When To Walk Away From Your Manuscript & When To Hire A Professional Editor

Lots of questions coming at me in the past few weeks, most of them from Facebook. I’ll start with Jessica who asked for tips for motivation to keep writing if you’re feeling very stuck.

Good question. Here’s the thing – writing is hard. It sounds like you already knew that, but I think it helps to hear that everyone feels that way. Including me. Including every writer I know. You are not alone in feeling stuck and unmotivated.

But you didn’t ask me to make you feel better about the fact that you’re unmotivated, you asked me to tell you how to get motivated. I wish I had a fix for this that I can tell you will for sure work for everyone… but I don’t.

What I can tell you is what works for me… sometimes.

First of all, don’t feel like you have to be writing and loving it all the time in order to be a real writer. I don’t write all the time and I definitely don’t love it most of the time, and this is what I do for a living.

In other words, if you are burnt out – it’s okay. Take a break. I recommend at least a month of walking away and taking a brain re-set if you’re struggling with a particular story, and where to take it next and absolutely forcing yourself to write and move forward has not been helpful.

Usually, forcing yourself to write will unstick you. It can hurt and it’s ugly and you don’t want to do it, but once you get moving you will keep moving. It’s like forcing yourself to go the gym and workout. Once you’re there, you’ll work out.

But sometimes the make it happen approach doesn’t make it happen. In this case, I usually declare burnout and walk away. Take a break. Come back. Look at what you wrote upon your return. Chances are that you will see those old words in a new light, and quite possibly move forward as a result.

If what’s stopping you is the initial inception – as in, you haven’t written anything yet and don’t know how to start - I always advise simply running your fingers over the keys and creating a few lines of drivel. Seriously. There’s nothing more intimidating than a purely blank page, and if you create a few lines of goobledegook you don’t have an empty page anymore.

It also helps to take the simple step of writing the title, Chapter One, inserting your page numbers, and formatting for double spaces and your preferred font. It might not sound like much, but setting up those really small first things will get you moving, and once you start moving, it’s easier to keep going.

Is your problem that you don’t even have an idea and so you can’t get started?

Fair. It happens. Ingest. Read. Watch TV. Listen to music. Something will spark, I promise.

The next question came from Shannon, who asked – When do you know if a project can be scrapped or at least set aside for awhile?

Again, if you’re doing the fake it ‘til you make it approach – in other words, forcing yourself to write – and that hasn’t worked, definitely walk away. Take a month, minimum, then come back. If upon your return you are unable to become fired up about this particular manuscript any longer, maybe it’s time you consider trunking it.

I’ve got some manuscripts that are 15 or 25 thousand words deep before I realized there wasn’t a whole novel there, or that what I thought was a kernel of genius was actually just… a kernel. Kind of a hard one, that won’t crack for me.

First of all, never throw anything away. Keep it. It took 15 years for all the elements of Given to the Sea and Given to the Earth to come together for me. I made small notes and waited for everything to coalesce into a novel – in this case, two novels.

Be patient.

Another approach to having discovered that you are no longer into your manuscript is to keep it, and cannibalize it. The plot might not be working, but maybe there’s a character in there who lights up your life. Take that character out, and put them in a different story.

Maybe your characters and plot aren’t working at all but there are some great dialogue exchanges. Cool. Lift them for use elsewhere. Maybe it’s only the setting that you loved. Great. Populate it with more interesting people the next time around.

Is there absolutely nothing salvageable from your manuscript? Possibly. That was absolutely the case with the first draft of The Female of the Species, which I wrote back in the late nineties. When I returned to the draft 15 years later, I knew everything was getting scrapped – except the title and concept. But I still had done that pre-writing of learning how NOT to write the book. And that’s useful.

In other words – no writing is ever completely useless. You can walk away from a manuscript and still be a better writer than you were going into it.

Related to the idea of drafts, cannibalizing old work, and how to know when to walk away, Pamela asked, What’s your biggest recommendation for rewriting a first draft?

It depends.

How bad is that first draft?

That first draft of The Female of the Species was utterly unsalvageable. My concept was there, my writing was not. I had a good idea for a great story, and no idea how to write. I had to learn. I realized this when I returned to the book – 15 years a better and more matured writer at that point – and knew how to deliver where I hadn’t been able to before.

Are you rewriting from scratch, or are you revising and editing?

This is the big question, and if you haven’t spent enough time away from your initial manuscript you probably don’t know the answer.

My biggest advice for revising a work is to get feedback. Not from readers, and not from your mom. Get feedback from a critique partner – someone who is also a writer, preferably someone who is at about the same level you are in both writing and the publishing field, and also it helps if they write in the same genre and for the same age level as you.

What’s the difference between a reader and a critique partner?

A lot.

A reader can tell you what they liked or didn’t like, but in the end, it’s an opinion from a reader. Look up your favorite book and read the worst reviews that have been written about it. Chances are, something you loved is an element that someone else hated. A review from a reader will tell you how one particular reader would have liked to see things happen… not necessarily how to make it a better book.

A writer can read it and tell you how to improve your plot and dialogue, characterization and pacing. A writer can tell you if you are hitting it on themes and if you are doing a good job of avoiding – or maybe subverting – tropes. A writer can give you some ideas about how to fix the things that aren’t working, and know when to give you compliments on the things that are.

A lot of aspiring authors want to go straight to hiring a professional to edit their work. That’s fine, but be aware that a professional – like myself – isn’t going to handle you gently and kindly. It’s our job to make you a better writer, not be your friend or make you feel good about yourself. A thorough, honest review from a professional might not be in your best interest when you are first starting out.

A few years ago a really nice guy hired me to critique his wife’s work as a Christmas present. I did the critique, then advised him that giving it to her on Christmas morning might not be the best idea. It’s important to me to do my job thoroughly and honestly. But I also don’t want to ruin someone’s Christmas.

If you have the desire – and money – to hire a professional to go through your work, be aware that we’re going to be honest – but also be aware that a lot of the things you are paying for us to tell you could have just as easily been found by a critique partner – for free.

And lastly, Chad asked, what if you had a dream that included a really good beginning of… something?

Good question. Dreams can be a definite source of material. In fact, if you listen to the episode before this you know that Not A Drop to Drink came partially from a dream. But – only partially. Dreams can be a great jumping off point, supplying you with the germ of an idea, your genesis.

But you can’t rely on them to fill in the blanks for 362 pages. And dreams are notoriously unreliable. I’ve had some amazing imagery come across my mind at three AM, leading me to wake and feel that I’ve had a profound experience and am now a changed person.

At 3 AM.

By 8 AM I was back to feeling like Mindy McGinnis, and Mindy McGinnis at 8 AM is not an inspired being. Most of that phenomenal imagery from the dream looked like a fever with hives and off its medication by the morning.

In short, dreams can be fantastic, and I fully support using them as a springboard to something better. Something bigger. And hopefully something coherent.

As always please feel free to ask me questions through Facebook, Twitter, or email, if you have a topic or question you’d like to see addressed here on the podcast. Also, my carpal tunnel appears to be less of an issue these days, and I will be returning to the guest format in 2019.

Additionally, I do have a Go Fund Me for this podcast. It does cost me to host and distribute the show. If you enjoy the podcast, please consider donating. Even if you toss me five bucks it makes me feel better and as if you actually care about me.

You can donate either by giving to Go Fund Me, through PayPal, or you can support me by buying me a coffee, which trust me, is dearly needed.

Anne O'Brien Carelli On Allowing Time to Pass Before Editing

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

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Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Anne O'Brien Carelli, who developed the Welcome to Our Schools program for the New York State Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. Her book Skylark and Wallcreeper follows the story of Lily, who is helping her grandmother Collette evacuate to a makeshift shelter in Brooklyn during Superstorm Sandy, Lily uncovers secrets of her grandmother's past as a member of the French Resistance during WWII..

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

In all other aspects of my life I am the quintessential planner, but when I write for children I definitely fly by the seat of my pants. I get an idea or a good opening line and start writing, writing, writing to see where the story will go. The characters show up and lead the way. In between writing I do a lot of thinking about how to work out details in the story, but those solutions usually end up being jumping-off points for creating as I go. It’s fun! When the book is done, then I get down to the hard work of organizing and revising.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I hate to be vague, but it depends upon the book. Historical fiction generally takes longer.  I can draft a complete book in a few weeks, but that’s in spurts, not non-stop. The research, rewrites, restructuring, and multiple revisions can take a few months. I have learned that letting the book “marinate” at least a couple of weeks between revisions is well worth the time. I’m always surprised at what I missed when I was deep in revision.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

Again, in life in general, I am a multi-tasker and prefer to operate that way. But when I’m working on a novel I like to give it my undivided attention. I’ve had occasions when my agent has asked me to switch gears temporarily, but I never stop thinking about the novel I’m working on. I’m a firm believer in incubation, especially if I define a story problem in my mind before I go to sleep. I often have a solution in the morning (and a pad a pen beside my bed)!

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I was lucky enough to be woefully ignorant about the ups and downs of publishing in children’s literature. I knew it was extremely difficult to get published, but I had no idea how complicated the process is, so I barged ahead with an idea, a pen, and no fear. Now I have the occasional twinge of doubt because when you are immersed in writing you are the only judge of the quality of your work. I try not to view the work from the perspective of what an editor might think, but it’s hard if you see what’s being published, what’s hot on Twitter, etc. I take a break the minute the writing stops being fun – and I define “fun” to include challenging problems and dilemmas to think about.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I have one gargantuan novel that I trunked, but I keep stealing from it for other books. So maybe it’s in a trunk that’s not locked.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I did quit on one – temporarily. It deals with a unique angle on a very sensitive subject, and my initial conversations with editors/agents at conferences revealed that it was going to be a hard sell. In fact, one editor didn’t understand at all what I was trying to do and it made me think long and hard about whether it was worth the trouble to work on it. I need to figure out how to describe the concept. It’s not dead in the water yet!

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Carrie Pestritto of Laura Dail Literary Agency. I never understood why authors mentioned their agents with many exclamation points, but now I get it and can only say positive things about Carrie. I signed with her by chance – which seems to be the theme of this publishing business. So much of it is serendipity! I was actually planning on sending a manuscript to an agent I heard on a panel at an SCBWI conference. When I went to her agency’s site, I started reading about Carrie and her Wish List. She seemed like a much better fit, so I submitted to her. A few weeks later she wrote me a long email, critiquing the book. At the very end she offered to represent me. I wasn’t sure I was reading it right and had to consult with a writer friend to make sure it was true!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

Let’s just say I have a spreadsheet that I used to keep track of the queries for 3 different books. It’s 8 pages long. It was a ton of work to keep up-to-date, but a system is absolutely necessary since responses are so erratic and take forever. It also included details about the submission (e.g., first page, first 10 pages, query only, etc.)

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

I really think the best advice is to take a look at my agent’s blog Literary Carrie. She does monthly query critiques and they are extremely helpful. Writers can go back through the history and get invaluable advice. 

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

I just received the ARCs and I’m not really sure I have comprehended it yet. I tend to be very practical, so I am focused on correcting the typos, preparing for marketing, etc. When I see a kid deep into reading the book, then it will seem real. Maybe.

How much input do you have on cover art?

The cover was designed without my input, but I did not expect to have a say in the artwork. I have to admit that I had mentally pictured a variety of possibilities for the cover of Skylark and Wallcreeper, and was confused when I saw what was designed. It does not look at all like I expected, but I absolutely love it. The designer and editor captured the feel of the book in a unique look, and I really appreciate that.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I knew that authors are expected to participate in marketing, but I didn’t realize to what extent some authors will go to promote their books (e.g., videos, dramatic cover reveals, giveaways, etc.). I am being very careful to limit my marketing contribution based on what my editor advises and what I can reasonably manage. It can get pretty insane.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have a website for a picture book I previously published, and am active on Twitter. I’m constructing an author website and will also create a separate author presence on Facebook.    

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I would recommend slowly building a platform as you are writing. You can tweak it when (WHEN!) you get an agent and/or published. It is my understanding that agents will check your online presence (wouldn’t you?) so even if you use an easy platform like Wix or Weebly, you can get something up that provides a profile.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I have no idea at this point. It’s probably hard to measure, but I do know that I have developed on-line connections on Twitter and FB with authors, bloggers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, and Middle Grade fans. I have started to tweet about my book but mostly I like to support other authors when they publish. That has been a lot of fun.

The Narrative Needle & Other Revision Stories

Doing a major revision is a lot like surgery.

I recently finished a massive revision on a book that I wrote eight years ago. Yep - eight years. It's actually the first YA book I tried writing, after trunking two finished adult mss and a third adult ms that was about a quarter finished. This YA title was a total watershed moment for me, as I sat in my office at work and said to myself, "Mindy, you're a librarian for teens. You're around your target audience forty hours a week and completely immersed in the market. You're kind of an idiot for not writing YA."

And yes, I really was kind of an idiot. So I scribbled down a few ideas and wrote my first YA novel over a period of about eight months. And I've put in a year of editing for every month that I spent writing it.

A lot of that is my own fault. I was practicing another sort of idiocy in not having any crit partners or joining any writer's forums before gleefully sending off queries into the ether for a sub-par ms that was about 30k longer than necessary. But beyond that, I wasn't doing the right thing with pacing, and I was very vague about things that I thought my reader should fill in on their own.

Oh, and also it was written in the wrong tense for the voice I was using. Ahem.

So, like a I said. There's been a year of revising for each month that I wrote it.

This last revision was the most invasive- the equivalent of triple bypass surgery. Typically I revise on the laptop, but this was such a huge undertaking that I printed it out (sorry, trees) and jumped in with my hatchet and red pen.

I ripped the skin off.
I peeled back the muscle.
I found the heart.

And guess what? It was in the wrong place.

Yeah. A major reveal moment that answered a massive question and is the crux of the story was happening about 100 pages too late. You read that right - 100 pages.

So I tore the heart out and moved it to another location. And that meant I had to rewire the entire circulatory system, didn't it? Everything in every scene following that moment had to be re-investigated, as the pivotal moment occurred much earlier now than it had before. Characters knew a vital piece of information much earlier now than they had before- it changed everything.

Circulatory system safely pumping, I got critical with the skeleton. It only makes sense that if you move the heart, the ribcage probably ought to get a little re-arranging as well. And it did. The Crux Moment Movement changed a lot of things, for a lot of characters, and their individual stories needed some tweaking for continuity. There were some bone grafts involved. Some scenes were literally jutting out, saying -- "HEY! I don't fit here anymore!! CONTINUITY ISSUES!! DANGER!! DANGER!!"

Some of those I had to push back into place and graft onto the scenes nearby. Some of them I pulled out entirely and tossed into a bio-waste container. Some were transplanted elsewhere.

I laid the muscle back on, checking to be sure it was attaching to the bones in the right places, not pulling anything out of joint. The skin went back on last, a re-insertion of everything that worked nicely and just had to be the cohesive covering that held everything together.

And with everything in place I whipped out what I call The Narrative Needle. I had squished everything back into a package that was working, but there were still holes, little places where things hadn't grown together quite yet. Things like scene jumps that could conceivably be melded together for flow, or a nice fact-delivering organic bit of dialogue that moved my characters from one scene to the next seamlessly, even if one scene was written eight years ago and the next one was eight minutes old.

With everything tied off, the end result is a much different looking creature than what I made eight years ago.

But everything inside is pumping much more effectively.