Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Public Service Message Regarding Unpolished Manuscripts

When you go to a job interview, you don't wear your sweats and a T-shirt, you dress up in your best business attire. When you want to impress someone of the opposite sex, you practically knock yourself out doing things you know will please that person (or that you hope will.) So why do so many writers start distributing their stories underdressed and at their worst? Ignorance, overeagerness, or an uncontrollable neediness perhaps. Who knows?

I confess this behavior baffles and intrigues me. I see it a lot, so do other writers and industry professionals. Online writing forums draw crowds of these people. Publishers have had to come up with complicated maps, back doors, and secret passwords to keep the deluge out. Agents have auto-reject responses and interns to help fight off the storm of unpolished manuscripts.

Poor things.

I feel for the stories the most, yes indeed.

A story is an exciting creation and when someone gets a hold of a great story they are infused with that excitement. The problem is not getting carried away in this thrall of passion.

A writer bangs out a manuscript, and without a moment's pause, sends it out into the world, certain of fame, popularity, and fortune. Sometimes a writer's cooled down a mite, at least enough not to start pounding on publishers' doors. The writer heads to the nearest writing forum or local writing group and drops their freshly hewn baby in the midst of other writers and expects instant feedback or even editing from their peers.

Take a step back.

Yes, you have an exciting story. Yes, you do need constructive criticism and help from other writers. But wait--aren't they writers too? Don't they also have stories of their own? Maybe they have a life outside of writing--you know, a day job, or a family, or other responsibilities competing for their writing time. Sometimes the over-expectant writer gets hurt when no one offers to read their entire manuscript and fix it for them. Sometimes the over-expectant writer gets offended when people aren't praising that unrefined manuscript and demanding to see it in print. And most times, sad to say, the over-expectant writer has no intention of helping anyone else out in a like manner.

So do put this delicately *cough, cough* if you have any of these over-eager tendencies or recognize some of these aforementioned behaviors in your publishing strategy, you're acting like a selfish, lazy twerp. Ignorance is probably the core of your malady and with some not-so-gentle rebuffs from your peers you might shake the blinders from your eyes. Don't expect others to do your dirty work. Don't expect other writers to devote hours to your story, hours they could be working on their own--particularly if you're at a rough draft or early draft stage.

Now, some over-expectant writers do cool down even more from that first burst of godlike creativity. They have at least done a second or third draft on their manuscript. They might even offer to exchange manuscripts with another writer or two. Maybe. But they haven't cooled down enough. They throw their baby at literary agents and publishers. They think they're ready but the manuscript isn't. Not a bit. Shh...don't argue. I mean it.

These over-expectant writers have sent their manuscripts out unpolished and defected. Their grammar and spelling might be off. Maybe they have huge info-dumps or chunks of pointless backstory. Bloated word count is often the problem. Plot holes, flat characters, choppy style in parts, etc. I sympathize with your eagerness, but don't do this to your story. Please.

Your story needs a fighting chance. I don't care what visions of sugar-plums are dancing in your head. You may have your marketing strategy all figured out. You may have a website, a blog, a Facebook account, and a Twitter account already loudly tooting your horn. You may have cover art picked out, the font for the title, and the rough draft for the screenplay started. You may know who you want to direct the film version of your story and who the leads actors must be. It's all for nothing if your unpolished, rough draft of a story gets rejected everywhere because you jumped the gun.

Don't kill your story. It's the most important factor. So how do you give your story a fighting chance? Don't let your eagerness get in the way. Learn the craft of writing, read a lot, critique for other writers, edit, edit, edit, and polish even more. Make that baby of yours gleam! It's the story that's going to be your best marketing ploy, your best advertisement, your best ally. Feedback from other writers? Of course! Just remember it's a give and take and you want to build up long-lasting beta reader relationships with the right people. Don't turn them off because you asked them for feedback too soon and they are faced with huge line edits on a story that isn't their own.

But, but, what if it takes more than a month or two to do all of that? Let it take as long as it needs to take to make your story what it needs to be. Yes, some writers can zip off a book every few months, some writers take years, and many fall in between. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else--especially the writers you hear about in the news. You're not in a race. Your poor story gets one round, 99% of the time, to gain industry approval and if you kill that chance by being over-eager, you might as well light the bonfire under your manuscript after writing The End the first time.

No, I'm not a publisher or an agent. I'm a fellow writer. Most importantly, I'm a reader; a potential customer. I expect to open the cover of a book and find the meat inside satisfying and filling. Your story is what matters to readers, not your online persona, not how quickly you get the book deal. Readers care about content and delivery.

Whew, I'm glad I got that out. All these poor unpolished stories I've seen come and go through writing forums and my inbox have haunted me. My fellow writers have some solid, fantastic ideas. Please, let those ideas mature and sparkle. I'd like to see some of them in print, truly. I fear I might never see any of the too-soon-shopped stories on a bookstore's or library's shelves. The poor manuscripts didn't stand a chance. Their ambitious creators doomed them.

Thank you to all the writers who have chilled out and taken the time to perfect their stories. You make my job as a critic and reader a delight. I look forward to and have high expectations for your stories. I'm grateful some of these sweet-smelling, cutely dressed, and brilliant babies have come my way.


  1. Very well said, Joyce. Amen to everything.

    It is a shame to have a great plot ruined by carelessness. I've also noticed that some people are so hasty--as soon as they finish their ms, they start querying immediately.

    It's like what my daughter said to me about school. They were having a timed math test, and because the other kids in her class were so afraid of running out of time, they didn't review their answers before turning in their papers. A minute glance could have made the difference between passing and flunking.

  2. Cherie--Good example with the math test. =)