Friday, September 19, 2014

Why to Stop Trying to Guess Why a Manuscript Sucks

A friend of mine was upset. “He said it looked like a first draft!” She looked me pitifully in the eyes. “It was my fourth.”

I just asked, “Were there a lot of typos?”

No,” she insisted, indignant.

“Then don’t worry about it.”

She obviously wasn’t convince.

This is a complaint I’ve heard a good amount from fellow authors, and I didn’t really think of it much until it happened to me.

The fact is, however, the timing for my part was pretty damn good.

It goes like this:

I had three critiques in a writer’s conference. The first one was with an agent.

She told me, “I would focus on the world building. But I think you’re a really good author, and while I don’t represent science-fiction, I think you should send this to my coworker who does. You can use my name. Tell them I think you’re good.”

The second one was with a writer.

“You could spend more time showing us what kind of world it is, but it’s obvious you’re a credible author; I think you know what you’re doing, and I feel safe in your hands.”

The book itself was something I had worked on for a while—five months to write it, two years editing it. I was proud of it and confident in it, even despite the lack of enthusiasm I had gotten compared to other works.

After this, however, I came down with a tornado of emotions, giddiness and disbelief all in one. Critiques had gone well, but not for this manuscript. A part of me even deep down believed that I might have hallucinated the whole thing. But luckily, narcasism trumps paranoia, otherwise, I’m not sure how I would survive.

The third one was also with a writer. “This is clearly a first draft.”

Now if I had been under any other state of mind—if I didn’t already like and have confidence in the manuscript, if I hadn’t just had two of the most supportive critiques I’d ever gotten, I might have been very disturbed by this.

“Nope,” I smirked.

It was the fifth. And the beginning, which she had read, had been through several different versions outside of that.

“Well, is it finished?”

“Yep.”

“It’s your first book though.”

“Nope.”

“Have you been published?”

“Short stories and play premieres.”

“Well, there you go. You’re used to writing in the play format—”

“I started with novels.”

“It’s your first science fiction though.”

“Nope.”

“You don’t read a lot of science fiction.”

“I do.”

“What?”

I listed a few, staring with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ring World, Ender’s Game, etc.

“Okay, see you’re used to reading satire…”

(Most of those are not satire, if you were wondering.)

Finally I threw her a bone: “Well, this section is the most recently written part of the book.”

And she sat back, relieved, and said, “There you are.”

We spent probably seven out of my twenty minutes on this conversation, and what for? What was the purpose? What was she trying to do?

Had I been a person who doesn’t judge my own work or trust my tastes, or had the experience not to be alarmed by other people’s less than glowing opinions, the suggestion that it was a first draft would have bothered me, and her assertion that I had to be inexperienced in some manner would have been taken seriously.

It’s not that I don’t believe she thought it was a first draft. I do. But it doesn’t matter. Why? Her assessment was based on context and her methods of defining credibility.

See, the problem with being an author is that your ability can never be concretely tested. There are no universal proofs to say, “You are a good author,” not even success. Is Stephanie Meyer a good author? The world is divided. Luckily, people are more than willing to spend their time verifying and arguing such an important and controversial matter. Meyer’s sold more books than most authors could dream, and yet there are many who maintain that she is, absolutely, terrible. And on the flip side, could that classic novel that you think is the most boring, meaningless piece of crap still be good? Is it because someone else found meaning in it? In which case, how many people have to agree before the author is universally great?

Readers can’t judge a book they haven’t read by anything but its cover. Or, at least, by anything but superficial or inane indications of a book’s potential. Which means that even if we could qualify the quality of a story, it is impossible to do so before having actually read the whole damn thing. And reading a book helps if you enjoy it, but no one can ever really enjoy it if they don’t commit to it. No one will ever commit to a book they don’t trust, and so they come up with methods to assess a book based on elements that may not actually affect the story itself (such as the cover.)

She didn’t trust me for two reasons. One, the situation. It wasn’t uncommon for my fellow authors at the conference to have written the first fifteen pages of their book a month before hand, turn it in, and leave it at that. It was filled with writers who had “works in progress” that had yet to see a second draft.

None of this is a problem, and while I personally don’t give out first drafts, there are benefits to getting some clarity early on. Doing something preemptively is always better than not doing it at all anyway. So while I have a tone of derision, that’s just my inherent voice more than anything else.

So, contextually, she assumed that’s what I did. And unfortunately preexisting assumptions always affect judgment. She saw what she expected to see.

Secondly, it was the methods she used to determine the credibility of an author. In this case, I would say primarily rule following. She spent a lot of time talking about passive-sentences, not having a prologue, so on and so forth.

She was what I’d call a recipe follower, who obliged the standards of protocol and, I believe, looked for the breaking of the rules when others didn’t care.

I’m not much of a rule follower. I am very much a, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and a strong believer in not limiting one’s “palate” if you will. I use the rules to solve an established problem, otherwise, I don’t worry about it.

So I have passive sentences. And adverbs. And sometimes sentence fragments, in the case of the prior. I play around with word choice and use all the purple damn prose I think I can get away with.

She talked about my passive sentences, but she was, at least, wise and contextual about them, pointing out the specific places where the passiveness of it lost her. I found the woman to be very smart about what she was saying, and she made other people’s less than clear feedback much clearer. I believed she knew what she was talking about, even though she insisted on my inexperience.

Why? How could I maintain my belief that she was spot on about her criticism and be wrong about my experience level? How could I think that I was experienced and looked experienced when someone who I did not think was an idiot kept insisting I wasn’t?

Because quality isn’t linear, because judging an author’s experience isn’t cut and dried. Because while enjoyment comes from trust, what causes someone to enjoy something and what causes someone to trust something are two totally separate things. She did not trust me because what matters to her was not what matters to me. It meant that she could not enjoy my story, but it did not mean my story was unenjoyable. The question really became about why she didn’t trust me, and how common of a reaction that was going to be. The enjoyability may have still needed some work as well, but it was a separate issue all together.

At the end of the day, she told me it looked like a first draft out of kindness. Misguided kindness, but that was her motivation. She wanted to say, “You’re not a bad author and this isn’t a bad story. Keep going with it.”

This is a typical choice for many critics—they try to tell you why your manuscript sucks in order to motivate you into thinking it could get better. It’s a bad one. It “looks like a first draft,” is an accusation of inexperience, one that often instills fear in many writers. It does not make them believe they have potential, but rather that they lack ability, especially when it isn’t inexperience that caused them to suck. Writers have spent days, months, years, wondering what they did that read like a first draft, rather than just being told by the critic what she thought the specific problems were.


Moral of the story, don’t try to guess why my manuscript sucks. Just tell me how it sucks, and I’ll make my own excuses.