By Jennie Jarvis
So you just finished your newest short story, novel manuscript or screenplay, and you are stoked! You know it’s one of the best things you’ve ever written. This is the thing that’s going to get you noticed by agents or publishers. It’s the thing that’s going to rake in piles of money and maybe a few prestigious awards as well. Or heck, it might just prove to your family that you have the chops to make it as a writer.
Whatever your dreams and aspirations may be, you know this work is the one that’s going to get you there. And now you want to send it out into the world and make its mark.
But are you sure it’s ready?
Sometimes, as writers, we can confuse passion with completion. We get so excited by the fact that we finished the first draft of our manuscript, we forget we might be blinded to some of its flaws. And who can blame us? Getting to the end of that manuscript is a huge accomplishment for any writer. We should be proud of ourselves. We should feel like celebrating.
But when we feel the exhilaration of getting that story out of our heads and onto the page, our hearts can sometimes cloud our judgment of whether or not the story is really as complete as we think. There may be entire sections of the writing that aren’t in the right place or that don’t quite make sense. We may have grammar and spelling errors everywhere and not realize it. And all of this is okay, as long as we haven’t made the huge mistake of sharing that work with someone else.
One of the most soul-crushing things we can face is to get feedback that shows a work is nowhere near as “good” as us writers first thought.Our expectation of what the reader was going to think of our work winds up destroying us. We might think a story is golden, but then the reader gives us notes that make it seem like more of a slightly shiny turd.
So, while getting feedback is one of the most important things for a writer, we have to make sure we stop ourselves and make sure we are ready for feedback before we ask for it.
Every time I finish a manuscript or screenplay, I always ask myself the following questions:
1. Is this story too raw?
Like many other writers, I often draw inspiration from moments of my own life. This sometimes means that my stories have personal moments within them. It’s what makes my work resonate with my readers, but it can also mean I have to face some issues that I may have never dealt with in the past.
As a result, I have to be kind to myself and make sure I don’t send my stories out before I’ve dealt with whatever I used as my source material. Because the elements in the tale are personal, I have to make sure I’ve given myself time to become detached from them. The readers who give me feedback are going to look at the stories objectively, so I need to be able to do the same. If I haven’t been able to do that, then I really can’t send out the work yet. It wouldn’t be kind to myself.
2. Have I let the story simmer?
Sometimes, when we come up with stories, they are half-formed and underdeveloped. Even after we get the first draft – or even the twentieth draft – the story isn’t quite fully developed.
Therefore, when I’m fresh into a new manuscript or screenplay, I make sure to let my idea “simmer.” Basically, I don’t commit myself to the entire story too fast. I can’t look at my pre-writing, my first draft or even my second draft as written in stone. It’s more like I wrote it in water, and I have to be willing to let that water go and see where the story evolves as I let my subconscious work on it.
So what does “simmering” look like to me? Basically, it’s a lot of sitting around and talking to myself. I’m one of those crazy drivers you’ll see on the road muttering to no one. I’ll ask myself questions about the text and try to answer them. Oftentimes, during these question and answer sessions with myself, I’ll discover new avenues I can explore with my stories I hadn’t thought of before.
If I haven’t let an idea “simmer” before I send it out to readers, then I haven’t done my job yet. I haven’t allowed myself to really stretch my characters and my world as far as I can take them. So why would I want to open it up to the comments of others if I know I haven’t taken it where I need it go?
3. Have I re-read the manuscript?
When I first started out as a writer, I liked to send out my first drafts for feedback. I was so excited; I wanted to get that feedback as soon as possible. Then I started getting feedback like “What does this mean?” and “Huh?” So I re-read the manuscript and … oops! Yeah, I should have read it before I sent it out.
Sometimes, our hands can move over the keyboard a lot faster than we think. Our brains work faster than any computer when we are really in the zone – and our brains can definitely work faster than our fingers! This means we might miss letters, words or entire sentence as we write, and unless we go back and re-read what actually made it on the page, we may not realize these errors are there.
Part of the issue is that our brains know what is supposed to be there, so sometimes, our brain will fill in the gaps. We will genuinely think everything from our head made it onto the page, and that – sadly – was not the case.
What’s fascinating is that this issue can still be a problem even when we re-read our manuscripts after we are done. Our brain can still think whatever we put on the page is there, when it’s really not. This can be worse when we revise our manuscript on the same computer on which we initially wrote it. Something about the exact color/shine/whatever of the screen makes it hard for us to see what isn’t there.
So, I usually try to print up my manuscript and review it on paper instead of on my laptop. It helps me to catch a lot more of those boo-boos.
4. Have I read something similar?
For me, writing isn’t just about the experience of writing. It’s also about trying to get my work out there to be read. This means I need to make sure I know if my work will be marketable or not. So, as part of my process, I need to make sure I know that there are other books or movies similar to the one I’m writing out there. I’m not saying I want an exact duplicate of my story – then it really won’t sell – but I want to make sure there is an audience out there for it.
This means that I need to search the trades or the bookshelves to see what else out there is in the same genre as which I’m writing. And how much of it is out there? If there is too much, then the market may be oversaturated. That was the issue with my first novel, The Book of Melanie. It landed me my agent, and we got a lot of great feedback from different publishing companies, but at the end of the day, the book didn’t sell because it was dystopian, and there were already too many dystopian books on the market.
So, as I go through my process, I want to make sure that I have an idea of how my agent and I might sell my story. I’ll ask her for similar titles in the genre and read those. Once I have read them, I can ask if my story falls in line with the same genre conventions. Is the story close enough that the same editors who bought those published books might want to buy mine? If not, why not?
Don’t get me wrong. If I can’t find any similar titles, it doesn’t mean I throw the work away. But thinking about the book in this way helps to take away my personal love of the story itself and helps me to see it in a more objective way.
5. Have I read it again… as a reader?
Once I’ve done looking for all the gaps in thought and made sure the story is as complete as I think it needs to be, I want to make sure I read it once through without stopping. This time, though, instead of looking at the text closely, I read it for the big picture questions: Does the story flow? Do the characters act consistently? Am I enjoying reading the tale?
It can be really hard to not stop and make corrections as I go, but it’s really important that I don’t. I need to just read through. I can make notes on a separate piece of paper, but that’s it. Otherwise, I just want to get to the end. When the manuscript really isn’t ready, I tend not to make it. But at least I didn’t put a reader through that process.
6. Have I made a grammar, spelling and language pass?
Finally, after I’ve looked at everything else, I need to do the “boring” read – looking for grammar, spelling and use of language. No matter how many times I re-read a book, there are always so many errors that pop up in my work after the fact. And I really don’t want to send my book out looking less than stellar. So, I re-read the book looking for those pesky green underlines.
I also look out for overused words (like just, has, was, and, etc). For this, I’ve recently been using ProWriting Aid to help me with this, and that’s been a real help. It’s a free software add-on that can help find a lot of those overused words, clichés, and other less-than-stellar use of language.
I keep this step for the end because line edits should really be the last thing to happen before I send my book or script to readers. Before this stage, I’m looking at big picture items, and there is no reason to make line edits if I have to make big changes. So once all the big items are in place, then I can go back and look for the nitty-gritty details.
Until I’ve gone through these six questions, I know my work isn’t ready to send out yet. And, trust me, it can be really hard to wait until I’ve addressed these questions. But it’s so important that I realize that writing is a process that will take time. Rushing to get my work out to readers before it’s ready for feedback can be more detrimental to my long-term success than anything else. And I need to be in it for the long haul.
When do you send out your work for feedback?