Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Manuscript Evaluation Service

Over a year ago, I had an idea. That idea consumed my thoughts night and day, snowballing in my mind into people; so real to me they felt like flesh and blood. Their adventure played in my head like a movie reel on repeat; and every time it replayed it got more intricate and exciting. That was when I got antsy. I had to get this story out of my head, somehow. So I wrote.
Once the first draft was done, I revised it numerous times until I decided it was finished. I knew it still had grammatical problems that I could work on later, but I wanted someone who knew what they were doing to give me feedback on the writing and the story. So I decided to take the opportunity to utilize a manuscript evaluation service.
I had no idea what I was in for. Using this service was a real eye-opener, or perhaps more accurately, a total slap in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I realize being a writer is not for the faint-at-heart; it is notoriously known as a cut-throat, exclusionary business. But my knowledge of this did not prepare me for the feedback I got from the evaluation.
I got the notice in the mail that I had a parcel waiting at the post office. I had been waiting for the evaluation for over three months, so I was fairly certain my manuscript had been returned to me. I brought it home, got into my pajamas, poured myself a cold one and then I tore into it. Or should I say - it tore into me.
In my (paid) line of work, I use a strengths-based approach. I rarely word things in the negative. For example, I might hear a client say “I want my child to stop being so stubborn,” and I would rephrase it to “You want your child to be more cooperative”. The second version is much more palatable to the child, and is more likely to incite cooperation rather than defensiveness. Clearly, in the world of manuscript evaluation there is no such concern about using a strengths-based approach. When I saw the word “ludicrous” on that page, I knew that the feedback was going to be brutally honest.
I pride myself on a fairly solid ego-strength, but reading through my evaluation definitely put that strength to the test. Getting criticism about my writing made me feel kind of like someone telling me my newborn baby was hideously ugly. I had just gone through nine months of creating it, breathing life into it and giving up my personal life for it; just to be told it was so far from perfect it could probably be diagnosed with Pervasive Ludicrous Disorder.
I was righteously indignant and mortified to the marrow of my existence. I searched the pages for the identity of my evaluator so that I could write them an equally scathing feedback. (Of course it’s anonymous – obviously for good reason). I threw the paper copy of my novel into the recycling bin, relishing in the palpable loud thud. I cursed at it, and told it how bad of a baby it was. Then I opened my laptop and I used the cut feature like I was wielding a machete.
That night, my first novel, my pride and joy, went from a 100,000 word document down to a mere 32,000 words. It was admittedly “flabby” before, but it certainly wasn’t anymore, rendered down to the bare bones. Then I took the little skeleton that had once been a novel and completely re-wrote it, my anger causing me to write with a newfound maniacal fervor. I have no doubt it is a better product now than it was before the evaluation. I took my ugly baby duckling, cut it to shreds, and turned it into a beautiful swan; something (I hope) no longer hurts the eyes, or insults the mind.
I’m still righteously indignant, and if my evaluator is out there and reading this, I dare you - stand up and identify yourself! But in reality, the truth hurts. I’m happy I went through the process for a number of reasons: It prepared me for the harsh realities of the publishing industry, it helped open my eye to my blind spots, and it forced me to exercise my resilience muscles. In the long run, it was well worth every penny - even if I did have to go through a hysterical meltdown, curse the heavens and cry myself to sleep for a few nights!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Wow Joanne, that's really impressive! Both that you took the leap, that you turned it into fuel and didn't let it defeat you, and that you're confident enough to share the whole experience with us. One bludgeoning experience like that seems more than enough to grow layers and layers of thick, hardy protective flesh.

Critiquing is truly an art, from finding the right balance of suggestion but not altering things just for preference, to a good mix of encouragement and criticism to help a person improve. Of course, that's when the writer knows you and can whollop the manuscript in your face if they don't like what you said. It's valuable feedback... but there's definitely something to be said for that blunt, impersonal, utterly honest response of someone who doesn't know you, never will, has no reason to sugar coat, and no reason to waste more time than they want to. This is not a warm and friendly industry and it's good not only to gain endurance to handle it, but also to get a hard, objective view of one's own work and really understand how it will come across.

In the long run, your experience will definitely keep repaying you as you keep working! Did you wind up keeping that manuscript or throwing it out?

JoanneBrothwell said...

Thanks Hayley,
Yes, I definitely have a thicker skin from the whole experience. I agree that anonymity is the best opportunity for the most honest critique, and as difficult as it may be to hear it, it's invaluable. The original version of the manuscript is still stored somewhere deep in the bowels of my computer, but it definitely will never see the light of day.

Vince said...

Hi Joanne:

I think there is a problem with getting a single opinion. I’ve been in a contest where I got what amounted to an ‘A’, ‘C”, and “F” from the three judges. The “A” judge got what I was doing and loved it, the “F” judge actually said, in her comments, that she just ‘didn’t get it.’

I just wonder what my mental state would have been if I only received one judge’s comments. I could have been sky high or totally depressed depending on which judge I drew.

My approach to receiving critiques is to ask myself: “is the criticism correct?” If I agree with the criticism, no problem. I’ll work to fix it. If I don’t agree, then I have some serious thinking to do. I could be wrong but the critic could also be wrong. So in the end, even when we pay someone to be an editor, we ultimately still have to be our own editor.

I have often thought that they best writers are also the best editors – at least of their own work.

I would hold on to that first manuscript. After you have a few books published, go back and look at it. You may discover that it would take far less editing to produce a solid publishable novel than you may think now.


JoanneBrothwell said...

Thanks Vince, that's a good point. I wondered when I got the feedback whether that person even liked the genre, because fantasy and paranormal could definitely be thought of as ludicrous at times. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll hold on to that manuscript just in case.

Karyn Good said...

Hi and welcome to Tuesdays, Joanne! Kudos to you for taking the results from your manuscript evaluation and turning it around and learning from it, because you're right - this industry requires a tough skin.

I like what Vince had to say though, about getting more than one opinion. As well, our Guest Blogger this last Saturday, Pamela Callow, talked about contest feedback in the comment section. How entering more than one contest with the same manuscript can put the judges comments in context. If there's a reoccuring theme to the feedback you may have work to do.

In the end you learned a lot from it and that's the important thing and your future writing will benefit from the experience.

Janet said...

I applaud your guts and determination, Joanne. Most would have folded under such harsh criticism - let alone have the guts to send off a manuscript to an evaluation service in the first place! But your decision to battle back shows a perseverance and toughness that will take you far in this business.

And I second Karyn's welcome - I look forward to your posts every second Tuesday :)

JoanneBrothwell said...

Hi Karyn, that's a good point, that getting feedback from more than one individual helps to put the criticism in context. You're also right about the learning gained from the process.

JoanneBrothwell said...

Janet, there was a moment where I folded - thank goodness it didn't last too long! Thanks for the welcome.

Anne Germaine said...

Wow Joanne. Good for you for taking that kind of feedback and doing something with it. Makes you kind of wonder about the evaluator - have they never received feedback before?

I participated in a writing group once where we gave written and verbal feedback and the number one rule was no red pen!

JoanneBrothwell said...

Hi Anne, I think the "no red pen" is a great rule! That would definitely prevent a few tears from being shed.

Helena said...

Welcome to Tuesdays, Joanne. I'll be looking forward to your posts -- if today is any indication. Wow, what a gut-wrenching experience!

I have been taking a fairly placid approach in contrast to your 'plunge in and go for it' attitude. It took me a long time to get up nerve to even join a writers' group, but the support and gentle critiquing there is really encouraging. Then I entered a short story contest, and emerged in second place. But, as Vince cautions, what one judge likes another may not. The same story drew some pretty stiff criticism later on in a workshop I took. The story remains unpublished, though I have revised it. (Would help matters if I submitted it somewhere, eh?)

Love your persistence and dogged determination. You set a good example. Another thought -- your experience has also prepared you for the ultimate scenario of reviews of your published work, the cruel comments of readers who don't like it, etc. etc. Isn't it a good thing that there are so many genres, and so many editors and readers out there who do appreciate what you will eventually publish? Because I'm sure you will.

connie said...

Wow Joanne!
Olay isn't going to help is it? But everyone is right, we need a very thick skin. Look what it does for the rhinoceros.
I am really impressed with your reaction to it all. Get up and sock 'em and then foil them by making a new novel of it and keeping it to go at it again one day.
Probably as well you don't know the editor (who is a twit) because even though she/he is unjust, manslaughter for manuscript just isn't done. On the other hand, I think you can name all of us as witnesses for the defense.
Vince has a good point for us all. If one editor is a twit and two is a twit, there lies hope with 3,4,5.
One thought I had is that you might want to use some of the manuscript in writing exercises e.g. writing part of it again in the first person etc It might give some new thoughts on it.
Congratulations on being a first class writer and a classy lady when it comes to critics. I look forward to more of your blogs

Jana Richards said...

Joanne, I second all the wows out there. Wow!

I've been rejected by editors more times than I can remember. However, I usually only got some kind of form letter, "Thanks, but no thanks." Very polite, but a definite no. And that was crushing! I can't imagine getting an evaluation that was outright mean! I doubt I would have been able to continue to write. You're officially my hero, sweetie!

I'm looking forward to your future posts, Joanne!


JoanneBrothwell said...

Thanks Helena, I think dogged determination is probably a prerequisite character trait of a writer, hey?

JoanneBrothwell said...

Connie, I think Olay might be necessary to soften me up a little now! I had the same thought about the "twit" part!

JoanneBrothwell said...

Thanks Jana, your comment made my day!

Silver James said...

Hi, Joanne. Welcome to the Prairies. I look forward to more of your posts! (Sorry for being a day late and dollar short. That's happening a lot in my life these days, darn it!)

You are a brave one to keep going. So many would have hung up the keyboard and run like heckfire away. You have the stubbornness to be a writer. Good luck and keep writing!

Anonymous said...

You know what, I am having a problem with the word ludicrous. An evaluation, yes should be honest but not brutal.

I paid for a critique of my novel about three years ago. The editor was indeed an editor from a large publishing house. Senior Ed. in fact.

Her fee which was certainly an entire paycheck from my day job, also offered a phone consultation if desired and a free review if I were to implement the suggestions and resend it to her.

I can tell you that a good editor makes you think, questions you honestly, and really makes you get the big picture. It forces you, if you are ready to receive, to take your story to the next level. And it isn't really about that story but about your writing in general. Her price tag was well worth it because it was live changing and has applied to all my work since then.

I'm glad you were able to use the eval to move forward, but in the future I sure recommend a review service where you and the evaluator can talk about the findings.