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Being Too Close to a Manuscript

Something an agent (Scott Tremeil) said at the NJ SCBWI agent panel really put a point on something I’d been thinking for a long time and hadn’t quite gotten around to articulating. We were asked to give listeners one parting piece of advice. Mine, perhaps selfishly, was about the wonderful benefits of revision and getting a good critique group (since I want to see very, very polished manuscripts, of course).

Scott said that, sometimes, if he hears that a writer has been working on a manuscript for 10 years or so, that’s a red flag for him. I have to completely agree. Writers who are emotionally tied up in their story to an extreme degree are also a red flag. These issues make me worry: Is the writer too close to the manuscript to be able to see it objectively and revise it accordingly? Is it too precious for them? Are they so emotionally involved with the piece that getting it rejected by a publisher will be damaging? Are they so invested in a particular story or can they  move on from it to write something else? Will it also take them 10 years to craft the next book?

Writers who belabor something for years are problematic. I know some mad geniuses like Harper Lee only have one great book in them. In today’s market, though, the ideal writer (to an agent or publisher, that is) can turn out consistent, quality manuscripts about once a year. This way you can always have a next book coming out and you can start building your readership. You’ll have a brand and, twice a year, readers can look for you on shelves — once in hardcover for this year’s book, once in paperback for last year’s.

Writers who are writing about a personal subject that is very close to their hearts make me anxious, too. If you are writing a story, for example, about the death of a character’s sister to, Heaven forbid, work through that tragedy happening in your own life, how will you deal with an editor rejecting that story? Or with an editor coming in and wanting you to make changes? Is your subject matter too close to home? Is an experience in the novel too precious and too reflective of your own life?

In no way am I saying “Don’t write about something painful or personal.” Do. That way, your story will have great emotional resonance. And it will be cathartic for you. But do realize which part of that story is yours and which part of that story is fiction. Which part belongs to you, privately, and which part belongs to readers, publicly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is extremely personal, but publishing is a business. If you don’t think you can walk this fine line with a manuscript that’s on your plate — whether it’s because you’ve been working on the manuscript for so long or because you’re dealing with deeply personal subject matter — it may be better not to pursue publication with it.

The point I wish I’d made, after hearing Scott’s advice, is this: there are many times in a writer’s journey where a manuscript is just a manuscript. Every single thing you write is a learning experience…but, sometimes, that’s all it is. Glean what you can from a manuscript or an essay or a paragraph, and move on. Start something new. You’ll be better and stronger and wiser for it. I like hearing that a writer has a lot of drawer novels, actually, because it tells me one very important thing: they know how to learn from an experience and move on.

This advice obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people love mining their emotional past an others take longer to write a manuscript. But if these things are starting to feel like obstacles to you, the best solution may be putting that particular manuscript aside and starting something else.

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