W. C. Fields, a misogynistic wit of the early 20th century, is credited with saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damned fool about it.” Regardless of how unpleasant his personality may have been, the advice rings true.
Finish the manuscript
Too many writers struggling to produce that first book pour time, energy, and hope into a manuscript that clearly isn’t going anywhere. Yet they cannot recognize futility and walk away from the project. Reasons for that struggle may include a desire for perfection, a fear of inferiority among more talented or skilled colleagues, an inability to carry the story further, or the distraction of life’s responsibilities.
Some writers suffer from imposter syndrome. This, too, affects many new authors. They doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as frauds. Imposter syndrome affects more than just authors: Fast Company applies it to entrepreneurs. The five subcategories of imposter syndrome describe authors, too. If some variety of imposter syndrome is what prevents you from finishing that manuscript, The Muse offers some helpful suggestions to banish it.
Other issues that may hinder completion of the manuscript include structural problems within the story itself. This is where plotters have an advantage, because they work out these details before they begin to write the narrative. Another issue is a lack of emotional closure or a refusal (or inability) to let go of the story. Emotional attachment to the characters prevents authors from severing the connection by ending the story. In some cases, the author forces the wrong character to serve as the narrator, or he lacks the flexibility to allow characters to evolve. Another problem concerns too narrow a focus, something better suited to an 8,000-word short story than an 80,000-word novel. Perhaps another author published a similar story, which you take to mean your story premise isn’t so unique and terrific after all. A professional editor can assist authors with these issues.
Other factors that contribute to delayed completion include a lack of organization, procrastination, a failure to set priorities, and succumbing to the temptation to edit and write at the same time. Finally, sometimes an author grows bored with the story. In that case, abandonment makes more sense than struggling to expand upon something that does not hold your interest. Remember, if the story bores the author, then it will bore the reader, too.
Should the author fail to rectify the problems preventing completion of the manuscript, the best course of action is simply to abandon it. Withdraw from the project, distract the mind, and then focus on another story idea.
An abandoned manuscript has lessons to teach. What did you learn in writing that unfinished story? Did it serve as practice for learning story structure, for developing a writing style, for character development? Don’t discount that abandoned manuscript as a wasted effort. If you learned from it and the exercise honed your skills, then you did not waste the effort.
For whom do you write?
Experts advise new writers to simply write that first draft. Don’t edit. Just get it out. Purge your mind. Those who practice that advice may liken the first draft to mental diarrhea.
As you write, let the story develop. Let’s say you write a mystery, a broad genre with many sub-genres further refining the category to cater to readers’ varied preferences. Although you may begin with the intention of writing a cozy mystery à la Agatha Christie or Lilian Jackson Braun, perhaps the story evolves to something less cozy, maybe with a sharp British edge such as found in Dick Francis’ work or imbued with sly humor and rough action like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series.
The goal of the rough draft is to write the story. Once that’s finished it is not ready for public consumption. At that point, savvy authors set it aside and let it rest. Then, after a few days or even a few weeks, they go back to their drafts with a fresh eye and begin the editing process. During the self-editing process, the writer takes remedial action to correct the flaws and errors she identifies.
By the time the author edits and revises the rough draft, she should have a good idea of the sub-genre. For instance, your novel may fall under the genre of romance, which has myriad sub-genres that have subcategories of their own. The Romance Writers of America identifies seven general sub-genres under the romance umbrella: contemporary romance, erotic romance, historical romance, paranormal romance, religious/spiritual/Christian romance, romantic suspense, and young adult romance. Historical romance includes subcategories such as Regency, Georgian, medieval, Scottish, and others.
Nothing precludes a book from straddling multiple genres. That just makes it more difficult to categorize, but may expand your audience. Make note of genre and sub-genre, because correct categorization targets your book for the correct audience. A miscategorized book draws the ire of readers who seek something else.
Another concern when writing focuses on marketability. If you think that commercial fiction is all the same, then you’re not entirely incorrect. Commercially successful authors tread a fine line between originality and appeal to the masses. Go too far in one direction, and the book appeals only to an extremely narrow audience. Lean too far in the other direction, and readers will complain of the book being derivative, clichéd, and lacking originality. When writing, bear in mind what readers of that general genre expect. For instance, if you write fantasy, then understand that readers will expect a fictional universe and supernatural elements.
Whether writing literary fiction, romance based on real word circumstances, or the most speculative of fiction, the author must ground the story in realistic elements to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Skillful incorporation of realism enables the reader to accept mythical creatures, arcane powers, extraordinary situations, and pseudo-technology. This is where research comes in.
Yes, research pertains to fiction as well as nonfiction.
For instance, someone writing a story focusing on a Pony Express rider should know the history of the service, the challenges faced by the riders, and even a bit about horses and horsemanship. Today’s writers are lucky: most resource material can be obtained with a few keystrokes. Google is your friend.
Guaranteed, you’ll get readers who know more about a feature aspect of your book than you do. Get a basic detail incorrect and they’ll lambast you for it in their reviews. For instance, if you’re writing that Pony Express western and the riders all race across the country on stallions, the owners of some of those 20 million horses in the country will pick up on the author’s failure to conduct a few minutes of research. Not only will they leave comments discouraging potential readers from purchasing your book, they will also avoid purchasing anything else you publish.
Don’t let laziness alienate your audience. Don’t assume your readers’ ignorance. Do the research and get the details right.
The finishing touch
Once you reviewed, edited, and revised your manuscript at least once—better to run through it multiple times—it will finally be ready to send to an editor. Many indie authors neglect this crucial step which puts the finishing polish on the story.
Reliance upon spell checking programs and grammar checking programs such as whatever word processor you use, Grammarly, Hemingway, etc. help with catching and fixing many basic errors. However, software does not account for dialect, nuance, context, or other subtleties that need a human eye and human discernment. Software won’t identify passive voice and suggest correction to active voice to strengthen the writing.
Editors focus on improving the content, not on bolstering a writer’s delicate ego. They engage in a deliberative, time-consuming process to analyze every word on every line and may suggest changes that discomfit the writer. Don’t skimp on professional editing. Pay for competence and quality service to help you polish your book.
After you finish revising your manuscript in accordance with the editor’s recommendations, decide whether you will pursue traditional publishing or independent publishing. Traditional publishers often do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Therefore, authors must also research literary agents who have the connections to sell their work to publishing companies. Reputable sources such as the Writer’s Market, Literary Marketplace, and Writer’s Digest offer lists of publishers and literary agents and helpful advice regarding manuscript formatting and query letters. Each publisher and agent has submission guidelines; many specify “standard manuscript format.” Follow submission guidelines exactly. With acceptance rates averaging around a mere 2 percent, you can’t afford to ruin your chances with an easily avoided error.
If you choose to publish as an indie author, another set of standards and expertise comes into play.
Author: The Ultimate Work-at-Home Career Part II (currently reading)
Author: The Ultimate Work-at-Home Career Part III