I thoroughly enjoy the final stages of writing a critique for an author client. I’ve digested their novel, I know what’s ticking nicely and what isn’t. It’s even more exciting when I know they have the skill, the insight, the ear for language and the sensitivity for story and character. That if they solve the remaining problems, their novel will really set sail.
But often I know I’m going to get an email telling me, probably at great length, that I’m wrong. That the novel doesn’t need any more work. Even, wanting me to change my mind and agree with them.
I’m not talking about changes to make a work more commercial. I don’t tend to suggest those anyway; they are usually as much about fashion as craft. A novel takes so long to get right that by the time you submit it, boy wizards, time travel, vampires and vector botany will all be gone to the pulping machine in the sky. Yes, even vector botany, which as far as I know hasn’t happened yet.
And I’m not talking about perfectly understandable disappointment or sensitivity. While I’m always honest, I’m never brutal. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have heartfelt stories raked over. I get notes from agents and editors too.
And of course I check before I accept a client that I understand their aims as a writer, so I don’t give advice that’s way off kilter.
What I am talking about is a vibe from the client that makes me certain that when they open my report they’re going to shoot the messenger – with both barrels.
Now, though, I’ve learned to spot them, so I test them with the following questions.
1 – Have you allowed time for rewrites?
Often the writer is angry with me because they thought the book was fit to submit, give or take a few light edits. Or that they could hit self-publish.
The second question is more complex.
2 – Is your book based on traumatic events that happened to you?
Some people start writing a novel as therapy. That can be a recipe for a self-indulgent, unreadable book. But many writers produce works of astounding power from their own traumas.
If they have unresolved issues with some of the subject matter, or the rotters they are writing about, it often comes across as flaws in the book. I quite often find passages where the writer still needs to unravel more, to step back and examine. There are places that are stridently defensive, or characters who are treated with jarring harshness, whereas elsewhere the reader is allowed to make up their mind whether they like someone or approve of their behaviour. (I’m not saying this never works, indeed such blindness and fury can be heartbreaking. And if it is, I leave well alone…)
If a client is writing about personal traumas, I warn them that, in acting as the book’s advocate, I may make some criticisms that could touch a nerve. But I’m doing what they asked for, to help them make the book as good as it deserves to be.
Before you give a manuscript to a professional editor, obviously try to finish it and polish. But – here’s the conundrum – expect it probably isn’t finished at all. In particular, don’t make a deadline for sending it out afterwards. Expect that you might need to take a good few months to tweak, re-evaluate and rewrite.
When you ask for an editor’s help, they want you to write the best book you can. Allow the space and time to do that, mentally, temporally, physically and emotionally.
(Thank you, Bedford Street, for the picture)
Have you used editors? Do you offer this service yourself? Share your experiences in the comments!