manuscripts

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.

Manuscripts

So you’ve written a short story or, better yet, a novel? There are several places you can go to get them read and assessed but, unfortunately I can’t do it for you. The assessment of a manuscript takes long hours and a great deal of hard work, and at the moment I’d prefer the professionals to put in both hours and hard work! Many people ask me to read their work to see what I think of it, but I have to refuse, simply because I don’t have the time to read it. If you want your work assessed, then:

Join a local writers’ group; they may be able to do it for you (although, no offense to local writer’s groups, you’d be better getting it professionally done – not only will the quality of service be better, but a professional advice will aid your publication chances).

Have it professionally assessed. Some literary agents will do this for you (check the Yellow Pages), but one of the very few actively reading fantasy and science fiction is Australian Literary Management. Contact:
Lyn Tranter,
PO Box 522, Broadway, N.S.W.2007.
Ph: (02) 9211 0252
Fax: (02) 9212 2350

ALM’s price range is two tiered:
If you only want Lyn to read your manuscript with a view to ALM taking you on as a client, then Lyn only requires $20 to cover repostage costs etc. (It’s a good idea to send a query letter first before sending off the entire ms). For $20 you do not get any comment on your ms, only a yea or a nay regarding literary management.

If you would like a full reader’s report, commenting on structure, character development, etc. and giving suggestions for improvement, then the cost would range from $350 to $450, depending on the length of the manuscript.

There are a number of freelance editors just dying to get their hands on your work! Sarah Endacott, of “Edit or Die!”, is easily contactable via email or snail mail (or even phone!), and likes to specialise in fantasy and science fiction (she works as an editor for Aurealis and Eidolon, Australia’s premier speculative fiction magazines). I’ve included some of Sarah’s comments about the type of work she can do for you, although she asked me to emphasise that the prices given below are negotiable.
If you would like editorial suggestions or a report, then Sarah says: “I write about style, character development, scene effectiveness, visual acuity, genre (especially science fiction and fantasy, women’s knowledge, art and crime), plot techniques, point of view, structure … I will also give you other information about the novel form, publisher’s expectations, submission, marketing your work and manuscript presentation. I usually include the first chapter or first few pages marked up as an editor would, so that the author can see where they are making errors and can follow the example in their subsequent drafts. In the case of a short story, I may mark up the entire piece, depending on its length and the correction level required.”

Prices for an editorial suggestions/report vary from about $50 to $450, depending on length.

If you would like a full copy-edit (this involves careful word-by-word checking of grammar, punctuation, inconsistencies, style – Australian, British, American – cross-referencing with indexes, table of contents or chapter headings, as well as layout standardisation, numbering and handling of artwork, drawing and graphics etc.), then prices will range from $150 to over $750, depending on length. (Manuscripts in draft form do not need a copy-edit. It’s better to go for the cheaper structural edit or a report.)

Sarah Endacott can be contacted via Email on: kendacot@vicnet.net.au
or by snail mail:
Edit or Die!
439 Gilbert Road,
West Preston 3072.
Ph: (03) 9471 9270.

There is also the manuscript assessment service of the National Book Council. For further details and prices, contact:
National Book Council,
Manuscript Assessment Service,
Suite 3, 21 Drummond Place,
Carlton, Victoria, 3053.
Ph (03) 9663 8655
Fax (03) 9663 8658.
Please be aware that no assessment service can guarantee you publication (if they promise this then be very wary of them) and all will cost you a fair amount of money (at least a couple of hundred dollars for a novel). The publishing industry is a business, and there are no professionals out there who will assess for free. Also, please realise that no one will be able to do this overnight for you, it may take some weeks or even months.

Learn to self-assess (it’s what I did!). How do you do this? First, you must realise that the first piece you write is probably not much good, but you won’t be able to understand this properly this until you’ve got a number of pieces you can compare. Write four novels (or ten short stories). Work out which is the best, why, and then write something new using what you have learned. This method has the best results, because you will learn from it. Almost no-one succeeds with the first piece they write. Writing is a long hard apprenticeship, and you will undoubtedly spend years writing before you succeed. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it is what writing demands.

©1997 Sara Douglass


Editors note: this article was written by Sara in 1995 and updated in 1997, contact details included may not be current.