I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.
A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.
I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.
I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?
I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.
With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.
First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.
Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.
Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?
Writing is rewriting
Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.
Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.
Writing is many skills
Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.
But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.
Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.
Her book is not rubbish
Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.
Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.
We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.
Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.
Thanks for the end credits pic fliegender and the burning page pic ubhape2.com
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
#1 by Davida Chazan on October 11, 2020 - 1:28 pm
When I finally finish my manuscript, I hope the first people I give it to are completely honest, and rip it to shreds!
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2020 - 2:45 pm
Saluting you, madam Chocolat!
#3 by mrdisvan on October 11, 2020 - 2:12 pm
I don’t know if this helps, but Martin Amis’s latest novel is a complete rewrite of a first draft that he produced (and junked) in 2005. So sometimes writers have to do that soul-searching and rethinking for themselves. In other words, writing is rewriting.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2020 - 2:45 pm
Great example, Mr Disvan. Thank you!
#5 by CARAMEL on October 11, 2020 - 4:12 pm
I understand the question completely….but I honestly do not know!
Sometimes I have read books published through publishing houses and I thought they were awful. I am not sure what the publisher saw in them. I recently read a blogger’s self-published book and was lost for words at how much I disliked the story and how confusing and choppy it was.
But that frightens me about my own books. Maybe they are terrible and all my friends and family are being too nice to me.
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2020 - 5:21 pm
Hi Caramel! The only answer is to find honest critics who should be the right audience for your book. Good luck!
#7 by Sam "Goldie" Kirk on October 12, 2020 - 5:32 pm
I am right there with you, Caramel! Books indeed can be so subjective. I absolutely hate some of the “bestsellers,” while wondering why some people have not been published yet.
As far as your book is concerned, I would recommend being honest with yourself. Read your book as if it was someone else’s.
#8 by C.E.Robinson on October 11, 2020 - 7:10 pm
Roz, after my editor line-edited my first draft, he told me it was a practice book. Now, rewrite it and apply what you learned. New plot & scene ideas came to me right away. I’m into the third edit (working with a screenwriter). We edit each other’s work and brainstorm three hours by phone once a week. When I’m finished, it will go back to my editor for an analysis. This is my first novel (historical fiction) and I want it to be the best it can be.
Developmental editing has an edge at the beginning. The new writer needs to know up front you are developing the story with the writer, and keeping him/her moving the story forward. What slows the story down has to go. With my editor’s line-editing, I learned basically the same. He told me it was a good story, good characters, good dialogue, and I had most all the elements in it. But then there were things to work on. I took his critique seriously. Editors are worth the money. 📚🎶 Christine
#9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2020 - 10:06 pm
Christine, what you describe here is the joy of editing and the joy of learning, while making a work that matters to you and you want to be proud of. I certainly agree that editors are worth the money, but then I would say that…
#10 by C.E.Robinson on October 11, 2020 - 10:09 pm
Of course! You earn every dollar! 📚🎶
#11 by cagedunn on October 12, 2020 - 12:00 am
Reblogged this on Cage Dunn: Fibber, Fabricator, Teller-of-tall-tales and commented:
Ever had the feedback dilemma? Here’s the goss on how to do it:
#12 by bookstopen on October 12, 2020 - 12:08 am
Reblogged this on Books to Pen and commented:
Here’s some great writing and editing advice. I especially appreciate it, as a novice writer who would like to someday write and publish a book.
#13 by bookstopen on October 12, 2020 - 12:11 am
This is great – thank you!
#14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2020 - 6:51 am
#15 by tara caribou on October 12, 2020 - 3:32 am
#16 by jenanita01 on October 12, 2020 - 9:18 am
Writing is one of the hardest jobs, and just when you think you have finished… you never are!
#17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2020 - 3:23 pm
So true! But actually, it is possible to finish….
#18 by jenanita01 on October 12, 2020 - 6:05 pm
Yes, and that’s the miracle!
#19 by jenanita01 on October 12, 2020 - 9:19 am
Reblogged this on Anita Dawes & Jaye Marie ~ Authors.
#20 by The Story Reading Ape on October 12, 2020 - 1:43 pm
Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog.
#21 by Sam "Goldie" Kirk on October 12, 2020 - 5:34 pm
Giving honest feedback to a friend can be difficult. I would ask why they asked YOU for opinion. Is it because you always cheered them on so they are hoping for validation? Or is it because they see you as an expert in that area? Based on the answer, feedback can be created. Of course it should be honest.
#22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2020 - 6:23 pm
Sam, you’ve identified an interesting aspect here! Validation can be a very important factor, especially for a book that might feel very personal, or might represent a brave step for the author. All critiquers have to tread sensitively.
#23 by Mason Engel on October 12, 2020 - 8:25 pm
This is hard. In the handful of times I’ve been in this situation, my response has depended upon the writer friend I’m working with. When my little cousin sent me a short story she’d written for her high school English class and asked for my feedback, I could have told her to scrap the whole thing because of foundational issues one through n, but of course I didn’t. I found the positives, offered some constructive nudges toward important realizations, and ended with more positive. That’s of course a very specific case, but I think it’s representative of the fact that our response to a writer asking for feedback should be contingent upon the progress of that writer in his or her particular journey. Or maybe I’m just being too soft on my cousin. Maybe the Simon Cowell approach would have been better 😀
#24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2020 - 9:15 pm
Ah, the family angle – that’s an example I hadn’t thought of, Mason! A situation that’s likely to come with a whole heap of back story and tensions…
#25 by Baydreamer on October 13, 2020 - 12:04 am
Excellent advice! Thank you so much! I think I’ll hang onto this post to refer back to. 🙂
#26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 13, 2020 - 6:49 am
Glad you liked it, Baydreamer!
#27 by dgkaye on October 13, 2020 - 1:16 am
These are excellent tips Roz, being straight, and focusing on the positives and the gruel of being a writer are good feedback. But, if it were me, I wouldn’t have accepted the job. 🙂
#28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 13, 2020 - 6:48 am
Hi Debby! You make a very sensible point!
#29 by dgkaye on October 14, 2020 - 2:31 pm
Business and pleasure = sticky 🙂
#30 by Words Monsters Me on October 17, 2020 - 5:08 am
Excellent advice. Some of us need to keep stirring our alphabet soup. And we need to develop our thick skins as writers too.
tyvm for posting! ⚘
#31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 17, 2020 - 6:41 am
Glad you found it helpful!
#32 by Words Monsters Me on October 17, 2020 - 7:35 am
#33 by Mark B Murata on October 17, 2020 - 11:20 pm
Someone I met at a writers conference asked me to read her novel she self-published on the internet. The start wasn’t that good. Then for no particular reason, all of chapter 3 was bold. Then the bold turned off again. Just one of those things.
#34 by jennifermzeiger on November 11, 2020 - 12:32 am
Honest feedback is so valuable and hard to find. It’s hard but I think people who know you also know if you’re looking for just praise or if you’re hoping for help in the craft. Great post, Roz.
#35 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 11, 2020 - 7:39 am
#36 by Mischenko on March 30, 2021 - 11:35 am
I definitely find this post helpful. Thank you for sharing it. I’m sort of in this position now, but the author is well established with multiple books. This new book (already published) happens to be very different. What’s more, most of the other readers have rated it highly and I ended up hating it. This totally turns me off to reading and reviewing books for friends anymore due to the stress, but I’m going to be honest and hope for the best. Thanks again for the post.
#37 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 30, 2021 - 1:51 pm
Thank you, Mischenko! I agree, that’s such an awkward situation. Wishing you good luck – and it’s surely best to be honest.
#38 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 12, 2020 - 6:49 am
Thanks for the reblog!