Lisa Cron here! Today’s post is by Jennie Nash, my friend, colleague at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and the book coach who helped shepherd Wired for Story to publication. I asked Jennie to write this post because she had seven clients land top agents in 2013 and, well, she’s just really smart about this stuff. I love what she has to say.
Jennie is the author of seven books and the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of No Blank Pages, an online tutorial site that offers step-by-step guidance to help writers finish books that get read. No Blank Pages is in the beta launch stage, and they are offering Writer Unboxed readers a special start-up deal. You can check it out at noblankpages.com/WUspecial and visit Jennie at jennienash.com Take it away, Jennie!
Is Your Book Good Enough for Publication? A Cold-Blooded Assessment
There are so many good reasons to write. It’s cheaper than therapy, a painless way to escape reality, a fun way to spend a rainy weekend, an easy hobby to pick up when you have small children or aging knees, an ideal way to preserve family history, a fantastic way to express your feelings, a good excuse for spending all day in coffee shops, and the most reliable way that I know to way to make sense of an often senseless world. But here’s the catch: none of the reasons that make writing good for the writer make it good for the reader. Now that the doors of publishing have been thrown open, I believe it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure that they aren’t confusing the two. When you make the decision that you would like your writing to be read by strangers, you are leaving the realm of what writing means for the writer and entering a world where what writing means to the [pullquote]When you make the decision that you would like your writing to be read by strangers, you are leaving the realm of what writing means for the writer and entering a world where what writing means to the reader must come above all else.[/pullquote]reader must come above all else. What this means, at its heart, is that it’s the writer’s responsibility not to publish a bad book. What it means is that you must assess your manuscript with the cold-blooded focus of a leopard on the hunt.
Bad is a subjective term, obviously, and there is a very wide range of what bad can mean in a book. My task here is not to try to define the range. It is to offer you a system for assessing if your book falls safely outside of it. This is a system that I have developed after publishing seven books, teaching hundreds of beginning writers how to get started on their book projects, and successfully coaching a dozen writers (and counting) from vague idea to book on the shelf.
Before I get to the steps, I’d like to talk about when to take these steps. To help with that, I have outlined 5 stages in the book-writing process. Note that all these stages go far more smoothly if you start out with a solid blueprint for your book, but that’s a topic my host, Lisa Cron, has spoken eloquently about in this space so we don’t need to go there.
- Stage 1 is the stage when you just want someone to tell you that what you’ve done is okay, if not brilliant, because you want the assurance that your idea is at least viable. At this stage, you might have one or two or three chapters written.
- Stage 2 is when you’re ready for someone to take a slightly more critical look, but you still want them to tell you that what you’ve done is okay, if not brilliant. At this stage, you might have 50 or 100 pages.
- Stage 3 is when you have a very solid draft and you’re ready for a tough story analyst to come in and tell it like it is, even if their critique results in your having to do a major re-write, and possibly eat a lot of chocolate ice cream. You might throw out 50 pages at this stage. You might re-start the book at chapter 5. But your story is whole.
- Stage 4 is the stage where you have a super solid solid draft and want someone good at facts, grammar, and continuity to put your manuscript through the ringer so you can polish it to a high shine.
- Stage 5 is when you’re ready to send out to agents and editors, or to self publish. Your work is as perfect as you can humanly make it.
I think the best time to give your book a solid assessment is between Stages 3 and 4, which is fairly late in the game. You know your work isn’t ready for the final polish, but you can safely ask, “Is my book good enough for publication?” because if the answer is No, you simply go back to Step #3 and keep revising it until you are ready for Step #4. Everyone knows that revision must happen. It’s not like a giant surprise. So it’s a good time to make a cold-blooded assessment and still be in a position to deal with the consequences. Here’s how:
1.) Do YOU think your book is good? Doctors often say that patients come into their appointment knowing precisely what’s wrong with them, even when what’s wrong is something obscure. The same is true with writers. I often have writers come to me saying that they fear their opening is weak, their middle sags, their ending doesn’t pay off – and they’re always right. Writers who are this self- aware are smart. They have assessed their work, found the weaknesses and sought help. The opposite are writers who refuse to even assess. They write what they write, get to “the end,” and believe the world should roll out a red carpet, no questions asked. There is no stepping back and evaluating. There is no effort to think about the readers’ perspective. There is just ego. And it almost always turns out badly. They try to get an agent and amass a pile of rejections. They self publish and end up giving most of their books away. They often become those people who say that the whole system is rigged and that you have to know the right people to get published these days. Before you go out into the world with your book, take a hard, honest look at your work and make sure that you think it’s good. Separate out the reasons you wrote it, the pleasure you took in the process and that one awesome sentence on page 47 that just sings, and focus on the whole. If you were a reader, would you buy this book?
2.) What do your dearest friends think of your book? Start by asking three people who love you to read your work — but ask them in a particular way. You are not asking them to tell you that you have done and awesome job and that they are proud of you and just knew that you could do it. You are asking them to rip it to shreds. Yes, that’s right: ask them to tell you what they hate. When I’m doing this, I often tell people that if they feel like putting the book down and not finishing it, they should stop reading and just tell me the page number where they stopped. That is incredibly valuable information. So go to the people you think will be honest. You do not want love, here. Love is not useful. You want the truth. Brace yourself for it, and don’t do this before you can handle it. If a work is new and fragile and you are feeling shaky about it, this is exactly the wrong approach. Other methods are called for at that time. But if a work is as good as you can make it, you need to put it to a test. This is a safe way to do it.
What do you do with the feedback you get? If you get a consensus, listen to it. If you do not get a consensus, listen to each piece of it. Does anything ring true? Were you called out in any way that resonates with you? Be honest. Don’t hide from what you know. Face it — and then decide how to address it in the work.
3.) What do strangers think of your book? I wrote a detailed explanation of how to do a book club beta test for Compose Journal, which involves a whole group of strangers and months of preparation. I will give you the short-hand version here. Find some kind strangers. Friends of friends. Perhaps the nice woman who cuts your hair. Perhaps the gal in your office who always has her nose in a book. Ask them if they would be willing to read your book. Ask them to tell you honestly what they think of it. It can help to give them some specific questions – i.e. for fiction: Did you sympathize with the main character? for nonfiction: Did you feel that the tone was both authoritative and understandable? Then repeat the feedback protocol for #2.
4.) What does a professional editor think of the book? Hiring a professional editor is an investment in your book, to be sure. The best ones are not cheap, because editing takes an enormous amount of time. The editor is looking at everything from pacing and rhythm, to structure and style, to tone and point of view, to continuity and chronology, to the way you handle dialogue, scenes and chapter transitions, to the point and payoff of the whole thing — and once they have analyzed all that, they will walk you through the steps you need to take to go back in and improve your book. (This is known as developmental editing. If you are looking for someone to take your words and polish them to a high shine because, um, you don’t want to do it, you are probably looking for a ghostwriter.) Only go to a professional editor when you have done absolutely every last little thing you can do to make the book awesome. That’s when you’ll get the most for your money. And don’t do it – really don’t do it — unless you are going to be open to what you hear. I can’t tell you the number of people who pay me a lot of money to edit their manuscripts and when I give my feedback, their reaction is to argue – to tell me why it makes sense to have that long, boring opening, why it’s okay that their chronology is confusing, to insist that they have shown, not told, because look there on page 87: they describe how blue the sky was. That’s showing, right? What makes me want to cry was that many of them had great ideas and were just as talented as the next writer. What they lacked was the understanding that it’s just not easy to write a good book.
5.) What does an agent think of your book? Agents want to say yes to your book. That is what they’re there for – to say yes to books. But if you get a string of agents saying no – particularly if they are saying no with form letters — you have to consider that there is a problem. In my four years as a book coach, I have had many dozens of writers come to me with manuscripts that are getting rejected. The writers are in total despair and want to know what’s going on. I ask to read the query letter and first chapter – which is exactly what most agents will be reading. I have never – seriously never – not immediately seen the problem. It is always crystal clear what the problem is – and usually it’s that the writer hasn’t even thought about steps 1- 4. Agents are highly trained good-book assessing machines and they are excellent at their jobs. When a writer has worked hard, assessed their book, sought outside feedback and used a professional editor, odds are very good that they will get actual, real-live human feedback from agents. They might not get signed —because publishing is subjective, and luck and timing always play a part — but they will get a real response. Which is a sign that their book is good enough for publication. Which is the point of writing something you hope strangers will read.
6.) Be willing to walk away. Walking away from a book you have written is one of the most difficult creative decisions you can make, but sometimes it is the best and bravest thing to do. If the feedback you are getting is that you have written something sweet but not awesome, good but not great, okay but not commercially viable, then don’t put yourself through the agony of publishing it only to have the world tell you the same thing. Put it away and move on. The lessons you learned from writing that book will not be lost. You’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours. So keep writing. What you learned will seep into the next book, which will therefore absolutely be better.