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The Process: Revision & Critique

Self-publishing has a bad reputation and rightly so. The majority of books published these days are self-published. With the advent of options such as Kindle Direct and CreateSpace, authors can share their work with the world. Unfortunately this also means many authors hurt themselves by neglecting the revision process. Let me explain.

Traditional routes of publication meant the average manuscript went through a lengthy process of rejections, revisions, edits and final acceptance before seeing publication. Ask most of the traditionally published authors out there, and they will tell you stories of enduring rejection after rejection in the pursuit of a contract. Those rejections forced them to take stock of their work and make it better.

There comes a point when editors and agents start giving you feedback on your work, and this is gold. It's concrete advice from the very people you're trying to convince to publish you.

Too often authors get frustrated in this process and jump straight to self-publishing. What emerges then is a manuscript that has not been forced through the process of revision and refinement, and it shows.

My own journey is something of an amalgam of the two processes. I pursued traditional routes, but ultimately settled on self-publishing for several reasons which I will discuss in a later post.

I began writing short stories while I worked on my books, I sent those to just a couple of magazines and got very polite form letters, saying “thanks, but no thanks.” I then sent my first novel off to a publisher and got the same response.

My second novel I wrote for the wrong reasons. I had a chance to submit an un-agented manuscript to Harlequin's inspirational romance line, Love Inspired. Spend enough time trying to get your work out there and you'll find few publishers accept manuscripts without an agent backing it. This is frustrating for the writers, as it means another gate keeper you must convince to like your work. But, for the publishers this means they don't end up with the hordes of unpolished manuscripts that are currently driving the self-pub market. I digress...

I love a good chick-flick, and Jane Austen and Downton Abbey occupy a special, unashamed place in my heart. That said, romance novels aren't my thing. I've read a few exceptionally well-written ones but this was not my genre. Nevertheless, I wanted a quick “in” to being published, and arrogantly thought I could crank out a 50,000 word tale of love and faith. How hard could it be right?

Turns out crafting an engaging story centered around romance is not as easy as you might think. I was fine writing epic sci-fi, but a riveting tale of love? That was hard.

The agent at Harlequin liked my idea, enough to ask for three chapters. To those she responded that, while my writing showed “promise”, the book wasn't for them. But she gave me a lengthy list of reasons why it wasn't for them, many of those reasons simply being that my book didn't quite gel with the tone of the other books in their catalog. She told me what to fix, and that she hoped to see more from me.

That was the nicest rejection I'd ever gotten, and it was encouraging for me as a writer.

In the end I realized romance novels weren't my cup of tea, and that book currently sits on my hard drive. In order to make it gel with Harlequin I would have had to gut the story and rework things I wasn't willing to change. It doesn't mean my novel was bad (okay some of it was, specifically chapter 3), or that Harlequin was wrong for not wanting it, it just meant our paths didn't run parallel. I may dust it off some day and clean it up. But, after that I turned my attention to what I loved: epic, speculative fiction.

As I worked on The Singer, I kept thinking back to that feedback I'd gotten from Harlequin.

By this point I knew I was going to pursue self-publishing, thanks in large part to my discovery that the stigma was changing.

Before any of that though, I needed to find people who would give me the honest feedback I needed.

I am blessed to have a very honest friend who is also a fellow creative. As a scientist, doctor, and academic, she has a thorough grasp of the English language, and regularly edits medical papers. Yet, she also knits, reads YA fiction and loves nerdy things like anime and Doctor Who. She is married to one of the most gifted artists I have ever met, and as such does not pull any punches in calling out art that is not up to par. This friend is my litmus test, and also my editor. She has my full permission to tell me the truth about my writing, and will tell me when something doesn't work.

If you are going to be a writer, you need this person in your life.

We associate criticism with negativity, and I think there are many people out there who criticize from a negative place. This is unhealthy. Criticism that tears a person or their work apart is not helpful. But, honest, constructive criticism, will illuminate flaws in your work that you are blind to, flaws that will mean the difference between something forgettable and something magical.

I taught a drama workshop for college students for a couple of years and, as part of my lessons, I had my students write scripts. I was a procrastinating college student myself once, and wrote many a paper the night before it was due. But, when I was on the other side of that dynamic, I was still kind of surprised at how many of my students turned in rough, unrefined, unpolished work. Did they do enough to pass my class? Yes. But many of them cheated themselves out of producing work that would have endured beyond being fodder for my anecdotes.

Find the person, or people, with whom you can safely share your work, and who will (lovingly) tell you the truth. Choose carefully, the people closest to you often have the hardest time being the most frank, but if you a friend who will be honest, latch onto them and buy them coffee and donuts to make sure they never leave.

This is key. You can either learn that your beloved red-haired, beautiful, feisty, green eyed heroine is two-dimensional from someone who cares about you, or from two-dozen scathing reviews on Amazon because you jumped the gun.

Do not neglect the revision process. Let your work go through the refining fire. It, and you, will emerge the better for it.

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