#amwriting: the external eye

EDWAERT_COLLIER_VANITAS_STILL_LIFEMore people than ever are writing books. In today’s marketplace, every author must find ways to get his/her manuscript in as perfect shape as they can before they begin shopping for agents and publishers.  At every seminar I attend this one fact is stressed most firmly.

What this tells me is that agents and editors at the large publishing houses see so many submissions on a daily basis that they don’t have time to do more than look at the first page or two before deciding to look further. If it is not formatted to industry standard, or if it is a rough draft, it goes into the trash, based on that quick glance. (See my post, How to Format Your Manuscript for Submission.)

Therefore, we make our manuscript as good as we can before we send it off to an agent or a large publishing house, or take the plunge and self publish. To this end, during the second or third draft we may consult what has become known as the beta-reader, volunteers who read our work, knowing it is in its infancy.

You can find many good freelance editors who offer this service, but I do recommend you ask them what it involves and what kind of report you will get back before you commit your funds to it. I can also recommend Critters Writers Workshop, a free author-driven service. Or you may have a spouse or good friends who will help you with this.

A word to the wise: Editors and other authors make terrible beta readers, because it is their nature to dismantle the manuscript and tell you how to fix it.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of a reader who both likes the kind of work you write and who also is willing to spend the time reading your work?  Consider asking them to read a selected chapter, instead of asking them to read the whole thing.

I suggest this, because reading the rough-draft of an entire novel is a huge commitment to ask of someone. It is not reading for pleasure, although we hope they enjoy it.

Give your reader this list of questions, and ask him/her to please answer them, explaining that you can’t continue until you hear back from them:

  1. Were the characters likable?
  2. Where did the plot bog down and get boring?
  3. Were there any places that were confusing?
  4. What did the reader like? What did they dislike?
  5. What do they think will happen next?

You need a reader who reads your genre, reads fairly quickly, and won’t devolve into an editor.  Questions two and three are the most important: Where is it boring, and where is it confusing? Having it read in small chunks will give you a good idea of what you need to do with the ms as a whole.

I usually send my  manuscripts  in short pieces to my trusted crew when I need to know if I am on the right track. But the final ms in the Tower of Bones series is different. I hope to have it ready for publication by spring, so I have taken the plunge and sent Valley of Sorrows to David Cantrell for a structural edit. Dave and I have worked together on many projects.

Structural editing is digging deep. This is a tricky novel, because it tells two separate but entwined story-lines, Edwin’s and Lourdan’s, so I need an interested, but surgical, eye on it before I begin the final revisions. Dave has read Tower of Bones, and knows the world, the magic system, and the characters.

I hear you asking, what if he asks me to cut something I think is an integral part of the piece? I will have to decide what to do after I:

  • Re-read the section in question: Is it garbled? Was my intention not clear when I wrote it?
  • Look at the section in the context of the entire manuscript: Will losing this section change the story in a way that I don’t want? Or will cutting that section allow a more important point to shine?
  • Decide how married I am to that plot point. Sometimes divorce is the only answer.

In my own work I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it.

But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there. That is why I rely on the external eye, and work with a structural editor.


Filed under Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

4 responses to “#amwriting: the external eye

  1. When I’ve had “beta” readers, I ask that they simply read through it and see if they like it, have questions, or otherwise found fault in it. Definitely not edit it or tell me how they would have written the story–which is what tended to happen in my beloved MFA workshops! Yet it is true that it is hard to find readers willing to try out a new, untested manuscript. I usually offer unscratched lottery tickets as incentive.


  2. In Literary Criticism class long ago, we studied the Reader Response Theory, in which a majority of readers can overrule the author’s intentions. In other words, the author may have intended X but a majority of readers get it as Y; hence, the author didn’t convey the meaning effectively–or the readers are just smarter.
    I expanded on this theory by introducing the Democratic Reader Response Theory, in which the majority of readers’ interpretation/views/opinion is the valid one. This seemed to hold true in MFA workshops. If a majority of your classmates thought your story sucked, then it did.


  3. David P. Cantrell

    Thank you for scaring the c*ap out me.