

As kindly as I could, I suggested that what both writers needed was a critique group, not an editor.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'm a big believer in critique groups. I think the best thing a writer can do for his/her craft is to join a group and get feedback from peers.

Writing is essentially a lonely business. You sit down with your laptop or notebook, and you work alone. There is no boss or co-worker to give you regular feedback. It's easy to get off track and not even realize it.

It's also true that neutral third parties can more easily pick up on the mistakes that you miss.

I belong to two different critique groups: one online and one in-person. I get different things from the two groups. The online group is tougher--it does line-by-line edits of my manuscripts. The in-person group is made up of generalists who give broader feedback. However, the in-person group requires that I read my material out loud in a public venue. Talk about toughening your hide. Once you've learned to read your manuscript aloud in a bookstore and accept the subsequent feedback, you can handle anything an editor or agent can sling at you.

I could tell from the responses of the two writers who sent me their pages that neither was prepared to listen. The one who had been quoted $10,000 said she was going to look for a "more reasonable" price.

The thing is--the price she was quoted was right. Any editor would have to essentially re-write her entire book before it will be ready for publication.

The second writer just blew me off. He was so convinced that his "plot" was the important thing. The rest were just "details."

If I had to make a prediction, I'd guess that--after being rejected by whatever agents and publishers these two writers eventually submit to--both will go the self-publishing route. It's a shame, but some people just need to learn the hard way.

Until they realize that things like grammar and sentence structure are more than just details, their writing careers aren't going anywhere.

In the meantime, thanks to my own critique partners. I'd be lost without you. Thank you for all the hard work you do to make my own prose shine.

1 comment:

MTV said...

My guess, and this is just a guess, that is exactly the reason most "self-published" stuff is crap. Most of these people think all you do is tell a story. Story structure is critical as is consistent tone as is basic grammar and word usage. If any one of these elements are deficient the story suffers in the way it comes across to the reader. One of the tell-tales for me immediately is over-writing.

For me the whole writing process is about learning. Some people just like the school of hard knocks. To some degree that's what I did. I just wasn't dumb enough to self-publish. Not that I won't now if the manuscript warrants it. I'm just a lot more savvy in how to go about it. One thing for sure is LISTEN and ABSORB your very valuable reader's feedback. Especially the opinions of published or represented authors. They just might know something you don't!