Saturday, February 6, 2010

On the Effort Meter, This Manuscript Is Reading 'Sisyphean'

Is having a good idea for a middle grade novel enough in publishing? What I'm trying to find out is at what point is a manuscript considered to be too much work? What does "too much work" mean from an editor's perspective? Do you ever encounter situations in which your love of a book makes the "too much work" aspect not as important and insurmountable?
I'm not absolutely sure how to answer this question. If you mean, is having a good idea enough to excuse a phenomenal lack of writing ability, the answer is no.

As I've mentioned before, ideas are not everything. If everything about the writing needs work, then it's almost certainly too much work for any editor, no matter how good the idea.

That said, there is wide variety in types of writing strengths. Some writers are great at dialogue; some at setting; some at character; some at plotting; some at mood. The best writers are good at pretty much all of these, but if your writing is hitting just one of these qualities in a way that is particularly compelling to the book's audience, then that may in fact be enough. Maybe.

Every editor weighs how much she likes a manuscript against how much work she thinks it will be to edit it. Do you have a bad habit of adding adverbs to all your dialogue tags? That's irritating, but it's also EASILY FIXED. Do you simply have no idea how to show, not tell, and your fantastically plotted novel is by turns condescending and boring because of it? That's irritating, and ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO FIX.

And there's also the question of the author's ability to receive one correction and run with it. I've critiqued first pages that had a pernicious fault, like overuse of adjectives. The author thanked me kindly for my input and asked if she could send me the whole manuscript. Sure, ok. When I got the manuscript, that fault had been fixed on the first page AND NOWHERE ELSE. People like this are a long, long slog to edit.


One of the misconceptions editors meet most often among non-editors is that we can fix anything. No, we can't. We don't have superpowers. Our ability to make anything better depends on our ability to convey to the author what's working and what's not working and why, and the author's ability to apply that knowledge. In order to edit anything, it has to be the author who fixes things, not us.

If an author simply can't write, well, no one can fix that.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

...and then there are the "editors" who want to be writers. I just had a sentence in my fourth book changed by an "editor" from "I recognized a love of theatre on his face..." to "a love of theatre EMBRACED HIM LIKE AN AURA." I stood my ground, and got it changed, but likely wouldn't have if it had been my first time around.

Jill said...

Seems an odd question to ask - almost like asking for permission to be lazy about writing the book in the first place (unless I have misconstrued teh query...?)

If the writer is wondering whether his/her book will be too much to fix, then maybe it's not ready to be sent to an editor or publisher.

Make it as good as you possibly can! Editors are not there to clean up after you...

Sarah Laurenson said...

I've run into a lot of people who think it's enough to have - drumroll please - the idea to end all ideas. I've talked to someone who was majoring in writing at a local University. He generously offered to read anything I had written and give me his feedback. He hadn't written a single word himself yet, but he had this cool idea.

I think a lot of people don't understand this business and I can't say as I blame them - much. I'm sure what they hear about are the JK Rowling's and Stephanie Meyer's of the writing world. They think it must be easy to pen a bestseller and become a multi-millionaire.

Lee Ee Leen said...

this is the most common problem
but no one wants to hear the plain truth
"err, your manuscript sucks because...you can't write"

Jon Paul said...

Your comment about fixing gripes only on the first page is curious to me. If an agent gave me feedback, it seems to me that an appropriate course would be to review the entire MS with that fix in mind.

But maybe that isn't as obvious as I thought.

Thanks for the post. Good info.

Chris Eldin said...

I'm sorry, but I had to laugh out loud at this one...
As I sit and look at four feet of snow that needs shoveling, and two Things running amok, and a husband who's traveling,
and I wake up early so I can work on yet another (&)(*&(^%&$## revision of my manuscript because I believe in my idea but haven't quite executed it, yet

and I hear the Things in the basement, banging around, and there's no way we can get out if anyone gets hurt,

but I have to work on chapter three,

and I know there are others working harder. Who are smarter, stronger, faster.

I know at this point I am rambling, but it's only because the laughter tears in my eyes are only borderline hysterical tears.

Writing? Hard?

AHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAH!

My Discworld said...

I've edited for the people you described in your next-to-last two paragraphs.
You're right.
If an author can't apply advice beyond the examples they're given, that's a long haul of editing, it's irritating, and frankly, I won't do it anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think my manuscript was in the position that the writer describes when it sold, but I didn't KNOW it. If the writer is thinking this already, then the writer needs to keep working (IMHO). My agent loved it and sent it out. 7 people passed before a wonderful editor bought it. It wasn't until a TON of work had been done on the plot (by both of us) that I realized she'd actually taken a chance because she loved the idea, voice, and conflict (my strengths). So it happens, but I certainly wouldn't count on it. My guess is some of those other 7 editors liked all those things too but just couldn't face the amount of help I would need to shape it plot-wise. I feel EXTREMELY lucky. And I learned to plot a novel too, so my next book was so much easier to write and a lot better out of the starting gate, but you can't count on this kind of help.

mallard said...

Who are you calling a sisy?

That proves I can write. Plus I'm funny and original. Can I have a book contract?

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

@ Chris Eldin: {{{hugs}}}
Because I've been there too.

Leslie said...

"When I got the manuscript, that fault had been fixed on the first page AND NOWHERE ELSE. People like this are a long, long slog to edit."

LOL! OMG! I'm a different sort of editor, not books, but I just got finished with an identical problem and Oh My God did it take foreEVer to get the manuscript slightly ok-ish. *sigh*

Ghost Girl said...

Here's what I'm curious about: with the economic crap going on now—the layoffs and reorganization of publishing houses—how many editors have the luxury of accepting something that is good, but not yet picture-perfect? I know some editors at the bigger houses have admitted that they have had to reject things they might have accepted a year ago because the head honchos want a "sure thing" or nothing. Do you find that to be true? Does this kill the whole "diamond in the rough" possibility?

The Daring Novelist said...

While a great editor is to be prized above chocolate, I really do feel that it's OUR job to get the manuscript right.

People who just sit an imagine cool stuff are readers. Writers actually master their craft.

jessjordan said...

I have what i consider to be a great idea for a picture book, that randomly popped into my head while staring at my cat. That doesn't mean I can write a picture book, much less a half-ass one and hope that my idea will be enough to attract an agent.

If your writing is lacking a skeleton, an agent has nothing to build on. So go forth, all, and create rib cages.

Carrie said...

Well, as I am a perfectionist at heart, I've been working very hard at my stories. I've been very critical of them up to this point and I've spent the last couple of months learning to not be such a perfectionist as it could hurt the story.

I believe that the term "too much work" means something different for each editor. I suppose newer editors might be more willing to take the time to work with an author if the storyline is strong than an editor that has done it once too often. I think it also might depend upon how much patience a person has with someone else's ability.

However, it could also be that "too much work" is a polite way of saying they won't take a person on because they don't really have an editor.

But yes, a good idea is definitely not enough.

Mechelle Fogelsong said...

Edited the first chapter and that's it? Maybe part of the problem is that the writer got bored with their own story.

If you love to re-read your own novel--if you find yourself captivated by your own writing--then 15 different revisions don't even phase you.

Last night I stayed up until midnight editing my own novel. Sounds crazy and egotistical, I know, but I couldn't put the damned thing down. And I WROTE it. I know how it ENDS. How silly is that?

Julie Maloney said...

I run a non-profit organization called WOMEN READING ALOUD dedicated to promoting women writers through workshops, retreats, and special events. Last weekend, I facilitated the first of three workshops in a series called Work-In-Progress. Writers sent work via e-mail and we convened with our critiques around my dining room table. Often, I find myself giving a "kick" to those whose writing life is stalling. A popular point of discussion is the perennial "self-doubt." Enough! We all have it. I've concluded that success is simple: brave writing and perseverance equals success. I listen to writers with all kinds of excuses why something isn't working. I'm working on my first novel after publishing poetry and writing a feature column for a woman's magazine. I'm possessed and have finally concluded that unless you're in this state, you might not get the book written. I'm close to 80,000 words on my first draft. I know - believe me - I know - this is the beginning of many, many drafts. I've begun to keep a list of literary agents to contact. I've got the platform but I want the novel! I love leading writing workshops but a part of me cries out to say "I'm a novelist!"