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.

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