Will that next agent or editor buy your manuscript?
Will they even read it?
Well, probably not.
The fact is, they’ll usually reject your work after glancing at the first page. While some may hint at problems they see there, most will return your work with a well-worded form rejection letter. They don’t critique your work because of time constraints, but they also know that, in general, you’ll not like or believe what they have to say.
It’s an open secret in the writing industry. Most unpublished writers will never be published, because of their first paragraphs. Many send problem-riddled manuscripts to editor after editor, believing they are perfect. In the mean time they blithely build the same flaws into their next manuscript, not knowing they’re making those mistakes. Unless someone tells them what the problems are, their manuscripts will be rejected the rest of their lives. Telling them, of course, is what professional editors do.
Note, however, that while you may not recognize problems in your manuscript, someone does! Those editors! They quickly spot them in a manuscript’s first chapter—often on the first page—and reject the submission without further reading. They know the rest of the manuscript contains the same mistakes, just as we know an iceberg’s submerged part is made up of more of the same ice seen on top. But they simply don’t have the time or inclination to teach authors their writing skills, and certainly don’t want to get into conversations where they must defend their findings. So they send out “sorry, it’s not for us” letters and move on to the next manuscript in their bulging slush piles.
One reason editors won’t offer advice is, unfortunately, that many writers refuse to believe them when they do. It’s a problem I constantly run into as a professional fiction editor and online writing instructor. As an example, in a recent class I explained what an “opening hook” was, and asked students to develop one and send me their first few paragraphs for review. Then I made a mistake that sent a flash fire through the classroom.
I thought I’d do those students a favor and edit those paragraphs, not just comment on their hooks. I put my editing into a document and, realizing we all can learn from each other’s mistakes, suggested that students look at all the entries, not just their own.
I got a seething response from one student, and realized I’d made a tactical mistake. She told me her story really got going on the next page, and that I was wrong to tear it up the way I did. She defended her work with gusto. Hey, other people had seen the chapter, and said it was just fine! When I explained readers wouldn’t get past the first two paragraphs to see that great work, she said, “Well—some will!”
I’ve since resolved never to touch that hot stove again, and will only edit for writers who realize their work can be improved, and who give me explicit permission to do it.
I really should have learned this lesson from a prior experience. A few years ago I saw a dozen “first chapters” while serving as a romance writer contest judge, and edited the first two or three pages of each to show areas where the writers could improve their work. Remember, these writers had polished their work to within an inch if its death, so the work was as good as they could do. I got a scorching letter from one writer who flailed me heavily about the head and shoulders, pointing out that my editing would crush other writers’ egos (but not hers, she hastened to add). She accused me of editing the submissions as a way to get new clients.
I never did that again.
Another time I attended a local group’s critique session where six writers read their pages. When it came my time to offer my view on one submission I pointed out the writer’s dialog was much too long—some passages went for pages without a break—and suggested ways to cut it down and make it user-friendly. The attendees were silent for a moment, then the gentleman across from me said, “But that’s her voice!” He turned to her and said, “I wouldn’t change a thing,” to which she replied, “Oh, I won’t. I won’t!”
I saw her across the room as I left the meeting, and realized I was looking at a writer who probably would never be published.
The point of all this? When someone critiques or edits your work, thank them for their insight and move on. Just as you shouldn’t argue with a reviewer, you shouldn’t beat up your critiquer. And recognize that some of those critiquers may actually know what they’re doing.
The lesson I took home from those incidents is to keep my criticisms to myself, at least until I’m specifically asked to give them. I’ll join those editors and agents by smiling, commenting on the author’s sincerity and good ideas, and move on.
About the Author:
Don McNair, now a prolific fiction writer, spent most of his working life editing magazines (11 years), producing public relations materials for the Burson-Marsteller international PR firm (6 years), and heading his own marketing communications firm, McNair Marketing Communications (21 years). His creativity has won him three Golden Trumpets for best industrial relations programs from the Publicity Club of Chicago, a certificate of merit award for a quarterly magazine he wrote and produced, and the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil. The latter is comparable to the Emmy and Oscar in other industries.
McNair has written and placed hundreds of trade magazine articles and three published non-fiction “how-to” books (Tab Books). He’s also written six novels; two young-adult novels (Attack of the Killer Prom Dresses and The Long Hunter), three romantic suspense novels Mystery on Firefly Knob, Mystery at Magnolia Mansion, and co-authored Wait for Backup!), and a romantic comedy (BJ, Milo, and the Hairdo from Heck).
McNair now concentrates on editing novels for others, teaching two online editing classes (see McNairEdits.com), and writing his next romance novel. He is author of Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Agents and Publishers Crave, a self-editing book to be published by Quill Drivers Books on April 1, 2013.
Brenda Maxwell’s new interior design client tells her to “paint, wallpaper, whatever” his hundred-year-old landmark mansion, “but for God’s sake, don’t go overboard.” When she figures her grandiose plans will fit handily into his edict’s “whatever” section, they’re launched into a constant head-bumping mode.
Brenda’s poor money management skills (that’s his view, but what does he know?) and lawyer David Hasbrough’s ridiculous need to control her life (that’s her well-reasoned evaluation of the situation) combine to keep the battle going. Is this couple’s romantic goose cooked? Well, she can’t be near him without sparks flying and goose bumps popping out everywhere. But that mansion has to be done right!
NOTE: Don McNair actually lived in this house, and did the very things to it that he has heroine Brenda Maxwell do.
When Erica Phillips visits choice inherited property on a Cumberland Plateau knob overlooking a beautiful valley, she finds scientist Mike Callahan camped there to study unique fireflies. She needs to sell it fast to buy a new building for her antiques business, but he freaks out when a condo builder offers her a contract. Miffed, she tells him, “If I have my way, this place will be sold within the week. And, Mr. Callahan, I will have my way!”
Their budding romance plays out before a background of a murder mystery, distrust, and heart-racing hormones. Will it blossom into a lifetime relationship?