Editing for Indie Writers: Is Your First Draft Ready? (Chapter 2, Part 1)

I woke up this morning and felt like an utter and complete idiot…about nothing and everything. “Hello, my name is DeAnna, and today I feel like a loser.”  “Hi, loser.”  ***Dave explained what I was really doing wrong, though: “I think it was the cursed tiki idol you took from that cave. Maybe you just need to put it back.”  Look, I will, okay?  Just as soon as I finish this blog post…

Chapter 2, Part 1:

One of the things I hear come up over and over with beginning writers is, “Is my manuscript ready to publish?”  It’s a tough call, and that’s one reason that a lot of people would rather have someone else publish their work: it implies that the work has been judged worthy and the writer validated.  But that begs the question…how does the publisher or editor know?

I think the method that most people who pick manuscripts use is, “Did I like it?” This isn’t the best method for a writer trying to judge their own work:  we tend to swing between ecstatic and despondent or even suicidal when trying to judge our own work, when really, our work deserves neither extreme of emotion.  Another problem is that while publishers can hone their taste, they can’t really predict what will sell beyond looking at comparable books.  If publishers were good at this kind of thing, then they would know exactly which new authors would break in, and which wouldn’t, and they’d hire the right writer to write exactly that book.  This is not to say that publishers are stupid, just that the problem is too complex.

A third problem is that indie books can be fundamentally different than traditionally published books, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what that means yet.   I have read all kinds of indie books that I would have no idea of what to do with them in a Barnes and Noble store.  What shelf would it go on?  Would it even have a shelf?  I’ve read indie books that break all kinds of rules: memoirs with fantastical elements to them (and without uplifting endings), kids’ books where the kids don’t get punished for disobeying their non-evil parents, spiritual books about post-apocalyptic worlds that feature more f-bombs than a Dennis Leary comedy routine.  How do you even judge that kind of book?

For indie writers, there are two ways to tell if the first draft of your manuscript is ready:  the logical way and the practical way. You may have to pick up a few techniques from each way in order to satisfy yourself; they’re both valuable, and, really, you have to do both in order to get the manuscript out the door.

The logical way: You analyze your manuscript using a checklist or other techniques to determine whether it’s ready.

The practical way: You’re paralyzed by fear, so it doesn’t matter how logically ready or unready the manuscript is–you just have to hurdle the fear and send out the manuscript.

What I have seen happen over and over again, in my manuscripts and in talking to others, is that we really want to think of ourselves as logical, but once you pare away everything on the “logical” checklists, you start finding all kinds of excuses to not send out the manuscript, and it becomes evident that no, you weren’t being logical–you were terrified and using “logic” to prevent yourself from having to send out the manuscript, either to self-publish it or to send it to a market.  Or even to send it to your critique group.  (Yes, the idea of sending something to a critique group can be terrifying; no need to be ashamed of it.)

Personally, the further along I get in my quest to make a living at what I love, the more I see that acknowledging the fear–which is made up of all kinds of sub-fears–is one of the first things that separates people who will get work out and people who won’t.  I was talking to a group of writers about getting negative comments on a blog post, and what I really wanted to say to respond to the criticism was, “Stop looking at me.”  I didn’t really care what they were saying; I didn’t care whether it was complimentary or critical.  I was just tired of having to know that people were…paying attention, which is exactly what a writer should want.  The fear doesn’t have to be rational or reasonable or logical.  You just have to acknowledge it.

On the other hand, there are the people who seem utterly confident in themselves and their work, even though it’s crap.  I think folks like that are just starting out or have been in a rut for some time, and don’t know enough to know what they don’t know.  Those people obviously should use a logical way to assess their manuscript’s readiness–however, it’s almost impossible, when you’re that person, to tell when you are that person, because of the way our minds work.  Competent people tend to doubt themselves and incompetent people tend not to, statistically.  So really, a checklist is no bad thing, either way.

However, now that I have you convinced (more or less) that these methods are the best ways to approach the problem, let me mention that there’s a third way that’s better than either a checklist or shoving something out the door unquestioned, and you probably won’t want to hear it.

The third way is writing a synopsis.

Okay, question–did you just shut down and say, “Forget it.  Give me the @#$%^& checklist”?

That’s fear.

Yes, I’m going to give you a checklist.  However, I’m also going to recommend that you write a synopsis–actually, several different forms of summing up your manuscript, of which a synopsis is one.  Is it necessary?  Yes.  Because, in the end, if you don’t understand why anyone should read your story, then your story is probably not worth reading.  Oh, your writing may be good.  You may have removed all your adjectives and made your dialogue realistic.  You might have compelling conflict, wacky characters, and uplifting sentiments…and no story.

Nonfiction writers have a good grasp on this.  They have to write up all kinds of summaries and outlines in order to convince a publisher that what they have will sell–and don’t think for a second that what nonfiction writers do doesn’t tell a story, because it does.  Biographies tell the story of a life, and so do memoirs and histories.  Cookbooks tell the story of a meal.  (Why do you think the dessert section usually comes last?)  Instruction manuals tell the story of going from not-knowing something to knowing something, and even providing the story of how to find out more (in the bibliography or recommended reading section).  And so on.  Humans learn through stories.  If-then is a story.  So is why-because.  So is how-like this.

Fiction writers sometimes like to think that all they have to do is write the story.  But story sometimes gets buried under words.

Some fiction writers only have to write the story.  These writers tend to fall in two main camps:  the ones who won’t sell, and the ones who have written so many different summaries and synopses and log lines and blurbs that they breathe them.  If you find yourself not writing the quality of plots you want, then write synopses and blurbs and log lines and more, because it will give you a better grasp of story, stripped of almost any other consideration.

So here’s my advice:

  1. Set yourself a deadline, beyond which the story goes out, ready or not.  You might even send a draft to a friend that they will send out for you–barring any changes they receive before the deadline.
  2. Write a synopsis in order to look at the big picture.  If necessary, write the synopsis the way you wish you had written the book. (You can even write the synopsis before you write the book.)
  3. Go through the checklist to look at the granular details.
  4. Hustle.  That deadline is coming.

Next time: How to Write a Synopsis (Hint: Torture Can Work Wonders for You, Too!)

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