Sifting through the manuscripts in my slushpile as of late, I’m witnessing a growing trend. Books that aren’t ready to be edited, much less published, are showing up with disturbing regularity. The explosion of the self-publishing market and instant access to an immense number of books has resulted in a lot of new writers testing the waters. They write their book, do a quick spell check, and zip that manuscript off to agents or editors and wait for the book contracts to come rolling in.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. A first draft’s purpose is to get the story down on paper. A final draft’s purpose is submission for publication, whatever route you decide to take for that, and that draft comes after a lot of work on the initial story.
These unedited, unrevised, unchecked manuscripts are clogging up the book submission system, and it’s a bloody shame. Many of them have intriguing storylines, but are so technically poor that I don’t have an option but to reject them. Sometimes, I’ll send a revise and resubmit request for a story that really interests me, and I have had success getting those authors to pay attention to their work. But for the most part, my slushpile is a dreary, repetitive auto-rejection production line.
The main thing writers need to realize is that their book is not perfect. No one’s is, and especially not in the first draft. My mantra to the authors I work with is always the same: Write, rewrite, edit, rewrite, proofread, read aloud, polish and repeat. This is especially important for new writers, who are just starting to get their feet underneath them. Once you’ve edited, revised, rewritten, proofed and polished your manuscript within an inch of its life, then it’s time to get critiques.
Many writers join critique groups in their towns or online writers’ communities where they can get the feedback they need to make sure their story works. I have a tight group of critique partners; we work closely together on beta reading each others’ works. Our crit group is starting to gain momentum as well; several of us are now published — like Marguerite Butler and her book The First Ghost, which I critiqued in its infancy and is now an amazing book.
But some of those writers don’t like what they hear. Criticism isn’t a personal attack; criticism is one of the most important tools a writer has. Sure, it’s hard not to start yelling at someone who just told you that he hated the resolution of the plot, but you’ve got to grit your teeth, say “thank you” and then pore over your manuscript to see if you can identify something that might work better. Do you have to take every critique and implement it? Of course not! But if more than one reader gives you the same critique, it’s definitely worth your while to take a look.
Besides — who do you want pointing those problems out? A friend and fellow writer before the book is published? Or an influential book reviewer after it’s published?
I know who I’d pick.
Once the manuscript has been critiqued, another revision is probably in order. But this time, after you’re finished, read the story out loud. You will detect problems with your writing easier by hearing the words than seeing them. I find more rhythmical problems and typos that way than any other. Then, repair whatever mistakes you found, polish the manuscript one last time and proofread it closely, using a reliable grammar guide like The Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk’s. Then, put it into a basic manuscript format-12 pt Courier or Times New Roman, double spaced, 1 inch margins all the way around (on WHITE paper for print submissions).
Now, you’re ready to submit.
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
I can write up to 8-10,000 words a day if I’m on a roll. (Yes, I type very fast) But of those 10,000 words, 9,000 are crap. It’s the refining process that makes a good story into a great book. And granted — self-editing isn’t that much fun. But it’s necessary.
There’s a writer in my family who, no matter how many times I tried to help him through the submission process, refused to do any editing or revision on his manuscript. “Why should I do that? My book is fantastic. Besides, that’s the editor’s job, not mine.”
Well, no. That’s not accurate. The editor’s job is to make your good book great. They catch the things you miss. They don’t rewrite your entire manuscript. And if you don’t go through and clean up your easy-to-spot mistakes like spelling, punctuation, grammar, or POV shifts, the chances that an editor will ever see your manuscript are slim.
The writer in my family ended up putting his book with a very well-known and horrific vanity publishing scam, where it was released with most of its errors intact and only sold copies to the writer. They spent money to get “published” by a company no one would consider a legitimate publishing concern. But in the end, the writer got precisely what he asked for: a book in his hands, with all his glaring errors intact for the world to see, at a site where no one would see it and selling for a price no one would pay. And he’s happy with the results of that decision. C’est la vie.
Your manuscript is not perfect. Spending the time to clean up and tighten your manuscript will help you to find the path to publication and success. Go to sites like Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com ), Preditors & Editors (http://pred-ed.com/ ) or Writer Beware ( http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/ ) to make sure all your ducks are in a row.
And then, once you’ve gotten that story so polished that a quarter will slide across it and fall off onto the floor, then and only then should you send it out into the world to try its luck.