This week an emerging writer whose work I’ve seen develop over the past two to three years, emailed me to say she had finished writing the novel, and is keen to send it to an agent or a publisher. I’m really happy for her, because a full draft that’s been revised a couple of times is a huge achievement. But I wrote back, Stop, don’t do anything, yet.
Just because we think our book/short story/poem is done and dusted, and we’re high with the feeling of having finished, is no reason to actually send the work out to an agency, publisher or journal. Instead, pause. (Unless it’s a competition, in which case the deadline has to be met.)
I have a friend who’s written maybe five novels (while working full time and wrangling a family) and has persistently sent them out almost the same afternoon that she wrote ‘The End’ on the final page. They were always so promising, but inevitably, were underdone manuscripts. Now, at long last, she’s returning and revising and mulling over manuscript number six, treating it like a beautiful cheese that needs more months of ageing: tapping it, listening to it, walking around it. The novel is incrementally getting better with further character development, the scenes edited till every line carries, and dialogue that matters. A year on, it’s turning into a very publishable manuscript.
Years ago I excitedly sent an early version of my second novel Provenance out too soon. I wouldn’t say I was confident about it, but certainly hopeful. The manuscript was quickly rejected by four publishers. I then spent another two years thoroughly revising it. These simple sentences say nothing of my anxiety, disappointment and the months of being unable to write a thing because my confidence had been gutted. But really, it was my own fault. The book had not been ready. And those four publishers: there was no going back to them even with a ‘much improved’ novel.
What I’ve learned from my own experience and working with other writers, is that it’s harder, but ultimately a more professional practice to put the manuscript aside for a few months and to work on a new project. For those of you who’ve been in my classes or workshops, you’ll know how keen I am for us writers to be able to diversify. So if you’re been writing a novel, turn to nonfiction or explore poetry, write a short story, a short play, a series of flash fictions. Read good literature. Take notes. Read with a writer’s attention to craft and technique. Expand your skill set if you can. Working in another form will help you see and hear the novel manuscript with a refreshed ear and eye.
We’re all very used to working on screen now, but for a serious revision of the manuscript, it’s helpful to print-out a hard copy and work through the printed pages methodically and slowly. Read each page aloud, and listen to the story. Make copious notes and edits on the hard copy, by hand, if you can. By approaching the text through the different technologies of the screen, the page, the ear, the hand holding the pen, you’ll be able to refresh your critical experience of it. Enjoy what there is to enjoy and be thrilled by your achievement. But also, be alert to the niggling doubts. It’s quite possible that the book needs a lot more work. Expect that it needs more work. Another year or two even.
Publishers and agents generally do not have the resources to work with writers to develop a manuscript. It’s not often that a publisher will work with a new or even a mid-career author whose novel needs a lot of editorial input and direction. It does happen, but not often. So writers need to put forward their best work, and to do this requires patience and tenacity.
Getting a manuscript assessment can be hugely beneficial when you’re working with the right assessor. A manuscript assessor is an experienced reader who has the skills and experience to determine the ways in which the novel needs further work. Sometimes an assessor also provides structural editorial advice. Finding the right person can be a challenge. Ideally the person will be familiar with your genre (YA, literary fiction, sci fi, etc). The Australian Society of Authors and the various state writer’s centres such as Writing NSW, Writers Victoria, and Writing WA all curate manuscript assessor services.
You can try-out an assessor by engaging them for a short assessment, e.g. the first ten pages, or the first three chapters. Then if you think they’re attuned to your work, and you found the feedback helpful, commit to a full manuscript assessment.
Check out the writer and journalist Tanya Davies’ very well researched overview of Australian manuscript assessment services. Her report is titled, ‘Manuscript Assessments: Everything You Need To Know’, and you can download the pdf from her author website.
Another option is to work with a writing mentor. Mentoring can include a manuscript assessment along with ongoing hours given over to providing feedback as the writer revises their manuscript. With a mentorship, there’s more opportunity for conversation over a period of months (usually up to six months or a year).
Manuscript assessments and mentors cost money. Fortunately, the need for writers to get professional feedback before finalising a manuscript for submission is increasingly recognised by funding agencies as an essential component of the writing cycle, and a genuine component of a writer’s skills development. The various state and territory writers centres, the ASA, along with state government arts bodies such as Create NSW and ArtsACT, all offer grants and awards to writers for project development that can include mentoring and manuscript assessment. There are also state and national writers’ residency organisations such as Varuna – The National Writers’ House that offer mentorship awards.
Getting ‘beta’ feedback from friends or family who are readers can also be helpful to the revision process. An author whom I mentored had already done this with her filmmaker sister. The sister offered broad-sweep but incisive feedback on the manuscript: the plot didn’t make sense at certain points, the ending was too melodramatic. The writer found her sister’s feedback helpful, but she also kind of didn’t want to believe it, and then said to me that in any case she didn’t know how to address the issues her sister had pointed to. (Though she was a published author, which goes to show that writing is really hard!— And why she was working with me as a mentor.)
When I was a beginning writer I gave my work to a couple of friends who were very ‘well read’ types like me. But, because they’d never attempted to write creatively themselves, their feedback was (unintentionally) very harsh and crushing. Another time, I gave a short story to an established writer I’d met at a bookstore. He seemed enthusiastic about helping young writers like myself. I received the work back with a
red pen line through almost every sentence and some general feedback telling me the writing was crap. I was working in a small publishing house then, and I remember the managing editor finding me at my desk in tears.
The best beta feedback I received as a very emerging writer was from the poet and editor Jamie Grant, who was always enthusiastic about my stories, and insisted that writing needed to be interesting and pointed to where my writing was interesting.
There can be a lot of hit-and-miss with beta feedback. It’s a good training for later rejections and tough critiques from agents and publishers. Helps you grow a thick skin.
If you don’t have the funds to throw at manuscript assessments and mentors, aim to foster mutual relationships with other writers whose work you respect and with whom you communicate well. I treasure my relationships with the other writers I exchange work with. We support each other, we’re sounding-boards for ideas, questions and problems, and diligently read each other’s work in progress. When I was rewriting Provenance after the first round of publishers’ rejections, the support of my writer friends was invaluable. I couldn’t have done it without them. (Thanks Mem, Helen D!)
Join a writing workshop
The easiest way to meet other writers and get a sense of what their feedback skills are like and how they are as a person and potential writing buddy, is through writing workshops. Workshops are a good place to start to find your tribe.
And with that, I’ll finish up now with a plug for my Autumn 22 Writing Workshop, which starts very soon. You might want to workshop some of that new or finished manuscript, and get that all-important feedback, and be the person who also gives some all-important feedback. The great thing about the workshop is that it combines skill development with feedback and being a part of a community. At the time of writing, I still have two places available.