You’ve slaved over your manuscript. Your heart and soul and perhaps even a few tears are spilled on the pages (and if you’re a klutz like me, a bit of coffee is on there too). You are ready to send that manuscript out to be read by your trusted readers, whether that’s your writing group, a teacher, your agent, or an editor. And while you know every manuscript can be improved, secretly you think that your readers are going to come back and say, “This is brilliant as is! Don’t change a thing.”
Not to burst your bubble, but that doesn’t happen. Ever. Instead what will happen is you’ll open up your document and see a sea of tracking marks. Corrections. Suggestions. Some praise, I hope. But tell-it-like-it-is criticism is what you need.
Column by Jennifer S. Brown, who has lived on three of the four corners
of the U.S. (Miami Beach, New York, Seattle), and now calls the suburbs
of Boston her home. She has a BFA in film & television from NYU and
an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington.
MODERN GIRLS (April 2016) is her debut novel, and she's busy writing
the next novel. You can find Jennifer on Twitter at
@j_s_brownor at www.jennifersbrown.com.
As someone who has been writing long enough that my first critiques came back on that old-fashioned medium called paper, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to face the feedback that I’d like to share with you:
1. Before you open the document, take a deep breath and remind yourself that whoever is editing your manuscript has the story’s best interest at heart. If you suspect that person doesn’t have the story’s best interest at heart, find a new reader.
2. Pour yourself a drink. A big one. Now open the document. Take in all those red marks. Give yourself a moment to gnash your teeth over the work you will have to do. Then shrink the pages down to half size on your monitor to see the scope of the edits. Is the entire page covered in tracking marks? Are there just a few edits but a lot of comments that will require major work? Make the document readable again and read the comments. You may be tempted to go in now and start addressing the issues. Don’t! You need to be stone-cold sober to do that. You’re just getting the lay of the land here. Start mulling over the changes that need to be made.
3. Give serious thought to who is providing the feedback. Not all feedback should be treated equally. In every writing group there will be those whose opinions will ring most true for you. One woman in my group writes the antithesis of what I read: wholesome middle grade fiction. Originally I wrote her off only to discover that she made incredibly insightful suggestions. Now, when I’m wavering on a change, I look to see what she thought. Decide whose remarks make the most sense and listen closely to those people. Of course if the feedback is coming from your agent or your editor, you need to give it more careful consideration.
This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
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4. Print out the manuscript. Some folks prefer making all their changes on screen, but I find it helpful to have a hard copy. As you go through your manuscript, mark it with colored Post-it notes. For instance, if a character needs fleshing out, use a yellow Post-it every place she appears. If your editor asks you to boost the humor, use a blue Post-it in the scenes that have humor and a green one where you think you could inject more. This gives you a good visual sense of where things stand. Put check marks next to changes you’ll accept; xs by the ones you’ll refuse; and question marks next to those you want to think about longer.
5. Implement those changes on the printed manuscript. Revise. Cut what's not working and write new scenes. Use a scissors and tape to move sections around and test out different flows.
6. Back at the computer, input all your edits and revisions, accepting or rejecting tracked changes as you come to them.
7. Hide any remaining tracking marks and read the novel aloud. Yes, aloud. It’s the best way to hear the rhythm, to notice when you overuse words, to find where you stumble. Pretend you’re giving your first bookstore reading and put feeling into it. You’ll be amazed at the little details you pick up on when doing this. Make changes as you go.
That's it! You're done. Pat yourself on the back; you’ve made it through the feedback. Return that manuscript, proud that you’ve survived your edits. Breathe a sigh of relief and relax… until the next round of edits arrive. But then you'll know what to do: Take a deep breath and start all over again.
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