advice

Should I send my Manuscript off to be Read?

Once you have finished a manuscript, most writers have an incredible urge for ‘someone to read it’.

First port of call is a friend.

Friends are bad. Friends generally have no critical skills. They are either going to praise it to high heaven in order to please you, or they will be overly critical. They almost certainly won’t pick up on the real issues within a manuscript (for example pacing, dialogue, wordiness, or huge holes in the plot). Unless your friend is a professional editor or writer themselves, and is prepared to put the friendship on the line, you won’t get any decent feedback from friends at all. There is nothing more frightening to an editor at a publishing house to pick up a covering letter to a manuscript to read “all my friends love it!”. I know many people whose friends have all loved their book – none of them have ever had their books published. Unfortunately there is generally a huge chasm between a commissioning editor’s view and a friend’s view.

Second port of call is often the internet – publish a chapter on the web and have everyone comment on it. We’ve all heard the success stories: unknown author puts first chapter of book on web, a surfing editor falls over it, massive publication deal for millions of dollars ensues the next day. Some of these stories are even true. Sometimes it does happen, but … and this ‘but’ is a killer.

Apart from the obvious (strangers on the web are likely to give you even worse feedback than your friends), there are massive drawbacks. Putting up a book on the internet, or part thereof, is literally publishing the book. It is very likely that no publisher will ever consent to publish in hard print a book which has been circulating on the internet (and once it is on one page, trust me, it is circulating). Many of my publishing contracts now state that no portion of the book has ever, or will ever, be put on the web prior to, or within a year of, hard print publication.

If you have ever put a manuscript, or part thereof, on the web then you must, here and now, consider it lost. It has already been published, it has been circulated, and it is likely no one else will touch it. Hard print publishers do not want used stuff – they want fresh, new and completely unseen by anyone manuscripts.

But still you are consumed by the need to ‘have someone read it’. The third thing people do is try to send it to an author to read. Blind. Without even asking them (and in the hope that they’ll adore it so much they’ll beg their publisher to pick you up). Sometimes this can work, but there are also issues here, as well.

First, when I was an unpublished author, I would never in a million years have done that – I would have considered it incredibly rude (which gives you an idea how I feel about manuscripts landing in my post office box). Sending a manuscript, or part thereof, off blind to anyone is rude, and invariably will be seen that way. Write first, and ask. Read the person’s web page to see if they accept manuscripts. I don’t, as the vast majority of authors don’t, and I clearly state that on my contact page, but you’d be stunned to know how many people still send stuff anyway (and it goes straight in the bin – those are letters I won’t even acknowledge).

Now, before you think authors are incredibly mean, I need to explain why authors generally won’t read someone else’s work when it arrives unannounced in their mail box.

First, they are hugely busy – when five thousand people a year send in manuscripts, without asking, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that those manuscripts are not going to be read. We largely don’t have time enough to work on our own books the way we want, without having to deal with everyone else’s as well.

Secondly, and far more importantly, it is worth more than the hides on our backs to read other people’s work. Authors absorb ideas, and while we may not consciously plagiarise, five years after reading someone’s manuscript we may unwittingly incorporate their ideas into our own work – and then, hey presto, we’re in court. So most authors simply will not read other people’s work, and very particularly manuscripts that are sent in blind, because they shriek of unprofessionalism, and, in this instance, that’s highly dangerous. We don’t want to be sued, so we don’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

So who can you send your work to?

There are professional readers and editors who will critique a book for you (and I do mean critique, you will not receive a short paragraph of praise, but an indepth critique of how the work can be improved). Wherever you are in the world, you do need to be careful of sharks. For your money (and it will cost), you should get that indepth critique, and you need to work out beforehand with the provider what your money buys. Check with local writing societies, they will be able to give you an idea of who is working in your country or state and who is legitimate or not. Never trust anyone who claims they can get you published. If you pay for someone to critique your work you deserve a detailed report on it (although you don’t necessarily deserve a favourable report).

There may be local writing societies who are happy to read, but make sure they can provide professional critique, and not just hobbyist advice.

Is there a local college or university which offers creative writing courses? Taking a course may be very good for you – you can not only get someone professional to read your work, but you might learn something new as well.

You can send it off blind to a publishing house – you just never know your luck, but I advise very seriously against this. Ring or write first, ask someone to read it, and, if they do, consider their advice. You won’t get as much as advice as from a professional editor/reader, but it may help.

Authors also will work with unpublished writers via mentorship programmes. These vary from country to country, but I have on numerous occasions worked one on one with a young writer via mentorship programmes run by the Australian Society of Authors or other state bodies. They are professionally run, it is fun work, and applicants are interviewed and screened before hand.

Me? I never got anyone to read my work. I wrote and wrote and discarded and discarded and when finally I thought I had something worthwhile, I wrote to an agent, and asked if she’d like to read it (I didn’t send it off blind). She consented, and the rest is history.

Some General Advice on Writing

So, what do you do first? Well, if you want to write, then, dammit, write! Start with something achievable, perhaps a short story, and start with a genre and a subject that you’re familiar with. Don’t write science fiction if you’ve only ever read one science fiction story in your life. Don’t write romance because you somewhat depreciatingly think it’s easy. Pick a genre and a subject you:

  • admire;
  • know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
  • feel a real enthusiasm for.

In the early 1990s I stupidly thought I’d make a killing writing light romance. Easy, I thought. No matter that I thought light romance was stuff for fools. No matter that I hadn’t read a light romance since I was fourteen. What happened? I failed miserably. It was bloody hard. I wrote some three novels in the light romance vein, and they are all laughable. That’s not the genre’s fault, it’s mine. Light romance is as difficult or as easy to write as adventure or science fiction; what makes the difference is the author’s attitude and experience, and I failed on both counts.

So don’t pick something because you think it will be easy. Pick something because you like it and are familiar with it.

You must accept that most of what you first write won’t be any good (this is the hardest thing to accept). Perhaps most of what you write for months or even years won’t be much good. That’s okay. The important thing is that you are writing, and you are learning as you go. You will become more familiar and more comfortable with the pacing of plots, with the intricacies of dialogue and with the development of characters the more you do it. I wrote close to six or seven novels, all of which are unpublishable, before I had learned enough to write something that was publishable (although I also completely changed the genre I was writing in as well, and that helped). Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I needed the experience of those novels behind me to eventually write something that worked … and that I could sell.

Short stories I can give no advice on at all, because I’ve only just begun to write short stories. I cut my teeth on novel writing, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

Establishing a Discipline of Writing

Writing must be one of the most disciplined professions on earth: it has to be, because without discipline nothing will ever get done. As I explain on my page on discipline in the bath (you have to read that page to understand the title!), I find writing very hard, and literally have to force myself to do it. Getting that first draft down is very, very difficult. Personally I find that the only way I can write is to discipline myself into a routine, and I think most writers have their own discipline and routine. You have to find your own routine, but once you find one that works for you, then you have to discipline yourself to keep to it, and not to waver and wander. If you set aside Saturday to write, then write on Saturday, don’t keep running out to do the shopping, or going off for a few hours to watch the kids’ football. If you set aside one day a week to write, then be totally selfish – that is your day to write, and nothing comes between you and your writing.

You not only have to be disciplined in setting aside time (and then being selfish enough to insist on keeping that time to yourself and your writing), but you must be disciplined in ensuring you are constantly moving forward in your writing. Don’t waste yourself in constant revising and rewriting until you have a first draft done. As I mention elsewhere, I’ve watched friends constantly revise the first half of a novel for year after year, and they won’t accept that they will never finish that novel. I’ve been in the same position. You write a bit, then you succumb to the temptation to go back and revise it. Just a bit. It won’t take long.

A decade later (I jest not) you realise you’ve squandered every chance you may ever have had to actually write a book. All you have is ten years’ worth of revisions to the first three chapters (or whatever).

MOVE FORWARD. PUT THOSE DAMN WORDS DOWN ON PAPER. Write, and keep writing until an entire draft is done. Then you can (and, indeed, you must) revise it. Steeling yourself to constantly move forward is something you must do.

The First Novel

The hardest lesson to learn is that your first novel will undoubtedly be dreadful. You must be prepared to let your first novel go. Face the fact that one day you’re going to have to turn off the life support systems.

This is hard. Planning, writing and completing a novel is an achievement in itself, and the first-time novelist is generally so emotionally attached to his or her creation they are incapable of seeing it with objective eyes. I have a friend who has been reworking her first novel for the past 7 years … she won’t let go, she won’t accept that she must move on, and she can’t see that she has virtually ruined any chance she has of ever succeeding in actually completing a publishable work. No-one amateur painter expects his or her first work to be a masterpiece (and keep reworking the same canvas for year after year) … so why do amateur writers?

Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea, or who can’t accept, how bad they are.

It took me some five years to realise that my first novel was so bad it would never be published. Its worth lay not in whether it would or would not be published, but in what it taught me. Once I accepted the fact that it would be easier (and better) to start a new project than continue to try to resuscitate the First Novel, I took the first great big step towards success.

The second attempt at a novel was easier to let go – and that made it easier for me to view it objectively and learn from its mistakes.

By the third novel I knew what I was doing, and I think by that stage I’d accepted that I was in a learning mode rather than in a ‘get-rich-and-famous-quick’ mode. I think I typed in the final fullstop, then closed the file without a single emotional twinge, and instantly began work on the fourth novel.

I was on a roll. I’d managed to remove myself enough from my writing to be able to view it objectively, to recognise instantly when something wasn’t working, and by this stage I had enough experience to know what to do to correct it.

I was still writing romance, but I knew that this genre was not for me. The excitement was building, because I knew I was close to a breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough for me was finding the perfect genre for my style of writing and for the peculiar and often dark shape of my mind. Fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years, but it’s certainly not my favourite genre (what is my favourite? Military adventure fantasy – Tom Clancy, for example, or mystery and crime). The day I thought, “Why not try fantasy?” it felt so right that I instinctively knew this was going to be my best chance at success.

From the moment I wrote the first chapter of BattleAxe I thought it had a really good chance … my practice runs gave me the experience I needed to recognise saleable worth when I wrote it.

But there was something else about BattleAxe that made it different. This one I wrote almost exclusively for myself, whereas all the other novels I did with an ‘audience’ in mind. BattleAxe I LOVED writing. I lived that book, and it lived for me. Consequently it lives for most (not all, she grins, remembering the odd review) of my readers. So if it works for you, then it may well work for others … but again, you’ve got to balance involvement with objectivity.

What To Do With It Now?

So you’ve finished the piece that you think may see you through into book signings and pleasant conversations with your bank manager. What to do with it now?

First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two, or even six, months. Then take it out, view it with a fresh eye, and revise it ferociously. Make yourself see all the bits that don’t work, and force yourself to change them. Authors always find it hard to change a single word of their masterpiece, but, believe me, masterpieces can always be improved (if you can’t find much wrong with your manuscript, then it’s probably so awful it should be burnt). The more improved your manuscript is, and the more professional (and professionally presented) it is, the greater chance you will have of being published. It’s a hectic world out there, peopled by agents and editors who are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that catches their eyes is professionalism. They don’t have time for anything but.

If you want some more hints of constructing prose, then you have a look at How to Write the Perfect History Essay, something I wrote for my university students way back when. Although it concentrates on academic writing, what it says about organisation and clarity of prose goes for whatever kind of writing you are engaged in.

You can also have a look at the many books available on the market on how to write.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises