Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A hard truth for new writers

In the last couple of years since I've been on Twitter, I've read the first novels of many new acquaintances. The authors' exuberance and excitement is understandable--it IS beyond exciting when your dream comes true and you publish a book!

However, the books themselves have been a "mixed bag" as far as quality of writing and editing. The stories have been good and worth reading, for the most part, but the execution in terms of plot and writing style (and mistakes in grammar and spelling) have sometimes made me cringe. In a few cases I couldn't finish the story and wanted to throw my Kindle against the wall in frustration.

I am reminded what happened to my first novel (its several drafts were typed on a--gasp--typewriter). The story idea was original. I spent about a year researching the Dogon tribe in West Africa (before the internet--I went to many libraries and ordered books through inter-library loan) in order to make the details authentic. I sent out the manuscript many times by mail in a cardboard box with high hopes each time.

It was never published.

At the time I was bewildered. After all, I loved the story. I had worked so hard on it! I shelved it and went on to other things. About ten years later I tried to read the novel again and could not get through it. I had (thankfully) developed as a writer enough that reading my first attempt at a novel was PAINFUL. It could NEVER have been published, and thankfully I did not have the option of self-publishing back then, or in my first-novel excitement I might have been tempted to do it.

After I was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago and took a soul-searching look at my overstuffed office (not quite as bad as the picture above but close), I realized I did not want my family to have to go through all those papers once I was gone, so I bagged my two copies of the novel and a stack of research notes and photos about twelve inches thick and threw them away, along with dozens of short stories that were not publishable either. They are rotting in our town's dump even now.

Sometimes I wish I had kept at least one copy of the manuscript. Or the notes. After all, the Dogon culture is fascinating. But all the editors who rejected that story were right to do so and saved me from embarrassing myself with the two-dimensional characters, improbable plot, purple prose, and newbie writing errors.

Yes, it's difficult for writers to be objective about their work. The stories come from the deepest part of our hearts, and even when we try to read them objectively, our emotions can get in the way. If our beta readers are friends and family, they won't want to be honest about mistakes because they (hopefully) love us and want us to succeed.

A good critique group is a great resource and place to get honest feedback. But whether publishing the "traditional" way or self-publishing, a good editor is vitally important to every story in order to make it the best it can be.

Notes from critique group's honest ripping feedback.

First page of ripped manuscript ACCEPTED by MZB for her anthology.

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