Category Archives: How to be a writer

DIY manuscript appraisal

Every month, we come across average books that have somehow made it in print, while our own masterpiece languishes in slush piles. It’s a rather vexing phenomenon, and one tends to either explain it by beating oneself down (my book’s terrible, followed by a tub of ice cream), or by brandishing one’s fist at the publishing industry (they rejected The Help sixty times).

But it’s actually a lot easier to explain. The vast majority of authors just aren’t putting the work they need to in order to get their manuscript to a publishable standard. Every agent has a story of a promising debut author with a killer idea and a great turn of phrase, whom they’ve nursed through twelve rewrites, but who nonetheless never managed to sustain tension throughout their book.

No wonder that less talented but harder working authors emerge from the pack.

Now don’t think that luck doesn’t play a role. It does, and that’s in large part the fault of writers who are inundating agencies and publishing houses with half-baked manuscripts. In the face of so much white noise, is it any wonder that an industry with limited resources makes sub-optimal decisions?

But if you’re on this site, it’s because you’re serious about improving your manuscript, and if you’re reading this post, it’s because you want to know how far you are from the end.

For our DIY manuscript appraisal, use the following heuristics to situate yourself:

Tension/Interest: This is a macro concern, and as such, comes first. Write out a chapter by chapter summary of your book, and ask yourself what sustains your reader in every single chapter. For fiction, and narrative-based non-fiction, we’re talking about tension. For other types of non-fiction, we’re talking about what’s sustaining the reader’s intellectual interest. More than likely, you’ll find that working at this level will lead to major changes in your manuscript. If not, then congratulations: you must have spent months planning and preparing your novel, or you must be on your eighth draft.

Character: Every single one of your character needs to have depth. To a writer, no character is boring. It doesn’t mean that they do extraordinary things, but that you need to be expressing something special through even the most minor of characters. Can you describe the personality of every one of your characters, as you would, say, discuss the personality of your brother’s spouse with your friends? If you’re delving into your characters after you’ve written a full draft, this should also lead to a major rewrite. Note that character feeds into tension. Fleshing out your characters will make your scenes taut, since you’ll now know what your characters are trying to get out of each other and why they’re trying to do so.

Point of view: This is a harder concern to pinpoint and a harder one to address, but it’s one that comes through in the majority of works we give a full work-over. It comes down to two questions: first, are you choosing the right point-of-view strategy for your book, and second, are you being consistent with it? The best way to diagnose your own prose is to read a variety of styles, and think of what works and what doesn’t. For an omniscient narrator, have a look at Zadie Smith. For a very close third, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is superb. For an enthralling first, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground gives food for thought.

Prose: And lastly, is your prose perfectly polished? This is last because there’s no point working too hard on this until you’ve pinned down the points above. This is also what comes across fastest, and what’s most likely to get your book rejected. The idea is that if you’re not willing to work on your prose, you’re not a serious writer. Look for repetitions, flat metaphors, mixed tenses, clichés, dull sentences, awkward constructions, flabby paragraphs, and so on. It’s on this point that writing groups can be most useful.

Useful feedback: 3 rules

Bad feedback is a sure road to frustration. Discard it, and you’re on for a scrap with the person you’re ignoring. Listen to it, and you’re going off into meandrous territory. No one knows when or in what state you’ll emerge.

Useful feedback, on the other hand, is just as good to the person receiving it as to the person giving it.

Forget praise sandwiches and arbitrary positive-to-negative feedback ratios. Good feedback can be brutal as long as it follows a few simple principles:

  1. It needs to be constructive. The goal of anything you say must be to help the other person improve their work. This sounds simple, even obvious, but actively hold yourself to it, and the quality of your feedback will improve. For example, imagine that you can’t connect with a piece of writing. Rather than dismiss it by saying that it didn’t work for you, try to identify an aspect on which the writer can improve. I had difficulty connecting to this piece, because the scene felt too airy.
  2. It needs to be concrete. Don’t think that abstract feedback isn’t helpful. The scene feels airy, the writing is lax, can be far more useful than a litany of line edits, as long as it is brought back to concretes. For example, the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions.
  3. It needs to offer solutions. It’s too easy to stop at a simple criticism. But it’s in offering solutions that you’re really offering value. By engaging on a deeper level, you’re learning to fix the problem, not just to identify it, and you’re giving the writer a palpable sense of what you want them to look at. They may well choose another solution to the one you offer, if only to keep ownership of their project, but in any case, thanks to your feedback, they’ll have a handle on something they need to consider. Back to our example: the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions, and you could change this by perhaps telling us what he sat on (was it a red couch, or a high-perched stool?) and by telling us how she felt when he ran out of the room (relief, or disappointment?).

Going through that process will not only make you friends, but it’ll turn you into a better writer. Learning to articulate why something works, or why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better is a consuming process. Even feedback as simple as the one in our example can take weeks to pinpoint.

But do it right, and you’ll reap the rewards.