Monday, February 11, 2013

Reading a Manuscript

There are two manuscripts currently awaiting my attention. It is a distinct honor to be asked to read them and it is a task I approach with reverence. Most writers will guard their work quite zealously, until it is fully formed and ready to be released. If you are at this particular point in time, before the query letter is written, it is wise to ask a few good people to take a look and let you know what they think.

As a writer, you want to find common agreement. In my first attempt at a novel, I heard that my protagonist fell in love with a man she did not seem to like all that much when she first set eyes on him. While this is a common device in many love stories, I missed the mark in describing the man, in such a way as to allow the reader to see why she would eventually fall in love with him. In the end, the novel failed to get out into the world and ended up in my cupboard. The other day, a solution occurred to me on an afternoon walk in the woods.  I have no desire to dust off that story and fix it at this point; there are so many stories and too little time.  I did feel happy though, in the knowledge that a tricky piece of the puzzle had somehow fallen into place. Who knows? If I live to be ninety and still have my faculties, it may see the light of day yet. If not, it was part of my learning curve and not a total waste of time.

Certainly, a story is like a great enigma. Years ago, up at the lake, my family of origin decided to tackle one of those thousand piece puzzles, during a week of inclement weather. We were always an impatient bunch, but some of us found the process soothing. We started to square off the frame and get some sections going, until one day, we returned from a trip to town to see our father sitting at the card table with a pair of scissors! He was cutting a piece to fit. Aghast, we let out a collective protest while he insisted that the piece really was supposed to go there and that the manufacturer did not trim it correctly. Don't do this to either a puzzle, or a manuscript! Don't try to make something work because you stubbornly insist that your reader is wrong and you are right. If two readers say the same thing then you have to admit defeat and go back to the drawing board. A little humility is in order.

A writer needs to know if the story starts to lag at any given point. Picture, if you will, four people holding up a King size sheet. Where in your novel is the greatest dip? Do the four corners have to be lifted higher in order to keep it from sagging to the ground? Many times, a writer will get a response to a query. An agent, after reading the first three chapters, may ask for the full manuscript. The writer will send it off right away and then go through weeks of nail biting uncertainty. With a great thud, the manuscript lands back on the doorstep, having been returned. The excruciating task begins. The reason, obsessed over and discussed with friends, often does not yield an answer. The writing was good enough to get that  far, but was there a lag, a sag, or a droop, that made the agent toss it into the return pile? If so, its better to find out before sending it out and putting yourself through many frustrating attempts to get published.

A writer needs to know if they have gone off on a tangent, if they have written a passage aimed at the greater good of society, but not necessarily having anything to do with the story. Are they in any way proselytizing? They need to know if they have served the story, have kept a narrative arc, or if they have created a great muddle. If you are a writer who crafts your work by feeling your way through it, you must be prepared to hear that you have veered off from the direction the reader thought, or wanted, the story to take. We liked to be surprised, but not entirely surprised. Therefore, when you nail a story down, and you know what it is and what it looks like precisely, you can layer in some foreshadowing, so that the reader is prepared when the tale takes a turn. Was I forewarned when Lady Sybil, in Downton Abbey, died in childbirth? No, I was surprised. Was I too surprised? No. Lady Sybil was already on a perilous path. We knew she was, to some extent, doomed. That is how it works.

Characters become like our children, or our pets. Hearing someone say they did not like the protagonist can be a mighty blow. It need not be a death sentence though. Opinions will vary greatly as to the level of admiration, or dislike. What is more important to the writer, is that the character can be imagined, can be seen with the mind's eye. If so, then the writer has produced something, rather than nothing.

Lastly, good writing will always have a certain zing. If the readers come back and say that the work held their interest, that it was a fast and easy read, then you may heave a great sigh of relief, for that is the hardest part. The very best writing will always grab the reader and hold them tight. Stephen King likens his work to the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. That is not a derogatory statement and accounts for his commercial success.

Was the writer tripped up anywhere? This is a great question. No reader should be thinking, wait, did I miss something? They shouldn't have to go back a few pages to try to figure out what is happening. Ask your reader if anything needs clarifying.

If you have a manuscript ready to go on its first voyage out of your clutches, then God Bless you. Take vitamins, eat well, rest, take long walks and do not lose faith in your idea, or yourself, whatever you do. If you receive a blow, look for common agreement. If it is just one opinion, try to make sense of it, but do not despair. Years ago, a song writer told me that when he writes the tune and words come to him, he feels good in his soul. He said that he sees God as the Creator and that when he creates, he makes the Creator happy. How I have clung to those words, lo these many years. It takes time, be patient and do not give up no matter what. If you feel in your heart that writing is what you were meant to do, then you must do it, without regard for the outcome. Many of us wrote with one foot rocking the cradle, or on our lunch hour at work, or in the wee hours before dawn. I sat with my laptop in the car at soccer games, while the other mothers paced up and down the sidelines, screaming. I wrote in the storage cupboard at work during lunch because I was in possession of the key and knew I would not be disturbed. I wrote while my kids did their homework, or when they jumped on the trampoline, placed strategically in front of my study window. Persistence pays. Do not let anyone tell you that it doesn't.

 Andy Warhol said, “Make art. Let others decide whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make more art.”


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks, Liz, for this excellent post. Lots of good tips here for reading another writer's work. And like you say, whether or not our writing eventually sees the light of day, the work and experience is all part of that valuable learning curve to becoming a writer.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Wonderful,Liz ! Thanks for another great post !

Yvon7lee said...

A really good post and so encouraging. Thank you.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I am so happy that you find this encouraging. Our whole purpose at Writing North Idaho is to provide a service for other writers. Do not give up, no matter what. Thank you for your comment.