“The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of work is to leave it alone for a while.”
A FEW years ago I asked my social media followers if anyone had complete or partial manuscripts sitting around, perhaps something potentially ’embarrassing’. This question yielded some interesting answers, and many fantastic potential books. One of the reasons I started Write, Regardless! was to assist stymied writers to dust these works off and breathe new life into them. The next step is one of the hardest for independent writers – successfully rewriting your first draft.
Don’t send in your first draft… just DON’T!
The best thing writers can do with our newly-completed manuscripts is put them away. Ensure you have saved your work, backed it up to a memory stick, or at least printed it out, then bury it somewhere. Unfortunately, the negative reputation of the independent publishing industry is formed on the back of writers who complete a first draft of their books one day, then hit the publish button the next. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of our work is to leave it alone for a while; I’d recommend a few months. Use that time to keep your social media platform buoyant… you’re going to need readers and followers, so start attracting them! Of course if you have a long-buried manuscript already, it’s time to rewrite it.
Do the work!
It sounds far too simple, but the best way to rewrite great second and subsequent drafts is to learn the discipline of reading our own writing. This is harder than it sounds, but it’s become an essential tool for all writers in an age when editing and proofreading have lost currency. Even if you are gifted with the perfect writer’s pathway – your manuscript gets picked-up by a mainstream publisher, and you are assigned an editor who lovingly massages your talent – you are going to be better prepared for this luxury if you know your own work better than anyone else. The only way to achieve that is to read your manuscript. Do the work.
“Publishers are not looking for problem writers.”
Manuscripts must be fit!
Even if you are planning to approach traditional publishers with your manuscript, you’ll need to complete several drafts of it before submitting. I cannot say it enough: publishers are not looking for problem writers. They don’t have the time, money, or inclination to find a ‘genius’ and shape their work. Sending a manuscript to a publisher or literary agent is just the same as job interviewing and auditioning – you and your work must be on top form from the very first moment you have the ear of industry professionals. Do the work.
Don’t overdo every rewrite
For me, rewriting is about seeking entertainment and distraction within my own work. I figure that if I cannot move myself through my writing, then I am not offering anything to a reader. When we embark on a first read, many hours of work on our manuscripts lie ahead of us, so it’s best to avoid getting stuck in too much detail. We need to see the big picture of our story arcs, not worry about spelling and grammar at this stage. Insert notes so you remember things that spring to mind, but move swiftly through your read, trusting that next time you’ll make it even better.
Be hard on your plot!
By now you should have a good grasp on what makes a good dramatic story arc. Detailed reads of our work are our chance to see where our plotting is weak. Revisit my article on plotting many times as you reshape yours. My advice would be to correct plot failings as soon as you discover them, because there is no use trying to gloss over a story with, say, no antagonist; or a novel in which there is no conflict; or a work of non-fiction that does not have an effective resolution. Be prepared to admit your first draft is not yet complete, and go back to the drawing board. That level of honesty with your writing will pay dividends down the track.
I have written plenty in Write, Regardless! about practical approaches to writing. It’s time to focus a little on the emotion. If you find yourself distracted, head in the clouds, missing appointments or late for work, chances are most of your mind is happily engaged on your plot. Don’t panic! Your family and friends will notice a change, very often they’ll interpret your daydreaming as a form of selfishness. Confessing to being a writer can trigger familial panic (we’re loose cannons in all rigid economies, we creatives). Reading, rewriting and plotting takes time, quietude and headspace, and when we don’t get these things, if we are doing the work, our brain does something clever… it takes over and does it whenever it gets a chance, such as when we wake, or as we are drifting off to sleep, or doing the dishes, or driving. Surrender to this process. In order to achieve your writing, you’ll need to do plenty of artful dodging with loved ones. Expect the odd angry outburst to surface if you are a writer doing the work. What you’re probably having trouble expressing is your need for headspace.
Rewriting short stories
The art of writing entertaining short stories is something most writers attempt at some stage in our careers. It’s a unique form of expression that relies on being even more adept at plotting, not less. Don’t confuse ‘shorter’ with ‘easier’. Check out my notes on rewriting short stories.
Read the warning signs
The independent publishing marketplace is full of advice and tips on how to achieve success. I’ve been gleaning great ideas within it for years, but one thing I have learned to watch for are signs of back-pedalling. While the rush to the Publish Button has become a tempting shortcut, I have read plenty about self-published writers who design their book covers before embarking on the writing process; who set-up marketing campaigns before fleshing-out their novel’s plot; and quite high-profile self published authors pulling their books off the virtual shelves to rework them. They do everything, it seems, apart from sitting still and actually reading their own work.
There are many exclamation marks in this article! That means there is an important message you need to listen to: you are the first audience of your output. If you want to be an effective writer, you need to practice the art of reading your own work. All the secrets to improving your manuscript are on the page already, even by their absence. Read, read, and read your own manuscripts. Do the work.
An extract from Write, regardless!
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.