“Writing is a mug’s game. It’s insanely competitive,
appallingly paid, and the only good news about the
terrible pay is that the job is so woefully insecure
you probably won’t have to endure it for long. No
one goes into an industry like this to advance a
career or pay a heating bill. You go into it for the
joy of it, the creative joy. Don’t lose that. It’s the
precious metal from which all else is beaten.”
– Harry Bingham
Reason #11 : “It’s still not perfect.”
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
— Samuel Beckett
By this point, you’re done. The first drafts are firmly behind you, but the manuscript keeps beckoning you with the song of a siren leading unwary sailors onto rocks. The real title of this chapter should be “I just can’t let it go”, but of course that’s not how it presents itself to you, the writer. In a sense, it’s the bedfellow of Reason #10 (“I need to make some changes”), but it’s infinitely more subtle.
By never quite finishing, you’re never in the invidious position of having a finished manuscript that you, or anyone else, can sit down and read and coolly assess, for better or worse. On top of that, finishing a manuscript can be like having a death in the family – or a lot of little deaths. You and your characters have spent a great deal of time together, you know each other intimately, you’re old friends – and now you have to say goodbye. Once they’re sent out into the cold, uncaring world, your friends might be misjudged, disliked, even criticised. Better to keep them close where you can keep reliving and refining all those lovely moments you’ve shared …
Here’s the solution: Get over yourself!
Give yourself a deadline for changes, tweaks and corrections, meet it, finish up, type THE END and start making new friends – by which I mean start writing another book.
Believe me, I know where you’re coming from. I couldn’t let go of my first novel, Telling Stories. After getting up a 5:00 am every work day for three years and putting in a couple of hours before getting ready for work, I found myself endlessly dithering with it. There were things that needed fixing, certainly, but once they were done I found myself in a sort of never-ending spiral of rewriting for the sake of it. Sometimes I’d make things a tiny bit better, more often I’d make them quite a bit worse and end up using the original version anyway. In the end, I was saved by an advert for a writing contest with a deadline for entries. “Right,” I told myself, “I must finish by then!” And I did. (Actually, I finished it three days before the deadline, and because I wanted to be shot of the thing, I posted it in to a contest I’d never really intended to enter. It won!)
Here are some other reasons for not letting go.
It has to be perfect
Name one perfect book. Go on, just one. One that no critic has ever expressed the tiniest reservations about, ever. The truth is, there’s no such book. Not everyone likes everything, or even the same things. If they did, libraries would consist of hundreds of copies of just a handful of books.
A general anxiety about whether the story works
An author, especially a first-time author, can never really judge whether a story works or not, or where its weaknesses are. You need the help of a kindly but disinterested outsider. (See Get Thee to an Assessor, below.)
Worry about how people will judge you
Actually, readers don’t really think much about the author at all. They’re interested in the story and the characters. If they enjoyed the book, they might give your About the Author page a cursory glance, but they’ll be more interested in looking at your Also By page for a dose of more of the same. (Which is why you should start on the next book right away.)
It really is excrement
This happens too sometimes. Hopefully with it’s a story, not a whole novel. Again, you’re probably not the best judge of this so at least get a second opinion.
But if it has happened and you can’t even bring yourself to show it to another living soul, you might like to consider an outrageous concept…
The practise novel
When I first heard someone talk about writing a practise novel, I thought it a bizarre idea. All that time, all that work, just for practise? But after that first sharp intake of breath, once I thought about, I wondered why the idea had never occurred to me before.
I have a friend who’s a gifted artist. Dave’s done a number of my book covers and sold a goodly number of paintings as well. One of the reasons he’s so good is that he does it constantly. If he’s not working on a major piece, he’s sketching and doodling and coming up with ideas. There are videos of some of his sketchbooks online.
One of the barriers to writing freely is thinking about the end game; your audience, what a publisher or critic might think, the way your turn of phrase might be regarded by future generations. But what if there was no end game? What if what you are writing is like the contents of my friend’s sketchbook, merely a way of keeping your hand in and working out ideas?
The whole idea of practising writing isn’t something that’s generally talked about. It’s assumed that since everyone is taught to write in school, good writers simply have a natural talent for it. That may or may not be the case, (personally, I think it’s more about inclination than talent), but the implication of that idea is that you can never get better. Which is nonsense. We can all run, so how is it that some people can run much faster than the rest of us?
The difference is they’re athletes. And what makes an athlete? They practise and train. Constantly.
I’ve yet to hear of any musician who – never having picked up a guitar or sat down at a keyboard before – did so and mastered it on the spot. Even the infant prodigy Mozart would have had a plink-ponk-plunk period. Do you think Michelangelo carved his famous David from a block of stone without spending years chipping away at countless other blocks, refining his technique? The mistakes ended up being turned into gravel paths while David ended up in the Galeria dell’Arccademia in Florence, but only because of Michelangelo’s earlier practise.
Perhaps you need to start your novel again and come at it from a different angle, third-person instead of first. Or the whole thing should be seen through the eye of one (or a number) of your characters. Or perhaps you just need to work on something else for a while and come back to this one later. Put it down to practise. There’s no shame in that. Learn what you can from it and move on.
“The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.”
— Ursula K Le Guin
Get thee to an assessor!
This bit will cost money so you’ll need to be sure you’re ready for it. (Amazing how the prospect of spending hard-earned cash focuses the mind, eh?)
Visit the website of your local writer’s association and find their list of manuscript assessors. The better ones are usually affiliated to a professional body of some sort which guarantees a code of conduct and a level of service. Above all, you want a professional opinion, not someone who’ll take your money and tell you your book is great. (Seriously, there are a lot of sharks out there who’ll do just that and try and sign you up to a ridiculously expensive self-publishing contract. Vet them thoroughly first. A Google search is good, or look for them on Writer Beware.
Many writers and editors do manuscript assessments as a sideline so you can check them out beforehand. Obviously, you won’t send a young adult novel to someone who specialises in scientific non-fiction, but if you’re faced with half a dozen possibilities, visit your local library or bookshop and look through what they’ve produced. Not everyone likes everyone else’s writing so you should find someone with a sympathetic voice.
A manuscript assessor will read your book with a critical eye, point out your strengths and weaknesses, highlight flaws – bits that don’t make sense and bits that are really great – consider your characters and plot, and come up with an overall assessment. Is it worth sending off to a publisher yet? Or does it need a bit more work?
Don’t be tempted to get a friend or relative to do this for you. For a start, manuscript assessment is a proper job. It’s work. At a desk. It’s not kicking back with your feet on a stool or browsing the book at bedtime. And you really want the cold hard truth about your writing. A loved one won’t have the emotional distance to tell you your masterpiece is crap – or the necessary expertise to say exactly where things went wrong. Publishers and editors may reject your work, but they’ll rarely tell you why. (For some of the reasons they may do so, see the next chapter.) You can’t work on a weakness unless you know about it. A good assessor will spotlight every bump and glitch.
Let’s say the assessment is generally positive. You have a few things to work on, and do so. Now – assuming the assessor is a well-known writer or editor, not some internet unknown whose one-line rating was, “Shit hot!” – you can use that assessment as a lever with a publisher.
When I wrote Too Many Zeros, I did just that. I’d never written for the young adult market before so I did some research, read a few YA books, then sent my manuscript off to a well-known YA author and assessor. She found lots of small things and one or two biggies that needed fixing, but her overall assessment was very positive. I made the fixes, popped a couple of lines from her assessment into a cover letter (the good ones, obviously), and sent it off to a publisher along with the first three chapters. A few days later I got a call asking for the rest, and they went on to publish it.
(A quick aside here about assessors. They’re not gods and will only suggest changes. It’s up to you whether you accept them or not. Most of the time they’re spot on, but occasionally I’ll make an artistic decision and reject a recommendation. The same goes for editors. It’s your book, your name on the cover. Not theirs.)
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ No writer is a good judge of their own work. Get an independent assessment.
♦ No writer is a good at spotting their own story’s strengths and weaknesses. Get an independent assessment.
♦ The opinions of relatives and friends can be helpful, but for a thoroughly objective view, get an independent assessment.
Previous Reasons for NOT Writing …
PART I : GETTING STARTED
Reason #1: “I don’t have time!”
Reason #2: “I got distracted.”
Reason #3: “My mind’s a blank.”
Reason #4: “I need to research this.”
Reason #5: “I’m not qualified.”
Reason #6: “I’m not in the mood.”
Reason #7: “I can’t get started.”
PART II : KEEPING GOING
Reason #8: “I’ve hit The Wall.”
Reason #9: “I’ve got writer’s block.”
Reason #10: “I need to make some changes.”
Part III : LETTING GO
Reason #11: “It’s still not perfect.”