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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Manuscript evaluation - is it worth it?

I’ve had a few emails recently from writers who have finished a book or script and want their baby professionally evaluated before sending it into the shark infested waters of publishing. And is it worth it?

One of the crappy things about sending out a manuscript is that even if it’s almost there and needs just a bit of work, editors don’t have time to respond individually, so the ‘almost there’ books tend to get the same short shrift as the ‘never in a million years’ books i.e. a form rejection. If you’re lucky, you might get a hand scribbled note on the rejection letter suggesting you send it somewhere else or offering a bit of advice. Don’t be offended by this – if the editor has taken the time to write a few words of encouragement it’s good. It’s hopeful.

But there you are with you rejection letter, feeling hurt, rejected, pissed off. Most importantly, not knowing why. Is it that the character you fell in love with may not be as loveable as you think? Bits of plot may not make enough sense? Overwriting? As a writer you are often so close to your work you can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s like having your nose pressed so close to the glass of the shop that everything is blurred and you can’t see the layout, the structure, the overall impression. This is where a good manuscript evaluation service can help – if you’re prepared to listen.

It’s my view that all good writers doubt their work. I don’t mean that they go around in a fug of despair, but criticism is taken on the chin and recognised for what it is; a tool to improve the writing.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for a couple of years and in every group I teach there is at least one person who has clearly signed up to the course for an audience or for validation. But not to learn anything. These are the students who are making the same errors at the end of the course as they are at the beginning. And no, I’m not saying I don’t get precious and fractious about my own work but I’m (hopefully) grown up enough to realise that flattering words don’t help me to improve as a writer. These students are likely to come out with the following:

You don’t understand what I’m trying to do. Well as a writer you don’t have the luxury of sitting next to you reader and saying – this bit here – I wrote it because I wanted to show how self-destructive she gets when a relationship goes wrong. If it’s not on the page it’s not there.

Publishing is a conspiracy to keep new writers out. No it’s not. New writers get published all the time – we only hear about it though, if the advance is spectacular.

The gatekeepers of publishing are an elite bunch of snobs. A few years ago with the advent of e-books and self-publishing like Lulu, there was a feeling across the blogsphere that publishing was now fully democratised, the reader would decide what they wanted, and no longer was publication in the gnarled hands of evil publishing gatekeepers. What has actually happened is the realisation that not only are there millions of e-books, novels, poetry and other creatives, a huge amount of this is really really bad. So the gatekeepers are not snobs – they may decide what they think will sell, and yes it’s a question of taste sometime, but without them – just look at some of the dross available out there.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know. It does help to get your manuscript read. I got my first break by having a friend suggest I send my script to someone he knew at Radio 4. But had the script been utter cack, would it have been commissioned? Er . . no.

Editors in commercial publishing spoil your work. This is an odd one and often cited by the determined self-publisher. Self-publishing is a possible route, for the determined, and those who are prepared to ruthlessly edit their own work and market it and sell it, literally door to door sometimes. Not to say that it can’t be done, but I doubt if any self-published writer would choose this route over a contract with a mainstream publishing house complete with their own marketing and sales division. Some SPA’s some oddly proclaim the fear that a mainstream editor would wreck their book, so the self-published author remains more in control. That’s news to me; the relationship between writer and editor is a partnership, not a Victorian Dad standing over the writer with a big stick.

If you go to the excellent Self Publishing Review run by Jane Smith, she will review a self published book and praise it generously if it’s good. But one of the common reasons she stops reading after fifteen pages is because of the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes. It may be your book, untinkered by an editor, but it’s a book littered with errors too.

I can totally understand why unpublished authors become angry at the amount of celebrity dross being published, often with stonking advances. I read the ‘autobiography’ of a certain pop star recently which comprised mainly of photos of him looking manly and sensitive. The opening paragraph read: 'I suppose you could say that my life has been a bit mad.'

Why would people buy this stuff? Well most of it is written by ghost-writers anyway, and publishers are finally beginning to realise that the public are not that stupid and don’t really want to read a ghost-written book about Grade Z celebrity ‘lifestyles’. The top selling celeb autobiography in 2007 was Peter Kay’s and he wrote it himself, so maybe the tide is changing. I hope so. But even so, I don’t think of that as real publishing but branding.

Back to the original question. How do you find a good manuscript evaluation service? What do you look for?

Look at their track record. Have they helped authors actually get published by real publishing houses? Beware of services which are tied to e-books or self-publishing companies.

If their banner line reads: Helping you to get published – or any guarantees like that – again, beware. There are no guarantees.

If you send in a novel you should get feedback from a published novelist in your genre. They should be looking at specific elements such as structure, plot, and characterisation and offer advice and suggestions as to how you can improve it. The word is specific. No vagaries. And if with your feedback there are further exhortations to put you in touch with a freelance editor they happen to know who could really get your book published – red flag. Unscrupulous evaluation services will encourage you to keep sending your novel to be tinkered with, edited, and polished (all for a fee of course). A good one will be straight and tell you exactly why your work is not quite ready to be sent out into the market.

I’ve done some reading for The Literary Consultancy several years ago and one of my stipulations was that I wasn’t going to encourage a writer whose book was not publishable, to keep sending it back for more changes. If your work is fundamentally flawed, no amount of tinkering will turn into a publishable book. You would be better to take the advice on board and use it to write a better book.

Victoria Strauss has some fantastic advice for anyone thinking of using a freelance editor or evaluation service.


Hodmandod said...

I was published last year, and that opened the door to a new agent. She has been very thorough in her reading and recommendations for my new novel which was enormously encouraging. A friend paid £750 odd for an evaluation of her romantic comedy by a man who wrote something quite different like historical biography. He was incredibly rude about what was a perfectly decent manuscript. Seemed a bit like SM to me, paying to have your confidence ripped to shreds! So VERY important to take this advice and make sure that you are being evaluated by someone successful in your particular genre. Nice post, thanks.

Jane said...

Bloody hell Hodmandod - £750?!!! That's absurd. And then to be so rude? I do think it's important to check out the credentials of whoever you've entrusted your manuscript to. And congratulations on getting published.

Anonymous said...

Incredible article! Could you follow up on this excellent subject?