Friday, June 16, 2017

How Do You Know When You're Done? Tips to Evaluate Whether Your Manuscript Is Really Ready

One of my private clients has been working on her memoir for quite a few years.  She's workshopped it through my online classes and with writing partners, and in our coaching sessions, we analyzed the structure and she made many great revisions.  She sent it to a few other writers for feedback and got ideas on what else needed tweaking. 


This week, she emailed me with the big question:  Are we there yet? 

How does a writer know when the book is cooked, ready to send out to agents?


The short answer is:  We don't. 

But there's more to say.  There are signs, or so I've learned, that I've done as much as I can without industry feedback (agents or publishers). 

Most writers get their manuscripts to a point where they either (1) can't stand looking at it anymore and have to get it out there or (2) have covered all the bases, gotten high-level feedback, and feel confident that it's ready. 

If you're in the first group, hold off.  Being "done" or just fed up is never a good indicator that the manuscript is also done.  I'd advise putting it away for six weeks, six months, a year, while you work on something else.  Let it sit, get some more education and practice, to help you get over your boredom and stall out.  Then come back to the book.  I'm speaking from my own sad experience here.  I've sent out my manuscripts in the past just because I couldn't wait any longer, but it was done out of impatience, not because they were ready.  I needed more time, and I learned that by accumulating many rejection slips.

Tragic result:  you may never pick up that manuscript again.  It wasn't ready, you got no's, and you slammed the door shut on what might have become a good book. 

If you're in the second group, and you've really worked the process, test it out with a few submissions.  The average for response, according to a writing colleague who worked privately with a professional in the industry, is about 1 "interested" to 75 "not interested."  That's not a great encouragement, but it's reality.  You may, however, get gold from just the submission process:  good feedback from agents.  That's very valuable.  One agent who rejected a past manuscript of mine gave me a long email of tips on how to revise, and I used them with gratitude.  She could see what I couldn't, and it made a much better book.

For either group, here's the to-do list that I always use before submitting.  It might seem like too much, so pick and choose what you prefer.  Your weekly writing exercise, if you're wondering if you're at this stage, is to try one or several of these.

1.  Revise a lot.  Maybe 10-20 versions is average.  Some, like myself, do a lot more.  Never, ever, send out an early draft just because you want someone to say it's great.  Heartbreak city, ahead, if you do that.  Fair warning.

2.  Assume you don't know what you don't know.  Get a small group (a class is great) where you can workshop the manuscript in chapters or maybe the entire thing, with peers, so you have peer-level feedback.  It's not as valuable, in my experience, as paid professional feedback, but it's a great step forward.  Pay attention to what you hear.  Don't take it personally, keep it about the book.  If more than one person says the same thing, points out the same weakness, really pay attention.  Back to revision!

3.   Find and pay a professional editor or coach.  I am one, people pay me, but I also hire one for my own books.  Even though I am well trained, I can't always see the weaknesses in my own writing (nobody can).  You can find these gems through the internet, via colleges, via friends.  I found my current editor through another student in a writing class I took.  He's worth his weight in gold.

4.  Run the manuscript by beta readers.  These are other book writers at your level of skill, who may want to exchange full-manuscript reads.  They'll have more in-depth comments than the peer readers.

5.  And one more time, even if you've done it several times already, read the entire manuscript aloud to yourself.  You'll catch stuff.  We always do.