Okay, so we all know being a novelist isn’t easy. It’s laborious, grueling, emotionally taxing, and sometimes an outright torturous journey down an unpaved road. And one thing I hear all the time from writers on the topic of their frustrations is how hard it is to get specific, substantive feedback on a work in progress. At the top of the list is the well-intended but useless rejection letter from literary agents, who are understandably pretty vague about why they have elected to pass on something, even if they do take the time to write a personal response. A close second is critique groups, which are seldom structured to allow for feedback on complete manuscripts. A willing friend or family member can be a terrific option, but many writers find that relatives have a hard time being fully candid.
This is why the first service Renni Browne introduced when she founded TED was an affordable means for authors to get an honest and objective professional critique of a manuscript with an eye toward what’s working, what can work better, and what kind of shot their manuscript has or could have at landing a traditional publisher.
I’m not kidding when I say affordable. Back when TED opened its doors in 1980, the “preliminary evaluation” was actually a free service where Renni and sometimes one other editor would a read a manuscript cover-to-cover, provide a short written evaluation and—if the project showed genuine potential with regard to literary and commercial merit—a suggested editorial course of action. If a manuscript wasn’t strong enough to have a chance at selling and editing couldn’t help it enough to bring it to that level, we’d tell the author the truth about what was wrong and explain why. If we thought it had a realistic chance at publication, we’d provide any help possible to make the manuscript as strong as it could be in concept and execution, and then edit the work to a fare-thee-well.
Nowadays manuscript evaluations are longer and considerably more comprehensive, and thus no longer free, but what hasn’t changed is the first duty of the evaluative process, which is to tell writers the truth about the literary and commercial potential of their manuscript and where it stands relative to its competition. This is quite a pleasant task most of the time, largely because we tend to attract writers who are working at a pretty high level. Most manuscripts we review do need some real work of some kind or another, but if the potential is there the process of taking a good manuscript to the finish line is satisfying for author and editor alike. When we get hold of a manuscript that really seems hopeless, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. And one of the main challenges we all have to deal with from time to time is how to be at our best when manuscripts are at their worst.
One thing that’s unique about novel-writing is that there are a reasonable number of people out there who take on the challenge with little or no training of any kind or really any kind of careful consideration of fiction craft. There are plenty of people who sit down and simply start writing.
This isn’t always a recipe for disaster because some people have very good instincts when it comes to storytelling, but the majority of manuscripts that result from an author winging it are so flawed on so many levels there’s really not much a manuscript consultant or editor can do other than explore what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and what the author needs to learn to have a better chance at writing something that can be realistically expected to cultivate and hold readers’ attention.
This is hard on the editor who has to be the bearer of such discouraging news and for the author who may be hearing for the first time that something they’ve toiled over isn’t likely to have much of a future, at least not without really going back to the drawing board and doing some serious rethinking, and rewriting.
It’s not easy to do but the process is easier on both parties if the author knows what to expect going into the evaluation process and the editor has clarity on how to handle this kind of situation respectfully, supportively, but without pulling any punches or sugarcoating any hard truths. It’s my job as managing editor to make sure this happens, and that responsibility has left me with some firmly held convictions about our obligation to writers with manuscripts that fall into this camp and how we as editors can responsibly go about what’s surely the hardest and least pleasant part of our job.