This week I am filling in an outline chart for a retreat with a group of agents and editors. And I am hating every single moment of it. I hate boxing things up. I hate having to answer each question for each scene/chapter. I hate that it feels like killing the flow of creativity.
On the other hand, I actually love plotting. I love building new worlds, digging into characters and their arcs, figuring out what happens when.
But I know quite a few writers who hate plotting. Worse, they feel guilty about hating it.
I know plotters who struggle with making their characters grow or giving their story emotional resonance but know exactly what happens to their characters when. I know pantsers who have a very clear idea of the emotional arc their character(s) go through – but the story itself meanders in places or has too many subplots. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, no matter what approach we use.
There are tons of fabulous plotting books out there. But they don’t work for everyone because most books on plotting are written for people whose minds work in ways that LIKE plotting.
Plotters are people who use a part of their brain that structures things, analyses them. They get a rush from figuring things out. They like thinking about what their character arcs are, they like knowing where they are going, they like lining things up before they write so the scenes build on each other and come together for the climax.
However, pantsers (writers who don’t plot) see something else entirely when they think about their stories. It could be character emotions, or a holistic overview, or a mass of swirling colors. Whatever they see is what they have to work with. Personally, I have a bit of both going on when I work on stories. But plotting books tend to focus on structuring things, on putting things in boxes, on labeling things, on filling in a chart with things.
But some things just don’t fit in boxes.
So if you start to shake because you’re told to make an outline or fill in a chart, please don’t think there is something wrong with you as a writer. There isn’t.
Instead, it’s time to question the approach most people have when they think of plotting for non-plotters (aka pantsers).
All of the plotting books I’ve read are for people who can plot outside in. They are for people who can do a big-picture overview (three act structure etc.) and then bring it down to the character level after. They can map plot points, fill in character questionnaires, use spread sheets and timeline software. But none of those tools will help writers who discover story the other way around (from the inside out) and prefer to start with a character at a certain point and watch where they go.
Which brings me to the heart of this post. Instead of trying to plot a story when their mind doesn’t approach it that way, pantsers should focus on discovering their story.
When you discover a story, you have an idea, a vision of a character’s emotions, or a feeling you’d like to explore. Instead of thinking about the three act structure and what happens when, pantsers follow a character’s emotional development as he or she moves through events. Pantsers discover their characters, their world, and by the end of the first draft, their plot.
There are many ways of being a pantser. Some pantsers focus on discovering the emotional inner journey of a character, some prefer to discover how events will unfold as they get there, but the common thread is a desire to allow themselves the creative freedom to discover the story as it unfolds.
So how can you help yourself discover your story as you write?
One of the things that helps me is to try to feel the character’s inner journey. To see where they end up emotionally. I find if I know where characters are headed, emotionally, I know what kind of situations will push them to face (or let go of) the problem/issue/emotion they are dealing with. I often let the external situation either echo (to reinforce) or challenge (to create an obstacle) their inner situation. In other words, I guide my characters toward situations that will keep the story moving forward by developing their inner journey.
For example, if I know a character goes from being unsure to sure, I think about what might encourage them to make that transition. Once I know that, I can figure out the situation(s) that would give an emotional payback, and build from there.
Or, if you don’t know where the emotional arc is headed, you can see how the character reacts to different situations and play with those situations until you feel an emotional arc that works for that character.
Either way, thinking about the emotional development of the character as you go can help keep the story moving forward and bring it to a satisfying resolution.
And what about after the story is written? How can a pantser revise then?
When I pantsed my first story, I re-read it and cut everything that didn’t fit (or just didn’t move forward) the emotional development of the character. Although making a chart can help point out areas that lack tension or are superfluous in a manuscript, I hate doing them. Instead, I’ll read the manuscript as a PDF doc on my kindle. The parts that lag or are confusing jump right out. After, I go back to my computer and revise/cut/write a new scene. And build back up from there.
I know many writers who love the rush of the first draft. It’s exciting, it’s new, you’re discovering your story, your characters, your world. And it’s true. It is exciting. But I have come to feel that revising is where you stroke your story into being alive. Revising is where you can take the time to deepen your characters, their reactions, their emotions. You tweak an emotion in one scene, and it impacts how the character enters the next scene – potentially changing how that scene goes. Since you now know how the main character feels, you also know how they can or can’t react. It’s all one big, amazing, 4D puzzle.
It’s a story. And it’s yours, no matter how you got there. So trust yourself and how your mind works. If you like plotting, by all means plot. If you need to have complete freedom to explore a character, go explore.
Or maybe, like me, you’ll find a balance between the two that works for you.
Either way, happy writing and happy revising!
It all started when I was listening to a podcast interview with a popular, indie romance writer. She said that these days, she likes to release a new book every single month. To keep up with this schedule, she writes around five thousand words a day.
“That’s really the only way to stay fresh in your readers’ minds.”
Lately, it seems like no matter what writing podcast I’m listening to, the advice I’m getting is all about speed, speed, speed. And I totally get it.
Writing fast = new books = visibility = book sales = financial abundance = more time to write = EFF YEAH.
But the thing is, there’s a dark side to this. And I think you already know what I’m talking about.
Word count fatigue is real. Here’s why it kicked my ass, and how I’m (fingers crossed) keeping it at bay.
Don’t Overheat the Engine
When I told myself that I had to write faster (right freaking now!) the results of my new obsession with speed were… not pretty.
I was rushing myself, plain and simple. No wonder all those stories I started eventually lost steam — I was overheating my engines! I learned the hard way that stories can’t be rushed. You can optimize your writing processes and set yourself up for success, but you cannot rush your story.
Writing takes as long as it takes. And that’s just how it is. Trying to rush yourself will only discourage you and make you less grateful for the words that you’ve created that day.
Look at the Time
Here are a couple of things that I didn’t take into account after listening to that awesomely prolific writer explain her book-a-month schedule.
First off, this was the schedule of a full-time author who admitted to writing for hours at a time. Most of us who work day jobs don’t have that luxury.
Secondly, this author probably took several years to build up the kind of stamina it takes to write at that pace every day — without emptying her creative well.
If you’re someone like me who “only” writes around a thousand words on most days, then it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to consistently produce several thousand words per day through force of will alone.
Who’s Counting? (Hint: Not Me)
So here’s what I did… To avoid word count fatigue, I just stopped counting words altogether. I don’t think this is an ideal solution for anyone who’s on a deadline, but in my case, it worked out pretty well.
Gone were the days that I would look at my word count and think, “Wow, I only got 1000 words today? What the eff?”
Seriously, guys. How messed up is that? One thousand words (or 500 words, or 200 words, or whatever) is nothing to sniff at. It’s more than you had yesterday, after all.
The Reasons Behind the Hurry
There’s a difference between writing fast and rushing yourself. After some thought, I realized what my deal was:
I was impatient — with myself, with the story, and with my career.
At the root of it all, I wasn’t appreciating the moment. And because of this, I was impatient with the process and tried to hurry it along.
It can be hard to embrace the moment when current circumstances are a little frustrating, but for what it’s worth, giving myself permission to slow down a little has made me more grateful for everything, including my semi-quiet writing life.
Dictation: My Golden-ish Ticket
I first started using dictation when I heard about it from (you guessed it!) a writing podcast. It promised giant leaps in my word count in much shorter timespans than simply pounding at the keyboard.
Finally, I had found my ticket to sky-high word counts and the kind of output that would make a seasoned WriMo blush!
Except… Not. The truth is, dictation is just another way of putting the words down on paper (or pixel). It may be physically faster than typing, but for me, it wasn’t an all-in-one solution.
These days, dictation and I are actually pretty close friends. And while dictation does help me squeeze a larger word count into a smaller chunk of time, it’s better to think of it as a tool, not a cheat code.
If there’s one thing my word-count fatigue did for me, it reminded me that magic was still part of the writing process.
It was news to me that, no matter how much I could try to optimize something, there was still an element of the unknowable here. It can be pretty humbling to admit that there is magic in writing and that part of storytelling can’t (and won’t) be rushed.
Somehow I thought that I could circumvent the fear and awkwardness of a first draft, but there’s no doing that. The only thing that I could do is try to set myself up for success by embracing the process.
Even if it’s scary, thrilling, and utterly frustrating at times.
In my previous post, I listed all of the unpublished novels sitting in my closet or on my hard drive. Most of them haven’t budged since then.
But ya know, ya never know. Writing is a weird business. Sometimes, a story you think is going great crashes and burns. Sometimes, a manuscript you’re sure is going to be the one can’t find its audience.
And other times, projects you thought were going nowhere go . . . somewhere.
Case in point:
In 2013, I took my first stab at NaNoWriMo. I didn’t plan; I just sat down and started writing. My novel, a deep-space YA action/romance titled Freefall, grew day by day. I got my 50,000 words (largely by ignoring my job and family for a solid month), but then I bogged down. Exhaustion, maybe. Lack of planning. Whatever it was, I couldn’t see a way forward. I figured the manuscript was dead in the water.
Then, late last year, for no reason I can recall, I pulled up the old file and read it through. I decided it wasn’t half bad. I jotted down some notes, working out a way to finish it. Then I hammered out the rest of the story.
My agent loved it. So did my editor. It’s due out next summer.
Second case in point:
Ten or fifteen years ago—I’ve lost track—I came up with what I thought was a wonderful idea for an alt-history novel based on abolitionist John Brown and his relationship to the New England Transcendentalists. I did some preliminary research, but couldn’t figure out a way to tell the story. I wrestled with it off and on over the intervening years, did more research, took a vacation to Concord to nose around historical sites and archives, went to Boston and stood face to face with one of the actual pikes Brown commissioned for his ill-fated raid, drafted a few halting pages. This past summer, I finally gave it a title, Chainbearer, and a duo of narrators. The draft grew to nearly 20,000 words. After all this time, it seemed I was finally making headway.
But then I hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out where to go next. If this had been a new project, enthusiasm might have carried me through the impasse. But having spent so long on it and invested so much of my heart in it, the latest setback was a killer, and I was ready to give up.
Then, out of nowhere, my agent emailed. She’d read the pages I sent her and thought the story had potential. She advised me to stick with it.
I don’t know if this project will ever see the light of day. I hope it will. But at the moment, it’s amazing enough to me to think that it might.
This post isn’t meant to provide false uplift. For every project that unexpectedly resurrects itself, I can name another that doesn’t. We writers have far less control over the process than we might like to believe. That can be a scary thought, a disheartening thought, but it can also be a hopeful one.
Because ya just never know.
“I hate editing. It’s like someone ripping out your organs and dissecting them while you’re still conscious.”
This is a thing I actually said to my publisher. Now, mind you, I managed to score a job at said publishing company after being picked up for publication, so it’s not so weird that I was having this chat with her, but still, this is a thing I actually said to the owner of my publishing company.
Because it’s true. Writing is the party. You have fun, you hang out with friends, you make memories that will last forever. Editing is the clean up after the party. Cleaning cake out of the crevices of your table because your family decided to have a cake fight, vacuuming the chips off the floor. Throwing all those used cups and bottles away. And, most importantly, putting away all of the food you thought you’d need that you didn’t end up needing after all.
I am not a fan of cleaning up. And in much the same way, editing isn’t a fun process for me. As many authors do, I get fully attached to my characters and my words. So if the writing is the cake, and the editing is putting the cake away, than I try not to put the cake away and gorge myself on it instead (hey wait! My analogy is also true…I should probably be a bit embarrassed…but I’m not.). I refuse to kill my darlings, to use the proper writerly term.
Editing has taught me many things about my writing and about myself. The first, is that I’m a word hoarder. I love my words. YOU CAN’T TAKE THEM. Okay. I’m okay. I promise. And what do you know? I also have to fight to throw other things away. Everything is sentimental. Everything has meaning. Remember that shoebox? I really loved that day we brought home those shoes in that shoebox. I wish I could save it. We could use this shoebox for other things, right? And that’s how I feel about words that are cut from my manuscript.
The second is, I have issues with managing my anger. Actually, I always knew that, but I had believed I’d gotten it under control. As it turns out, I have the same problem during edits. My initial reaction to large changes in the story was to fight. And not just a little. “You don’t even understand my character!” I yell at my computer screen, red-faced. I cry a little. I honestly don’t feel any better until I sleep for a while. But when I wake up, something magical happens. Not only do I look at the world with fresh eyes, but I look at the manuscript with fresh eyes and I see that the editor may have a point. Probably has a point. DEFINITELY has a point.
The third is, I am not the exception, no matter how much I believe myself to be. It is impossible to see your own work clearly. I always thought this was a myth. If I looked at the story, I just had to pretend I didn’t write it, and I would see a world of things I could change and improve upon to make it work. As long as I didn’t believe my work was perfect, I wouldn’t have an issue. That’s bull. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from working with an editor is that the biggest fault I, as an author, have in viewing my own work, is that I know exactly what I’m trying to say. Like in any form of communication, it is far too easy to be misunderstood. And yes, you know what you’re trying to say, but the reader, or the person receiving your communication has no idea. So you either have to be clear, or you have to risk putting across an entirely different message than you were attempting to share.
That brings us to my final lesson. I have a six-year-old son, a husband, a day job at a law firm, family and friends that count on me, a job at a publishing company. I’m responsible and strong. Hell, I’d even say I’m smart. But when my novel first got into my editor’s hands, it had a problem. There were many great parts, interesting characters, etc. But I was told that sometimes the main character reacted to things immaturely. For a teenager. I am thirty-three years old, and yet, every time I found a note in my story that said my character suddenly sounded like a character in a middle-grade novel, she was doing something I had said or done recently.
So, I may be a little goofy. But I’m not immature. And here’s why. I have mostly survived. I’m nearly done with my edits. And you know what? I did them all. I may have questioned. At some points, I discussed and came to a compromise. But in the end, I sucked it up, and I dealt with it, because I decided I trusted my editor. So I let go and let him do his thing. And my story is 100% better for it.
The moral of this story is, once you’ve found a good editor, it’s okay if you feel terrible during the editing process, but if you trust them, you’ve got to let them work. Let them make your artwork a little shinier. It will pay off, I promise.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here, sewing my organs back together and returning them to my body cavity.
Justine Manzano is a multi-genre writer living in Bronx, NY with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. She maintains a semi-monthly blog at JustineManzano.com and a twitter account @justine_manzano, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery. The Order of the Key, the first book of her YA Fantasy series Keys and Guardians will be coming soon from Fantasy Works Publishing.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m not too hung up on age, or shape, or the color of my hair. But there’s not a whole lot of literary happy in the celebration, because it marks yet another 365 days when I haven’t reached my publishing goals. I have a vision of me in a few years (eons, centuries, millennia?), pushing a walker with a canvas bag attached to the handle, loaded with my books to peddle. While I mutter around my clicking false teeth, “Want a nice young adult novel, Sonny?”
Sure, Grandma Moses painted masterpieces at the age of 78. Harry Bernstein came out of obscurity at 96 with his memoir. And Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first Little House book at the age of 65. These facts do nothing to soothe my writer’s ego that has been bruised, abused, and kicked to the curb for way too long.
I have ample proof that I write well. I am agented and have been. My work has been sold to major publishing houses. And I’m doing this blog. But my first YA trilogy ended up cancelled, and my MG series got canned twice. With each Machiavellian maneuver time passed, and I got older. But not as old as I’ll be in the morning.
What to do, what to do?
Believe me, I have answered that question more than once with a resounding, “I quit.” Followed by rants to all my writer friends that include: My life is too busy to write. The publishing industry sucks. I’m too old to care about it anymore. It’s an unethical business. I don’t need all that drama. Only celebrities get published.
Then a non-writer family member or friend will ask the question that makes me cringe: “Did you get anything published…yet?” At which time I repeat the above rant, give an elaborate shrug, and make plans to go out for lunch because, after all, I don’t have to sit at a stupid computer all day writing words that no one will ever read and I don’t have to care about run-on sentences or punctuation or grammar or plot or flow…
It is at this point someone invariably says, “Well, it’s a nice hobby, but you can always take up knitting.”
“Knitting? Me? I’m a freaking WRITER, Dude. Pre-published, but still.”
What to do, what to do?
At this birthday juncture, I again ask myself this question, coupled with: What is my real goal? Is it worth keeping on? What if I never publish? How old is too old? Does everyone think I’m a loser or worse, a bad writer? Will my son have to go to school one more year saying he knows a real author when I continue to only be a writer? On my deathbed will I sob over the words leftover and lonely on my computer?
So I quit. Sort of. Kind of. In a way.
Are you sensing some ambivalence here? There’s no way to quit breathing—except for the deathbed thing—and in the same manner, there’s no way to stop writing. Writers write, just like farmers farm, lovers love, doctors doctor. Every time I decide to forego my SCBWI dues, skip conferences and retreats, and use my laptop for Pinterest patrol, a new idea leeches from my DNA into my consciousness. And I am unable to shut off the water main break in my brain.
What to do, what to do?
It’s simple, really. Just not easy. Writing is not to be confused with publishing. Both are admirable endeavors. A story isn’t necessarily better because someone deemed it worthy of being printed, although that’s what most of us believe. Instead, we need to believe in ourselves, in our imaginations, and in our worth. Writers are notorious for low literary self-esteem, mainly because publishing has become the benchmark of what is good. But if you’ve read some of the books out there lately, you already know this isn’t always true.
It’s demoralizing, year after year, to be this close—and yet not grab the prize. Or has the prize been with me all along? After reflecting on this somewhat absurd thought, I’ve come to realize a little reframing is in order.
My goal, if I dig deep enough, is to take the ideas that bombard me and put them into a coherent story. I tend towards plots with some type of social awareness; I have picture books, middle grade, and young adult works that resound. My heart is on those virtual pages, and with it I’ve grown in so many ways.
I’ve grown in pants size because I like to eat while I write, but that’s not exactly where this is headed. With each new saga, my craft improves. Language, grammar, punctuation, flow, plot—so much better than when I began. I’m a better writer. Every avenue I explore through research teaches me more about the world we live in—and the world inside of me. I’m a better person. And the near misses with publishers are educating me about the business end of things. I’m a better entrepreneur.
Do I want to be an author? Oh, yes. Am I content to be a writer? Not really, but maybe that will nudge me to keep on keeping on. By doing so I may get published. And if not, I’ve got the joy of knowing how to produce excellence in a pursuit that is so much a part of me. Sure, I could try knitting, or sky diving, or ballroom dancing. But they’re things to do, hobbies if you will.
Writing is who I am. And having discovered my core identity, haven’t I reached a meaningful goal after all? I’m gonna snuff those freaking candles with a vengeance tomorrow. Happy birthday to me!
Find me at:
Too Many Cooks
Reading Steph Keyes’ blog post from a few weeks ago struck a chord that resounded deep within my writer’s soul; her post was about knowing when you are done revising and the confusion that can arise when you collect too much feedback. In her “quest” to improve her manuscript, as she says, I had cast my net so wide…that I’d somehow accumulated too many opinions and changed far more than I needed to.
Don’t I know that feeling! I’ve done it with two manuscripts that are now sitting in a state of total paralysis from all the over-revising I’ve done to them. Not to mention, that, like Steph, I’ve received recent feedback on both that indicated to me that all I had edited out, should probably go back in to address the gaps in plot and character that I now have as a result of “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
For the past five years, between countless editors and an agent and rejections and near hits and total misses…I’m emotionally spent in terms of too much coming in. Too much feedback and too much of it contradictory and vague…All of it blurring together so it sounds like the wha-wha-wha of the grownups in the Peanuts cartoons.
My Overfilled Well
My creativity is a well overfilled and muddied with messages, advice, instructions, situations, and events from the last 12 plus years, starting from the moment I won an award for my first novel, My Sister’s Wedding, all the way through the last round of feedback for my most recent submissions.
A well is useless if the water is dirty and overflowing. Either I fix the well or maybe even demolish the damn thing and start over.
Advice from Meghan Trainor
Let it go. You need to let it go as Meghan Trainor says in her new song NO! She says it about a guy she’s trying to lose while I’m trying to lose old messages—but same idea. I need to let go of these old, dried up, tired messages that have done nothing but keep me distressed, depressed, and anxious. I want to do a ceremonial burning of it all…I want it all gone, all of it! Not the actual work. Not the actual books or manuscripts but the words and feedback and advice because I took it all in and I applied it all ferociously, without much discrimination or filter.
I’m taking a break from writing YA novels. I think that writing YA fiction, for me, for the last 12 years has been about trying to please someone else—agents, editors, and mentors. Today, I write for the love of writing, for the value of expression, and if what I have to say connects with you, dear reader, then that’s fantastic! As for what will happen to the 10 manuscripts sitting in my computer in a folder aptly entitled WIPS, I will go back into each one (eventually), finish the final revisions, and as I do, I will call upon the great Steph Keyes and her words about knowing when the book you are writing is finished:
“It’s done when you’ve told the story you set out to tell. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone will like it or love it, but you have to.”
Hannah R. Goodman is a writer (among 500 other things) in Rhode Island and founder of All The Way YA. She can be found on Twitter at @hannahrgoodman
I grew up believing in leprechauns. They scampered through the house on St Patrick’s Day turning the milk, the orange juice and even the butter green – much to my mother’s annoyance (which confirmed the existence of leprechauns since we knew she didn’t do it). But we loved it, and my brothers and I would rush downstairs in the morning, throw open the door to the fridge, and squeal in delight at the ‘green’ juice that awaited us. It was magic! It was wonderful!
And it was my father’s birthday.
To this day, St Patrick’s Day is special to me. But now, it is no longer magical. Now, it reminds me of a man I can no longer speak with, a man who never knew his grandkids, a man who would have loved to create the same magic for them as he did for us.
So how does this fit with ‘Write What You Know’?
First of all, what does that even mean? Does it mean you can only write about your town, your job, the sports you’ve played, or the major you studied in college? It sounds like it, doesn’t it? Especially when ‘Your Voice Needs to be Authentic’ is added to it. Which is maybe why I have seen so many manuscripts set in the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s… but does setting it in your own teen years make a story authentic? It might, or it might not. But what happens if you want to write about a school for magicians?
If you’ve never played handball, or shot a gun, or lived in the 18th century, it doesn’t mean you can’t write about it. You can research all of those things. You can interview people who have the expertise you lack, you can read about it, you can even take a class or acquire a new skill. You can learn about a myriad of things that will make your setting, or character background, realistic.
But if you’ve never been in love, or felt the pain of loss or wanted something you couldn’t have, how can you write about a handball tournament and make it not just realistic, but compelling?
Because ultimately, when a story or character is compelling it hooks the reader. It’s what allows the reader to suspend disbelief and be drawn into the world you have created. Don’t get me wrong – a story still needs to be realistic. If the details are off, a reader will be pushed out of the story world and put the book down. But being ‘realistic’ doesn’t make a story ‘real’. And having a reader feel your characters, and your story, are real is the highest compliment a writer can receive.
So how do we create a story that is real?
Characters become real when the reader can connect emotionally to them. And luckily for us, by the time we decide to become writers, we have all experienced a wide range of emotions.
Take, for example, my memory of St Patrick’s Day. The feeling of wonder, of delight, that I had in the morning as we ran to see if the leprechauns had been to our house can fit any story about a character discovering magic or entering a new world.
Or you can take that memory of knowing something else existed, something that was beyond the boundaries of what we could see and explain, and use that feeling to create a new world, or new creatures, or even your own version of leprechauns or dragons or witches. You can let yourself go back to an age when we all believed – that time when we believed in lions before we’d seen one, in leprechauns before we discovered the green food dye. That time when magic was real, and our world wasn’t the only one.
On the other hand, my memory of the same event, recalled as an adult who has lost her father, can fuel any story about loss, or death, or the desire to re-create something that is now gone. All of these emotions are as authentic as they are different. Each memory, each experience, has a wealth of emotions we can dig into as writers – whether we write about our hometown or dragons bursting into flames.
My father was an intense, passionate man, and we often argued. But he was never boring. One of the things he taught me was to go all the way. If I wanted something, I should do it.
Not half-heartedly, not cutting the corners.
All the Way.
So Happy St Patrick’s Day, Pops – this one’s for you.
I’m a YA author with a great agent and a couple of book deals, and I’m very grateful to the more experienced writers who helped me get here with their advice and critiques. Now that I’m one of those “more experienced” writers, newer writers often ask ME for advice and critiques. I’m happy to help, especially with something as short as a query, because I definitely believe in giving back the way others gave to me. Also, it feels great to finally be the writer other writers ask for help!
Here’s the problem, though. Sometimes the queries or sample pages are really bad. Not just grammar and spelling, but story bad, too. As in, not-even-close-to-being-ready-to-query, bad. The last thing I want to be is a dream-crusher, but I won’t be doing these writers any favors if I don’t point out at least a few things they need to work on. Obviously I don’t look forward to dealing with the fall-out when these friends (or friends-of-friends) get their writing feelings hurt, either. Any advice on how to handle situations like these?
I Swear to Tell the Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth…I Think?
This is a really tough spot to be in and one that I don’t envy in the least. I do have a few suggestions for you moving forward and specific to this situation.
Institutionally, I would set some boundaries with regard to editing others’ work for free. Here are some of my rules as examples:
- I only give in-depth feedback to my critique partners whose quality of work I know already, who trust me and vice versa, and where I get something back in return (namely, awesome, free critiques and emotional support).
- I will give limited feedback to other professionals who request it, but only very specific feedback, for example, the query letter or the pitch. I also preface it with, I’ll take a look and let you know if I can offer any helpful feedback. This allows me to gracefully back out if the work is beyond my scope.
- I don’t publicly comment on published works unless it is to give a positive review.
- I don’t agree to blurb a book until after I’ve read it.
I established these rules in part to preserve the sanctity of my creative time, but also because I don’t want to get in the habit of being a critic. As my uncle, a painter, once told me, my job is to create and I don’t want to steal dinner from the struggling critics out there.
Some writers supplement their income through editing, which is fine and generally has an agreed upon set of rules: in essence, I’m paying you to be honest and help me, and therefore I will be open to your constructive criticism. But the in-between area that you’re presently in, does present some problems, both for you and the person doing the asking, mainly because the expectations are not clear.
In your current situation, I won’t give you a specific suggestion because it is nuanced and there is a lot of information I don’t know, but I will give you some things to consider when formulating your plan:
How well do you know this person?
How open do they seem to honest feedback?
What are their goals for this query letter?
Is your feedback going to “make or break” their project?
How much time and energy are you willing to spend on what sounds like an extensive editorial letter?
Is it appropriate to refer them to a professional content editor?
What would you want someone to do if you were the one doing the asking?
What do you stand to lose in being honest?
Like I said, this is a tough spot to be in, but my instinct is generally to respond with tactful honesty and then make sure you don’t find yourself in that situation again.
Not to belabor the question, but I asked an editor friend for her perspective, and she had this to say:
As an editor, I first ask people if they want me to just give them a few suggestions or if they want me to give them all of my suggestions for making it stronger (and I warn them how they can feel overwhelmed at first). That said, I never given them all of my suggestions; I always pare it down, but I am still very thorough. Also, if someone is self-publishing, then they don’t have to worry about what an agent/editor wants and they may be willing to work to find a tiny niche audience for themselves.
Laura Lascarso is the author of two YA novels, COUNTING BACKWARDS (2012) and RACING HEARTS (2015). If you have a burning YA question you’d like answered, tweet it to @lauralascarso with #DearLaura or include it in the comments below.