By Andrea Dickinson
In addition to being an author, I am also a freelance editor. I've found through this experience that it is so much easier to identify the problems in another writer's manuscript than my own.
I am currently editing a first book from a writer who has been vigorously working on it for three years. It's been rewarding to watch this writer learn and grow over the years, as she revises and rewrites and rips apart and puts back together her story, as she learns new things about the writing craft. She has such determination to make this story work. She's not willing to let it go and move on to her next book until she feels this one is publishable. She impresses me with her staying power. But I wonder if her time might be better spent by moving on to a new project.
There are two trains of thought about a writer's first book.
Some experienced authors believe that a first book is a practice book. It's a place to learn and experiment and grow as a writer, but in most cases, it won't end up being publishable. It is better to put the book under the bed and move on to the next story, taking what you've learned and applying it to the next book. Personally, this is how I have always worked. I have been willing to give a book as much as two years of writing and revising, but then I come to the point where I feel I am better off moving on to a new project. I've got two complete books that will forever remain under my bed. It was my third book, Baltimore Heat, that I was pleased to have published.
A second group of writers believe that every story is publishable, as long as you can identify the issues and fix them. I attended a great workshop at Spring Fling in Chicago led by Susan Meier called "Can This Manuscript Be Saved?" She said that we write on three levels: Story, Scene and Word. We tell a story using scenes, and we create scenes with words. When diagnosing a problem manuscript, you can look at these three levels to find the issue.
Your story is your premise, coupled with your characters' goals, motivations and conflicts. A story must be four things: interesting, compelling, credible, and consistent.
The purpose of a scene is to illustrate a journey step. Poorly written scenes, scenes in the wrong order, and scenes without purpose can cause poor pacing.
Your words create tone and character. Your characters are only as good as the words you put in their mouths and minds and use to describe them.
As I edit this current manuscript, I see the problem is at the Scene level. Hopefully, through my constructive critique, the writer will be able to work through the issues and fix her story. If she does, I may have to change my belief system. Maybe all first manuscripts can be saved...but only if the problems are diagnosed and solved. And that takes dedication and hard work on the part of the writer.
Writing is not for the weak of body, mind or heart! :D