Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Revising your manuscript

Possibly one of the most important and often neglected aspects of writing is revisions. It’s all fine and dandy to bash out a novel in less than six weeks then have the horrors of the manuscript burning a hole in your hard drive. So many authors (and I include myself here) have, at some point or another, submitted a manuscript for consideration to a publisher or literary agent without first revising it. And it shows, trust me.

Granted, when I first started out I was still blindingly convinced of my sheer and utter brilliance. Funny how these things change after being rejected countless times and one discovers literary agents and publishers aren’t falling over themselves to consider your submissions.

After each rejection I’d retreat to lick my wounds. The first thing I realised about why my short stories weren’t selling was that they were novels in disguise. Or so my crit partners were telling me. I listened to them. Solution: start writing novels. If I’d continued writing short stories in the hope of one day having enough cred to write a novel, I’d still be unpublished. And I admit freely that I cannot write a short story to save my life. (That’s not to say I don’t write them from time to time, for fun, but I tend to hide them on my fictionpress profile).

The first and most important lesson an author can learn is: don’t take advice from crit partners and other industry professionals personally. Once in a while you’re probably also going to meet a right twunt who’s going to say nasty things just for the sake of being a b1tch, but if you’ve worked hard to find some decent folks who care about you, you will have a better idea whether your writing stinks.

Your mom, cousin or the nice lady down the road will not give you an objective view of your novel unless they happen to be authors themselves. And, let’s be brutally honest here, folks, most ordinary peeps simply don’t possess the critical function to critique writing and tell you what’s really wrong with it. C’mon, they read (insert your least favourite cruddy best-selling author here).

Which is why writing groups can work for some. I’ve met my best crit partners, authors with whom I have a very close working relationship, who are at a similar stage that I am, through writing groups. I love and respect their writing. They love and respect mine. When they mention something about mine, I listen to their advice and I consider it. It’s a relationship based on trust. Most successful authors have their crit partners – like the ones who aren’t afraid to tell the likes of Stephen King when he’s being a daft bat.

The best thing you can do once you’ve finished your first draft is to send it to your crit partners. AND FORGET THE MANUSCRIPT EXISTS. Forget about it completely. It doesn't exist. Don’t daydream about which agent you’re going to query or which publishers you’re going to submit to. STEP AWAY FROM THE NOVEL and start your next project.

Yup, you heard me. Start your next first draft. Give your crit partner about a month or two to read your novel and get back to you. Then, if you’re one of those dreadful super-charged Energiser bunnies like me, you’ll almost be done with the first draft of your next work.

Now here’s the difficult part. ONLY start your revisions once you’ve finished the next WiP. Now you can send that to a crit partner while you get cracking on revising the novel that’s just returned.

You know what’s even more magic? You’d have taken two or so months’ break from your manuscript and, guess what? Your eyes will be fresh. Hell, it’s going to be like stepping into a new story. And the scary part is you’ll be more apt to see mistakes.

Oh, lordy, did you repeat “realise” twenty times in one paragraph? Or, goodness, Bill had a black tie on but it’s turned purple about halfway through dinner… Trust me you pick up stupid stuff you missed the first time. Stupid stuff that would make editors and agents groan and have a ::head desk:: moment, or laugh and point at assorted instances of homophone or apostrophe abuse. Or those darn pesky dangling modifiers.

There’s no standard rule of “Thou shalt revise your manuscript half a dozen times before you submit it anywhere” but you know what? Three or four revisions can’t hurt before you start submitting. If you’ve got the luxury of printing out an entire MS, go at it with a red pen while sitting on your veranda or in front of the fire with a cuppa.

And, perhaps the greatest rule of all: patience. Remember that the publishing industry is a waiting game. Be patient. The wheel, she turns slowly, mmmmkay? Don’t try to get everything done overnight. You’re only going to exhaust yourself and lose hope. Until you’ve got print deadlines to worry about, take your time and enjoy improving your craft. Learn from past mistakes and avoid them, finding ways to make each novel grow better than the last.

Because, trust me, your editor doesn’t want to correct the same kinds of mistakes you make in books three or four that occurred in book one.


Sandra Sookoo said...

That is good advice. I usually let a story "simmer" for a good month before even reading it again. You get too close to a project and can't see the forest for the trees so to speak.

Of course, repeated words are a huge pet peeve of mine so those types of things are usually nipped in the bud but I have my fair share of other issues :-)

I know folks who finish a book one day then sub it the next. This irritates me as a writer and a person. Take the time to actually care about the work you're putting out.

But, some folks just don't want to listen I guess.

Great post, as always!

PamelaTurner said...

Ah! So that's why so many authors seem to have new releases every week and I'm still struggling through my drafts?

I can't even give my 1st draft to a CP. Maybe the 2nd, but it's usually the 3rd. Once I get in revision mode, I've no problem slicing and dicing the manuscript. No, I'm not perfect. I've considered leasing my soul for the perfect 1st draft. LOL

I've spent most of this year writing, getting work ready to be critiqued. Yeah, it's slow going and sometimes frustrating. I keep telling myself that I'm building my writing portfolio & only when the work is ready will I submit it.

Agree with Sandra, this is a great post! :-)

Sandra Sookoo said...

I'd really love to see a change in the publishing industry--one that wouldn't accept any old book that came their way. I'd love to see more revise and resubmit letters and dare I say it, more rejections.

The longer publishers continue to take crappy work, the more authors won't learn that they actually need to take time over their books and learn the craft.

Okay, yeah, it's a huge soap box issue for me, but that's how I feel LOL

Carol Hone said...

It's the "STEP AWAY FROM THE NOVEL and start your next project" bit that gets me. Especially if I have to forget it exists. A bit like leaving your child on the footpath and forgetting about he/she for a month or two.

I must get more organised, and unfeeling, it seems.

Nice post, Nerine.

Nerine Dorman said...

Authors must learn to be cold and hard with their words. It's difficult, I know, but nowadays I think long and hard before I argue with my editor.

Sondrae Bennett said...

Great advice. I think many authors, myself included, have made the mistake of sending something off before it was truly ready. It's a hard lesson to learn but an important one. I haven't yet found a great beta group but am on the lookout.