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A Far Cry Better: How to Know Your Manuscript is Finished

A Far Cry Better: How to Know Your Manuscript is Finished

In my experience, many writers fall into two categories — they either believe their work is finished when it is not, or they nitpick it to death in the belief that they’re still improving it.

Like most writers, I’ve been party to both categories at one point or another. Both situations are less than ideal, the latter often used to mitigate our list of hypothetical nightmare scenarios related to sharing our work. Criticism can be such a rude awakening, once you’ve waded through the denial — a feat not all writers achieve — and are faced with the harsh reality that you’re not perfect, and even worse, neither is your writing.

On one of my early forays into writing, I provided a short story I was quite proud of to a friend of mine to get his thoughts. This was back in the days when hard copy was the norm, and he asked if he could mark up the pages. “Please do!” I invited, confident I would receive no more than the odd scribble here and there.

What I got back was a manuscript dead on arrival, the pages so bloody with red ink you could barely see the text. He pointed out the flaws of every developmental consideration, detailed a number of poor writing techniques and divulged a litany of technical errors.

After the shock wore off and I had time to consider the state of it all, I abandoned any pretense of denial. I had no choice — my friend was right.

It was a shock to my ego, of course, but it also subjected me to the difficult realization that maybe this whole writing thing wasn’t as easy as I’d thought.

Over subsequent years, I overcompensated, vowing to learn from my mistakes. I reworked stories to death before I would share them. The feedback wasn’t much better, and rightly so. I’d taken my lesson too far, fixing things that weren’t broken, striving for a perfection that wasn’t there.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, to be sure, but it’s worth remembering that it’s only one part of the process of bringing your story to the world. Sharing your work is the other part. Sharing gives you vital feedback, allows you to make adjustments you hadn’t considered, and gives you a chance to step away for a while. One thing most writers forget is that time away from your work is every bit as important as time spent on it.

Friends and family can provide good feedback, but even more important is the critique of strangers — those who aren’t tied to you emotionally, who can provide a more objective point of view, who have a love of writing as deep as yours. Writing communities, both online and IRL, are an invaluable tool no matter your genre.

Better still — and in conjunction with writing communities — is the feedback of an editor, someone who specializes in improving writing, someone with whom you’ve built a trusting relationship, who understands how you think, how you write and how to bring out the best in you.

If you walk away with anything, let it be this: Your manuscript is either perfect or it’s finished — never both. And that perfection you feel you’re so close to reaching? It doesn’t exist.

For those of you who edit and tweak and poke and prod your manuscript to the point that you’re no longer improving it, try to understand that it isn’t your writing that isn’t ready — it’s you.

So the question becomes, how do I know when I’m ready? By recognizing the fact that perfection shouldn’t be your goal.

There is no such thing as a writer who stops learning. Every writer, no matter how accomplished, keeps learning new things about their craft and themselves. That’s why they read so much — it’s one of the best ways to learn.

There’s no end to improving as a writer, which renders the notion of perfection a fallacy. Set it aside, and focus instead on how your story can function as part of the broader literary discussion of which we’re all taking part — not as a final, irrefutable statement that must meet a fictional absolute in order to be considered valid.

Whether you’re waiting to share your work with someone for the first time or waiting to submit your final draft after making adjustments based on feedback, you’re not going to give the world the perfect story — and that’s exactly as it should be.

You’re going to give the world your story. And that’s a far cry better than perfect.

About the Author

Walker Kornfeld

Comments

  1. Aoife
    September 2, 2020 at 08:30
    Reply

    This is so cool! Feeling inspired to continue working on my manuscript too. Sometimes find myself forgetting why I wanted to write it in the first place, and that was to share my life experience. Great article!

  2. Walker Kornfeld
    September 2, 2020 at 14:56
    Reply

    Thanks so much for the feedback, Aoife, glad the article helped you!

  3. Mark
    September 4, 2020 at 04:08
    Reply

    Another fantastic essay! One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing is — the editorial process is every bit as essential as the creative aspect. And if you’re lucky enough to have an editor — listen to them! Walker helped me edit my own book, The Red Son, and his work was absolutely crucial to its winning a finalist medal in the Next Generation Indie Book awards! The man knows his craft, that much I can assure you!

    • Walker Kornfeld
      September 4, 2020 at 13:50
      Reply

      Thanks very much, Mark! Looking forward to book two!

  4. Elizabeth Q
    September 7, 2020 at 00:46
    Reply

    Beautiful message indeed. Over the last few months, stuck at home, and my mind just wandering, I found myself jotting down notes on topics I should tell stories on. My childhood memories, or the back packing adventures in Asia, or how it is to raise a child as a single mom! I think I’m going to put my notes down and get in touch with you. Thank you for inspiring me young man.

    • Walker Kornfeld
      September 7, 2020 at 17:57
      Reply

      Hi, Elizabeth! Thank you for the wonderful comment, it means the world to me! This is why I write these little pieces – in the hopes that they’ll inspire someone, so thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. Your stories sound exciting and thought provoking, I’d love to hear more and help you in any way I can. Do reach out when you’re ready. walker@wellfinity.co.uk. Looking forward to it, Elizabeth. Take care!

  5. Susan
    September 24, 2020 at 11:46
    Reply

    How would I know if my ideas are worth publishing in the first place? I guess one thing i’m most worried about is being told that its simply not good enough! How many have you rejected Walker?

    • Walker Kornfeld
      September 24, 2020 at 15:44
      Reply

      Hi Susan, thanks so much for your questions!

      Writers are like actors in this regard — rejection is very much part of the process. The key thing to keep in mind is that it’s nothing personal. Agents and publishers reject manuscripts for any number of reasons, and the best of them give you a few tips on how, in their opinion, your manuscript can be improved. I admit, however, that one of those reasons can be because they feel the market is currently saturated with your idea — similar to vampire novels after the success of Anne Rice, or perhaps nonfiction and creative nonfiction surrounding the subject of WWII.

      But even with subjects that have been heavily written about, it may be that your approach to the topic can be adjusted to provide something new — to set it apart from other books. By looking at the specific angle you’re writing from, you can show that even though your topic has been covered, you’ve brought something new to the reader that makes your work unique. A new spin on the nature of vampires, perhaps, or a military history detailing a small, unknown operation or group of soldiers that played an important part in the war.

      Another thing worth keeping in mind — as I mentioned above, writing is a solitary pursuit. But most writers have key relationships that help them succeed, typically in the form of a trusted editor who helps them tell their best story, and a trusted agent and/or publisher who help guide them and bring out their best as well. An important thing to remember is that agents and publishers (and book editors) are looking for more than a good book or a good idea — they’re looking for good relationships with their authors. I’m currently working with a long-term client on our seventh book together, and I’m part of a small dark fiction company called Maeltopia with two old friends of mine. I’ve been editing their work for over five years, and our first book recently won a Finalist award in the horror category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In both cases, we operate like a well-oiled machine — we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we bring out the best in each other, and we’ve developed a shorthand with our communication that only comes through spending time together. It’s incredibly fulfilling for all concerned, and it’s something I’d like to write more about. I absolutely attribute that award to the fact that my Maeltopia partners and I work so well together. So remember, writing is solitary, but you are far from alone.

      As a ghostwriter/book editor/writing coach, there are few manuscripts I’ve declined to work on, and most of those rejections were based on my opinion that the manuscript wasn’t ready for the stage the client was hoping to focus on. For example, they were looking for a copyedit and proofread before publication, but the story had plot and characterization issues, along with a rough flow and rhythm that made it feel more like a first draft. I can’t in good conscience provide a service a manuscript isn’t ready for. So I have a discussion with the client on the issues and offer encouraging recommendations on what I believe to be the best way forward. So even in these situations, I don’t believe in phrases like ‘not good enough’. I’m prone to the same negativity as other writers, but it’s important that we recognise how little it serves us. Better to say that it isn’t ready and focus on improvement. This preserves the potential inherent to the work and provides a path to a solution instead of a problem with no recourse. Every work has potential, every idea has potential. What matters is the effort you’re willing to put in to realise that potential.

      Practically speaking, a bit of research on your idea can uncover a lot about it — how popular it is, what’s been written about and what hasn’t. This will help you develop your idea, make it unique and give you the confidence to proceed. A writing coach or trusted editor can help in this regard as well.

      I have a short piece I’ll be releasing soon on the bravery of sharing your work that you may find useful, and your questions have inspired me to write about how to handle rejection, so thanks very much for your input!

      I hope this rambling reply helps you in some way, Susan, and thanks again for your time! If you’d ever like to chat about your work, you can reach me at walker@wellfinity.co.uk.

      Take care,
      Walker

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