(To all you NaNoWriMo writers out there: This article is my gift to you. Good job!)
You’ve written something, and you’ve typed the last line, and you’re done! Woohoo, time to celebrate. Tomorrow, ignoring your hangover, you’re going to rush it out to the publisher and…
Stop! Hold on, not so fast. You’re not done yet. As perfect and wonderful as you think your story is, you are far too close to it to be at all objective. Your best bet is to put it away for a while. A month at least, longer if possible, then go back over it with a fresh perspective.
“Put it away for a month?” you exclaim. “Are you nuts?” No, not nuts. Understand this: you are still hot off your project and your internal writing machine is still primed and running — time to jump right into your next project while the one you’ve just finished cools down and rests.
When going over it with a fresh perspective, what you will most likely find is that the parts you really liked are not so good (and may even be embarrassing), and the parts that you didn’t think were so good now seem so brilliant that you can’t believe it came out of your very own brain. So you start going through and rewriting, making adjustments here and there, cutting out parts that don’t contribute to the story, and smoothing the rough patches so that the text flows easily in through the eyes.
Good job. The rewrite is the important part, the part where the story really comes together. When you’re finished with that, guess what?
It’s time to put it away again for a while. You want to give it at least one more read-through with as fresh a perspective as you can. In fact, I recommend you read it out loud to yourself, all of it, because that way an entirely different part of your brain will process it and you’ll discover — or, actually, hear — things you didn’t notice before. Turns of phrases you thought were clever are suddenly awkward. Words are arranged wrong, and you’ve typed things like “was was” instead of “he was.” How could you not see that before?
Because, dear writer, these words have come from inside you and were processed with your fingers and eyes … and when you go back and read it, you don’t really see it. Your brain recognizes it and remembers what you thought you typed, not what you actually typed. It skips over the input coming from your eyes and replaces what it knows from memory. But, when you read it out loud, whole other sections of your brain get involved, parts that have no previous experience with the manuscript.
Even after you’ve done this, you’re still not ready to publish. The story all makes perfect sense to you, but you are completely intimate with it. A reader is not, and there may be gaping holes where they need to know something only you know in order to understand why your character whacked the mailman over the head with a wrench, or decided to take up juggling, or has an aversion to pet rocks.
You need an editor. Even if you’re planning on sending it to a traditional publisher, who has editors, you still need an editor to make it to the threshold of perfection to sufficiently impress the pants off the publisher’s editor.
Yes, you read that right. You need an editor before you show it to an editor. It need not be a professional editor, but it does need to be a reader who will be honest with feedback without letting his or her ego get into the mix. What I highly recommend is you find and join a good writers group, either in your town or online.
Your editors in this case will be test readers, and fellow critique partners. One thing to understand up front is that critiquing a story, or especially a novel, is hard work and requires time and effort. You can’t expect to get this without also giving something in return — and trust me, the pleasure of reading your unedited writing is, honestly, not usually something you can consider payment for their effort.
I’m not saying you need to hire a professional editor or proofreader, though they do exist and are a wonderful resource if you can go in that direction — what I am saying is that you must reward these people somehow, even if it’s with a bottle of their favorite expensive scotch, or a beautiful gold pen, or by babysitting their kids for free for a week.
Also, and more likely, they’ll have manuscripts of their own to critique — and that’s a fair trade. There is an art to giving a good critique, too, and I’ll cover that in a future article. Suffice to say, when you do a proofread and critique of someone else’s work, you give it the same careful consideration as you’d expect them to give yours.
A good writers group (yes, there are not-so-good ones out there) will give you this resource in droves, but you will work for it. Even a not-so-good one can be useful if you are careful in your dealings within it. It’s best to get involved and test the group out with short stories, and ascertain the following qualities:
- Are there any big, overshadowing egos involved, who need to lord how wonderful they are over everyone?
- How much drama is involved?
- Do any of these people have any real experience?
- Most importantly: What’s the ratio of calm, reasonable people vs. outright jackasses?
A good writers group contains a balance of people who all get along; who don’t get their egos easily bruised; who deliver criticism kindly and constructively; who don’t raise their voice unless it’s in boisterous joy; and who don’t contain pompous, self-important assholes.
Even if you find yourself in a group with one or more negative traits, you may find and partner with others in the group who are more reasonable — these people will become your friends, maybe even lifelong friends, and if you work your ass off helping them polish their manuscripts to perfection they will hopefully reciprocate and do the same for you.
So we’re down to the wire here. You’ve given your manuscript, your darling, your baby, over to other people to judge and correct. You’re holding your breath, hoping they like it. That is absolutely natural. When criticism starts coming in, you get defensive.
This is very important. Stop.
Do not defend your manuscript.
DO NOT DEFEND IT.
You asked for criticism. They’re giving you what you asked for. Do not, under any circumstances, argue or try to explain how they don’t understand, or why they’re wrong.
DO NOT DO THAT.
You asked for an opinion and you’re getting it. THANK THEM FOR IT.
You do not have to agree. You do not have to do what they tell you to do. But you do have to thank them for it, without any further comment. Keep your hysterical denial inside. This denial is natural and perfectly okay, but you want — and NEED — their input, and no one is going to want to give it to you if you are unpleasant about receiving it.
This is hard, but necessary. You must do your absolute best to divorce yourself from your creation, and let them do their worst to it, because — and I can’t stress this enough — no matter how harsh it seems, it will be infinitely worse when you release it into the world at large. Someone, somewhere, will always hate your writing. Someone somewhere will always dump all over you, publicly, in front of everyone, it searing bold letters up on Amazon or B&N, or in their blog, or in the New York Times.
The flip side of this is there will also always be people who absolutely love what you write, who will take it to heart, and who will incorporate your thoughts into their life through what you’ve written. The sad part is, unlike the negative prick who dumped all over you, these people who love you will do it silently, privately, and you’ll rarely, if ever, know about it.
But they are there. They will always be there. You’ll only detect them through the money you end up getting when you see people are spending their hard earned wages on everything you put out there. Every penny you receive will be a sign of love.
So back to the critique of your work: like I said, you can ignore what they say if it doesn’t make sense to you. If you give your manuscript out and get five critiques, and only one brings up the perceived problem, you can ignore it if you want. If two people bring it up, then you can’t ignore it. If three, four, or all five bring it up, there is a definite thing you have to address. A glaring problem.
It’s okay to have a glaring problem. Nothing ever comes out perfect the first time. No matter what it is, you can fix it. It may be a little work, or it may be a lot of work, but you do have to fix it.
It all comes down to your readers — what kind of experience do you want them to have? They pay money for your words, and they invest time out of their lives to read it. What are you giving them in return for this? If you shit on them, they will be angry, not come back, and badmouth you to everyone who will listen.
You don’t want to do that to your readers if you want to keep writing and keep selling, especially if it’s the first thing of yours they’ve ever read.
You want them to be glad they read what you’ve written.
The manuscript can have some flaws, and it can have some plot holes — it’s not a good thing to have, but they can be there — if the reader still comes away with a pleasant feeling for having read it. This is how you build a readership. This is how you cultivate a group of people who you hopefully love, even though you’ve never met them, who will be excited to see whatever you produce next.
While you’re editing, based on critiques, or based on professional feedback, this is the ultimate goal to shoot for: a really good experience for the reader, leaving them wanting more.
That’s why everyone needs an editor, because it’s extremely rare that you can pull that off without one.