Tag Archives: finishing manuscripts

Ooooh, shiny! The Next Project Syndrome

By Robin D. Owens

There you are, drudging through your current project, convinced it is cat crap and an idea wiggles in. A beautiful, sparkling, WONDERFUL idea. Something so alluring, that will be so much more fun to write than the current story (especially if the current story has been bought and you’ve taken money for it and it is now late).

Oooh. Yes. There’s the hero, you get HIM. Different characteristics than the guy giving you fits right now.

There’s the hint of the plot, SO much more exciting than the murder you’ve gotten bogged down in, or the details you need to research of the cathedral you’re building, or the heroine who needs to be trained in knife fighting…

SO much easier to write on a story that shines with promise rather than dig into the guts of the work you have now, the one that was once shiny but currently is hard to write, a job, work.

Because all ideas become hard to write. Nothing stays shiny. But that initial POP of an idea, the brainstorming of some bits of the people or the plot, wow, that’s FUN.

Before I was published, I could be lured away. I must have six or seven manuscripts started that never made it more than 100 pages or so before something else caught my attention.

Now, with the selling of my stories, my work, I have to be more disciplined. Yes, the ideas come…it’s particularly bad if they come in a series I think I can sell….whispering their sweetness. But, for me, I must resist.

So this is what I do. I live only with cats which means I can wake up in the middle of the night and dictate wonderful (or stupid) ideas, so I keep my itouch handy. The voice memo button is on the toolbar so it stays available whether I was playing spider solitaire or looking at Word of the Day when I turned off my device. I can find the memo app with my thumb in the dark, if necessary. I can burble about the new and shiny idea. Then I can save it for a more appropriate time (i.e. when the present manuscript is finished).

If the story continues to hang around while I’m studying knife fighting or building a cathedral, or figuring out when my hero is going to say “I love you,” I might hit the computer and write down additional notes or prompts for it. The heroine is an adventuress. The hero is a gentle giant. He is an introvert [long notes about the story formerly here CUT].

When the previous manuscript is finished and I have a little time, I can rub my hands and delve into the New! Fun! Improved-Technique-Trust-Me-Baby! Shiny idea. And it stays fun for a while, depending on the publishing schedule, real life, and before I take the first chapter to critique group. :) Maybe even after that. Until I hit a snag, or need to deepen the character or realize that the plot does not work.

Then the mind wanders and . . . You understand? Sure, you know this cycle as well as I do.

Well, that’s what I do when the next sparkling concept hits my brain. I’m not sure what you might do, but this works for me so it might help you.

What is lovely is that it’s good to realize that you aren’t alone in this fascinating endeavor. That there are other people on this journey whose eyes WON’T glaze over when you talk to them about writing.

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Wrapping Up a Trilogy

By Jeffe Kennedy

Rogue'sParadiseA couple of weeks ago I was privileged beyond belief to hear one of my longtime heroes speak – fantasy writer Stephen R. Donaldson. He read and discussed his lifetime of work at Bubonicon.

I also got to be a guest author at the same event, making it all that much more tingly.

I started reading Donaldson when I was an adolescent and voraciously consumed anything fantasy. Well, really, any books at all. But I was tremendously keen on Anne McCaffrey, who I’d discovered on the library shelf. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that my family members must have gone into bookstores and said what I liked, and the savvy booksellers said things like, “Here, buy her the Thomas Covenant trilogy.” (Which is as many as he’d written back then.)

This was a bit scattershot because, as any of you know who’ve read both that series and The Dragonriders of Pern, there’s quite a large gulf between the two. In fact, I really struggled with Thomas Covenant. I just hated the protagonist and had a hard time understanding the story. This was long before the interwebz and nobody else I knew read those books, so it was only many years later that I found out that everyone struggled with disliking that protagonist. And that the books had very likely been too advanced for even my precocious 12 year old brain.

Then I discovered Mordant’s Need. I’d grown up a bit and, best of all, the protagonist was a woman. Not many fantasy and sci fi books had women as central characters back then. I know because I searched most of them out. Even the prolific Anne McCaffrey couldn’t write as fast as I could read. I branched into other genres and discovered romance, which always featured strong focus on the female characters. But the two Mordant’s Need books, The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through, gave me a very interesting, believable heroine and all the thrilling worldbuilding of the best fantasy.

I got to tell Stephen Donaldson this very thing, face to face, lo these many years later. And he smiled, being a delightful person and replied, “I always thought I should have gotten more credit for that.”

Indeed he should.

He also talked some about what it’s like to end an epic series. The Thomas Covenant Chronicles finally wound up at ten books. He gave this terrific analogy of how it felt, as if he’d been gutted. That, on one level, he knew he’d finished, but he also went about in a daze for a long time, unable to fully process that fact. The reality of it only hit him much later, when he started functioning as a human being again.

Only he said it much better.

It made me feel much better, because – in my own small way – that’s exactly what I’ve gone through in finishing up my own covenant books. Rogue’s Paradise, the third book in my Covenant of Thorns trilogy, comes out September 8. And it feels like this very strange concatenation of events that I met Donaldson at this time, with my series having this completely unintentional name-parallel to his, as it’s culminating what has easily been a ten-year journey.

From writing the first book, Rogue’s Pawn, which was the first novel I ever wrote, which took years and tears to sell, which finally came out in July of 2012, to this moment – seeing the final book hit the shelves – feels like the conclusion of a long journey.

One I have very mixed feelings about.

Because, here I sit, thinking that maybe I’m not done with that world. That, though finishing that third book left me hollowed out and like the walking dead for some time, I want to do more with my characters and that world.

I understand how Donaldson ended up writing ten of them.

And I only hope I should be so lucky and maybe live up to the example set by my hero.

How Exhaustion Helps Writing

By Trai Cartwright

How does exhaustion help writing?

It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.

Writing through mental and physical exhaustion has always been a struggle of mine, and it seems in the past year or two, I’ve heard much the same from many of my writer friends. Whether it’s acute over-programming or serious health ailments, managing their lives drains away their precious creative time and energy.

It’s gotten to the degree that they don’t get any writing done.

Does being a writer attract a heightened level of affliction? Is that how we know we’re writers—not because we’re sicker than everyone else but because we feel the terrible intensity of our failings all the more for their negative impact on our art?

Are we as a tribe, too tired to do our jobs? Did the writers who came before us suffer these same maladies to the same extent, and if so, how did they manage to get their work done?

How do we, as an afflicted body of scribes, manage to get it done regardless? Or do we?

I read “Z” not too long ago, a book from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view (genius, by the way), and not only was her own mental health eroding, but she had to rely on a husband who’s proximity to drink determined his own daily output.

Scott wrote dozens of short stories because it was all he could manage around his alcoholism.

Stephen King, on the other hand, used his prolific drug habit as a production tool for his writing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell when King’s addiction began impacting his writing negatively—there are a couple dozen books that, well, suck. But his habit never impeded his output.

The tales of mental illness among writers and artists in general is prodigious. Their careers seem to go in two directions: one, they waited for bouts of sanity to work; or two, their affliction seemed to drive them to produce.

Myself, I was a chronic insomniac. The longer a person goes without the required sleep (seven hours uninterrupted), the worse their brain, organ, and nervous system function. A fugue state takes over and soon cognizant thinking becomes impossible, much less creative thinking. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique.

We all have our afflictions, don’t we?

But does the human condition make writing impossible? And what a terrible joke that would be, with so many of us with something to say.

And now that our lives are so overly complex with 24/7 jobs, family schedules that require herculean efforts to maintain, and increasing health issues across all ages, is there any way our artistic pursuits won’t suffer?

How do we compensate?

Or do we give in?

A friend of mine, Amy Kathleen Ryan, had triplets a few years ago. She still wrote two books around their tyrannical infant demands. You might have read them.

Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS, making it impossible to type some days. Many days. He still finished his most recent mystery novel.

Another woman I know has worked full time, pursued two advanced degrees, and raised her kid for the past five years, and is inches from finishing an epic fantasy we all know will publish the second she finishes.

Another has taken over the care of both her invalid parents while raising her own family. She’s learned to write in doctor’s offices.

A man who attends most of my library creative writing classes tells me he’s on the road three out of four weeks a month, but he’s taught himself to write on airplanes and in hotels.

A woman in my MFA program walks with two canes and is in constant, chronic pain from a back injury. She still got her degree and recently published her first short story.

There are lots of examples of life becoming what really ought to be written off as unmanageable, crushing our creative selves, making writing laughably impossible. But even these people find ways to write.

They all tell me the same thing: writing is their life’s blood. They’ve learned to stop making attachments to the outcomes and just be glad for the days they get some words on the page.

Is that enough?

As more and more novels are written under the pressures of our modern, debilitating lives, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Exhaustion may not help our writing, but it doesn’t have to stop it entirely.

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

When You Shouldn’t Finish What You Started

By Katriena Knights

One of the cardinal rules of being a writer is to finish what you start. After all, if you don’t finish those stories, you won’t have anything to submit or publish, right? Right. But there are times when it’s best not to finish or revisit an unfinished or unpolished piece. Continue reading

Inspiration

By Jeanne Stein

Recently I was asked to talk about what inspires me as a writer and a person. My first automatic response was everything. But then I realized I might be confusing inspiration with the process of creation—-taking an idea and developing it into a story.

Two different things.

The muse that sparks an idea can be anything. I get ideas from newspapers, television shows, eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, other books. Ideas float on the air like dandelion snow. You only have to hold out your hand to grab one. Ideas are the beginning of the creative process.

Inspiration is something else. Inspiration is what makes me sit down at the computer everyday. It’s what helps me through the dark days when it seems I’m fighting a losing battle against the indifference of critics and sometimes even my agent and editor. It’s fighting the urge to give up when a brand new writer comes out of nowhere and wins that huge contract complete with movie and TV rights and a six-figure advance. And then reading the book and realizing, it is that good.

We all need inspiration. Something to recharge the soul and get us excited about life. It’s that voice inside that says keep going. It’s the message I hoped my character Anna Strong would impart. It’s the voice that says women are strong and clever and capable of great bravery—-with or without super powers.

I’ve come to believe a writer needs to be his or her own inspiration. We need to have faith in our abilities and the determination to persevere. We can take strength from those around us, but ultimately, we our responsible for ourselves.

We are all our own inspiration.

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Jeanne C. SteinJeanne Stein is the bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Her award winning series has been picked up in three foreign countries and her short stories published in collections here in the US and the UK. Her latest Anna book, Blood Bond, was released August 27, 2013. Jeanne’s newest endeavor is in collaboration with author Samantha Sommersby: The Fallen Siren Series. Published under the pseudonym S. J. Harper, the first book in that series, Cursed, was released Oct. 2013, book two, Reckoning, will be out this October.

S. J. Harper: http://fallensiren.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000177556968

On Mastery

By Kerry Schafer

Finish the damn book.

I know you’ve heard this before. You’ve heard it from writers far more well known than I am, people like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. There’s even a Finish the Damn Book Contest out there you can enter, if you need that kind of encouragement.

Why?

Because every book you finish teaches you something new about writing. Every story you complete improves your craft, brings you to a higher level of skill, makes you a better writer. The places that make you want to walk away to a new and still shiny idea are the places where you need to up your game and learn something new.

If you give up in the middle, if you abandon your characters and story when the going gets messy in the soggy middle, you never learn how to fix that middle. You’ll never learn how to go back and tweak the beginning to make the middle work. Or rewrite the end so you can fix the beginning.

When you quit, you never really give yourself a chance to become the best writer you can be.

This morning I chanced upon an article about the concept of Mastery that a friend posted on Facebook. It’s written by Maria Popova and is called Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Difference Between Success and Mastery (It’s about a book called The Rise, by Sarah Lewis, which is likely also well worth reading.) Popova talks at length about the gift of failure and the difference between mastery and success. One of the things that really stuck with me was a photo of the Women’s Archery team at Columbia University in about 1920.

These women spent “…countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line.”

Think about that in the context of the writer’s life. We spend countless hours writing the books – shaping, polishing, perfecting. But after the books leave our hands there are so many interferences beyond our control. Agents, editors, the vagaries of the publishing business, current trends in readers and the market.

I’d like to be Robin Hood, with a level of mastery so magical and mythical that every book I ever writes hits the bulls eye.

But I’m not. And chances are good that neither are you.

So what do we do? We keep writing books. We keep practicing. We keep pursuing mastery of our craft because that is something over which we do have control.

And we never quit.

Which brings me to this, from the unquenchable Chuck Wendig:

“I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.

I will not whine. I will not blubber. I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises. I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.

My confidence is hard and unyielding. Like a kidney stone lodged in the ureter of a stegosaurus.

These are my adult pants. The diapers have burned away in the fires of my phoenix-esque rising…”

Read the rest, here. Then put it on your desktop. Print it off and paste it to your wall. Chant it in front of the mirror.

And then go finish your book. And write another one.

~~~~~

Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2012 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on February 14, 2013. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books.

Murder Your Darlings

By Jan Weeks

Jan WeeksSir Arthur Quiller-Couch said that over a hundred years ago and writers have followed his advice (or not) ever since. I, for one, being of kind heart and semi-sound mind, hesitated to do something so cruel. Occasionally I’d shoot a few of my darling words in the butt with a BB gun and watch them scamper to safety but my heart ached for them. I wanted to call them back and nurture and cuddle and soothe them into believing they really were worthwhile. I wanted to build their self-esteem, just like I did for my fifth grade students.

The first wholesale massacre was planned one day while driving down a Colorado back road, thinking of nothing in particular. I’d been working on Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, my first suspense novel, for years. The protagonist was Lorna Hollingsworth, a retired school teacher who discovers a child’s skull in a meadow in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Ben Logan, police chief of the small town and Lorna’s former student, uses the teacher as a foil for his thoughts and surmises as he investigates.

The story began with Lorna taking her dog for a walk early on a September morning. A bloody sun rose through lavender mist. Sentinel pines lined the trail. Sweat sheened her skin as she labored up the steep path. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Years and miles after writing that scene, I realized it had nothing to do with the story. Once home, I booted up the ’puter, highlighted the 3500-word first chapter, and pressed delete. Oh, the tears! Oh, the sorrow! Oh, the pain as my darlings disappeared into oblivion, never to return, unless I wanted to hire a techie to save them. I hardened my heart and started the story where it truly began, with the discovery of the skulls. (Yes, more than one.)

More years passed. Rejections flew like autumn leaves in a gale, adding frustration to insult. Why the heck couldn’t editors see what a great story I’d written? Surely they couldn’t all be rejects from the Arthur Murray School of Great Writing…or something like that. Each rejection caused me to stalk the manuscript, BB gun upgraded to a .22 rifle, in hand. Now my darlings seemed to know when they were in for the high jump and some scurried away with barely a nudge from the barrel.

Then the second mass murder sneaked into my mind as I washed dishes. I had the wrong protagonist. It wasn’t Lorna’s story, it was Ben’s. I sank into a chair, poured another cup of tea, and wept, not for my darlings, but for me. I had been writing this damned book for twenty years! Enough, already! I didn’t want to condemn the whole thing to oblivion. I didn’t want to start over!

The fit of self-pitying hysteria passed, as all fits must, and I buckled down. As I rewrote I realized that the book was becoming better. Now, readers could live in Ben’s mind and investigate along with him. They didn’t have to wade through pages of talking heads as Ben explained everything that he’d discovered to Lorna. Switching POVs between Ben, Lorna, and the antagonist further moved the story along. Some of the babies I’d plunged into purgatory crept back into the manuscript, a few at a time, this time in their proper places. The bloody sunrise and sentinel pines never did find their way back, thank God.

After 25 years and 59 revisions, Season of Evil found a publishing home and arrived in hardback in the spring, a time of renewal and life.

Now I believe in wreaking murder and mayhem on my dears. I also believe in reincarnation, as long as those little darlings know their places.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jan Weeks is an editor and award-winning writer with three published adult novels (Silverton Summer; The Secret of Spring Hollow; Season of Evil, Season of Dreams) and a middle-grade novel (The Centerville Code) available as an e-book, as is The Secret of Spring Hollow. Her articles, short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in local, regional, national and international markets, such as Outdoor Life, Guideposts, Natural Health, California Lawyer, Grit, and Midwest Fly Fishing.

She belongs to The Authors’ Guild and the Western Colorado Writers’ Forum, and has facilitated the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop. She teaches workshops in creative writing, writing for magazines, and basic grammar for writers.

Visit Jan’s website for rates, links to books, and more information.

Jan is also giving away a print copy of her novel, Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, to one U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on today’s post. The mystery involves a small-town cop who must stop a serial killer before more children vanish. Comments through Tuesday, March 11th will be included in a random drawing.

Action Plans for the Scattered and Unmotivated

by Kerry Schafer

Last month I shared some of my thoughts about intentions, suggesting that it’s a good idea to have some and see where they take you. And then I tacked a little afterthought on the end, saying how next time we’d talk about Action Plans.

I still maintain that intentions are lovely and wonderful things, even though well meaning people say the road to hell is paved with them. I suspect that the road to paradise is probably paved with them too, although nobody ever seems to mention that.

Back to my point, which is that we want to give those intentions a little boost so that they are more likely to take us to the good place, and not lead us astray into darkness and possibly fire and brimstone.

Warning: If you’re looking for one of those super organized, highly structured, do-all-of-the-things-on-this-list-and-you-will-surely-conquer-the-world posts, you’re in the wrong spot. This isn’t even Action Plans 101. I’m offering up a few random ideas for those of us who organize by sticky notes on the kitchen table, or in our heads while resting our eyes on the couch.

1. Publicly announce whatever it is you said you were going to do.

Case in point – at the end of my last blog post here, I said I would write this time about action plans. If I hadn’t done this, I might easily have opted for something involving fluffy cats and maybe a random penguin or two, because I’m tired and feeling unfocused and the last thing I want to do right now is remind myself that I need a new Action Plan. But I do, and here we are. This is one of the things that makes Nanowrimo so successful, I think. After you’ve announced to everybody who knows and loves you, along with a bunch of strangers who don’t care at all and even a few people who hate you, that you’re going to do something – write a book, query an agent, self publish, whatever – there is a motivating force to keeping your word.

2. Write it on a calendar.

Don’t have a calendar? Get one. Or use the calendar on your smart phone or your computer. Get the kids to make you one. This, for the scattered and unmotivated, is one of the simplest and best motivational and organizational tools out there. Of course, simply scrawling “write a novel”  or “get published” on the first available date may not be of much use, although I think even that would be of some use. There is something about actually scheduling writing time, or query time, or a word count goal, that bumps it up the ranks of your to do list. It’s like magic. Write it down – Monday – 9 am buy groceries, 10:30 am dentist appointment, 3 pm write 1000 words – and all of a sudden your writing time jumps from something you’d like to do if you have time, to something that you plan to do.

3. Take a small step now that will commit you to further action later.

I’m talking about one of those moments where you open your mouth (or put your fingers on the keys) and commit yourself to something. Usually the commitment part only takes a few minutes, but has far reaching consequences, sort of like getting married in Vegas, only in a good way. Or that minute at a school meeting where you raise your hand and volunteer to organize the potluck. If you’re having trouble getting your butt in the chair to write words, buddy up with a friend. Agree to meet up for writing sprints, at 5 am, or 10 pm, or whatever fits in your schedule. That way, when the alarm goes off and you reach out to push snooze, you’ll be struck by the guilt of knowing that someone you care about is climbing out of a nice warm bed somewhere else so she can meet up with you. Guilt is a wonderful nap ruiner. Join a writing group that expects pages to critique. Create a contest with a friend to see who gets the most (well researched and solidly crafted) queries out into the world by a particular time frame.

As Action Plans go, this is the minimalist version. Search the net and you’ll find all sorts of involved and in depth road maps to success. These make my head hurt, and I suspect I’m not the only one. So this is the extent of my contribution to the subject. Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now – it’s time for you to step up to the plate. What action plan step are you prepared to commit to today?

~~~~~~~~

Kerry Schafer’s first novel, Between, was published in February 2012 and the sequel, Wakeworld, is slated to hit shelves and e-readers on February 14, 2013. Kerry is both a licensed mental health counselor and an RN, and loves to incorporate psychological and medical disorders into her fantasy books. You can find out more on her website, www.kerryschafer.com, or find her on Twitter as @kerryschafer or on her Facebook page Kerry Schafer Books.

Old Writer, New Tricks

By Mary Gillgannon

I’m what I call an intuitive or “into the mist” writer.  I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I don’t really plot. I’m also a linear writer. I start from the beginning and keep going on the rough draft until I reach the end. Between “non-plotting” and writing straight through, I usually end up with a complete mess and then have to go back and rewrite extensively to get a coherent and compelling story. It was pretty typical that for a 120,000 word novel, I’d write about 30,000 extra words. For my 160,000-word historical novel, I probably wrote 300,000!

About five years ago, I decided I wasn’t up to all that floundering and struggle and wasted words. I was going to learn to plot. I attended workshops, read books and talked to other writers about their plotting process. It all sounded good to me… until I sat down and tried to do it. Nothing happened. No story ideas came. My mind went blank and my muse refused to speak to me.

So, I went back to “writing into the mist” and writing linearly. I seemed to be getting better at it with my romances. But when I tried to write a fantasy series, I ended up with a 200,000 word book that needs to be about half that. Not to mention, I can’t market the series yet because I don’t know what happens in the second book, let alone the third and fourth. (I know. George R.R. Martin probably doesn’t really know where his series is going either. But he’s clearly better at this stuff than me.)

The feeling that there has to be a better way keeps gnawing at me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found it with my latest project. It’s a fantasy romance that I first started years ago. Because I was trying to sell on proposal back then, I actually wrote a very rough synopsis for this book. I started writing based on the synopsis, and after a few chapters, inevitably, the plot began to change. But then I did something different. I didn’t keep writing. I went back and started revising the synopsis to fit the story. As I did that, I realized there were lots of story questions I hadn’t addressed. So I went back and rewrote parts of the first few chapters. In the process, the whole story became clearer to me. For once, I wasn’t writing “into the mist”. I could actually see where I was going.

I’ve decided I would keep up with this new technique with this book. I’m beginning to think that maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t plot, but that I keep writing forward even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe if I try to plot as I write the book and fix things as I go along, I won’t end up with such a disaster at the end.

I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years. It would be really exciting if I finally figured out a better way to do it!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook.

Tips on Working with a Manuscript Reader

By Alissa Johnson

Alissa JohnsonWhen I finish a book I love, I turn past the last page. I look for anything I can read so I don’t have to set it down. I want to stay immersed in the feeling of the book. Inevitably, my search takes me to the author’s Acknowledgements Page.

I’ve come to believe this page would be better called the Gratitude Page because it’s so often more than a list of names. It’s a tribute to the people who helped bring the book to life, and it’s a reminder to writers: writing may be an individual act but the process of creating a good book is never solitary.

Chief among those listed on the Acknowledgements Page are trusted and insightful readers—people who identified where the story flowed and where it needed some work. Theirs is one of the most important steps in writing, and one of the most vulnerable for the writer (I imagine it’s like parent teacher conferences, waiting to hear if your kid is a pro or a total slacker).

I’ve seen it go incredibly right, inspiring a writer to move forward with her story, and I’ve seen it go incredibly wrong—literally stopping a writer in her tracks because she didn’t pick the right reader.

Here are a few ways to make sure that you and your reader get it right:

1. Select readers with the skill sets you need. My two most trusted readers brought opposite (and equally important) skills to the table. One responded to the big picture—did the plot make sense? Were the characters clear? Where was it confusing? The other favored a black pen and editing a sentence like his life depended on it.

2. Ask for sample feedback. Send five to ten pages or a chapter and ask what he or she would suggest so you can get a sense for the input you’d receive.

3. Choose readers you like. If the communication flows easily it’s going to be a lot easier to take the good and the bad when they send you feedback on your manuscript.

4. Let your reader know if there are specific questions you want addressed, but trust that he’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes. Leave room for him to tell you what he sees.

5. After you send the manuscript, do something fun. Go for a hike, a ski, a run, or out with friends. Celebrate the fact that you care enough about your story to get someone’s input on how to make it better.

6. Resist the urge to edit before you get feedback. It’s difficult to work with feedback based on an earlier draft, and the time away from your work will let you see it with fresh eyes.

7. Set your own expectations before you get feedback. You’ve been living and breathing this story, which means that you are too close to see it clearly. You’ll hear some good stuff, but you’ll also learn where it’s not working. That’s not a failure—it’s the point of getting feedback.

8. When you get the feedback, read it and digest it. But before you start making each and every change, look at your manuscript for yourself. What do you see that needs work?

9. Once you’ve made all your revisions, read the feedback one more time. You don’t need to make every suggested change but make sure you’ve carefully considered each one.

10. Remember that revision is where the magic happens in writing—where prose comes alive and the storyline comes into its own.

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Alissa Johnson is an award winning writer and writing coach in Crested Butte, CO. She helps clients find peace with their writing process so they can get the most out of life and feel productive as writers. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine and Green Woman Magazine among other publications, and she holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University. You’ll find her at her personal website and blog, and at the Writing Strides website.