I love the hateful process.
Scan advice from agents and editors, and you’ll find a common thread: too many writers send off their work before it’s ready. But how do you know when a piece is as good as it’s going to get?
This is trickier than it sounds. Part of the fun and frustration of writing is that a piece can always get better. Most published writers will tell you they’ve wished for changes even after their work came out in print. And while much writing goes off half-baked, it’s also possible to overcook a piece, to fiddle with it till it falls apart on the page, or to play with it more or less forever, thus staving off any chance of rejection.
Let’s assume you’ve engaged in that recursive process of discovery, prewriting and drafting and revising until you have what feels like a decent draft. You’ve let it set awhile, and in the most objective of ways you’ve approached it again. You’ve gotten critiques from a few trusted readers. Is it ready for market?
Even when your instinct tells you a project is ready, it’s good to go one more round, taking time to move through the project chapter by chapter, doing the same sort of writer-as-reader analysis you’d do on a good published book by another author. If your piece is an essay or short story, so much the better – there’s a lot to evaluate.
Handwrite your notes, both in the text itself – marking lyric moments, best parts, surprise and delight – and also in a free-standing list. Handwriting keeps your right brain involved in what’s essentially a left-brained pursuit.
Here’s what I look for. I’m not a big fan of checklists, so beware. This sort of analysis too early in the project tends to stifle creative energy. And this is my own personal list, keyed to what I find engaging in narrative (fiction and non) and slanted toward my own shortcomings. Your ready-for-market survey might look quite a lot different.
- The basics: notes on time, point of view, narrative distance, voice, and length.
- Beginning and end: Copy down the first and last sentences in order to study the frame for the piece.
- Scene and summary: List these, in order. For the scenes, note ways in which characters change from beginning to end. Note how backstory, if any, works in.
- Characters: What do the characters know about themselves? What are they blind to? Which feelings are articulated? Which feelings need to be articulated? In what ways are they larger than life?
- Arc: Where’s the set-up, the climax, the denouement?
- Surprise and delight: What feels most fresh and alive in the piece? Consider word choice, metaphor, humor, voice, plot, character.
- Suspense: Foreshadowing, not overdone. Consider what’s not said, what’s withheld, and conversely, what’s revealed and where.
- Language and details: Where’s the sharp, smart language? The humor, if any? Make sure nothing’s overwritten or over-explained. Even after a few rounds of revision, I find myself lopping off ends of sentences, where I’ve said too much.
- Lyric moments: Identify the ones you’ve got, and look for places where they should be.
- What it’s about: If you thought you knew and now you’re seeing something more, less, or different, that can be good, as long as you make the most of what you discover. Pay attention to how the focus is revealed to the reader. Sometimes it’s too obvious, sometimes it’s too subtle. Every story is two stories: identify both.
- Where you copped out: Consider the ways in which your project could be more than it is – more emotional depth, more distinctive voice, richer language, more layers.
Try This: Run a ready-for-market survey on a published piece you admire, in the same genre as your own. Then run it on yours. Compare. Don’t let this be a cop out. Your work (and mine) may always fall short, but if you’re serious about becoming a good writer, you need to have the courage to learn where it does.
Check This Out: Literary agent Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages should be on the shelf of every serious writer. Subtitled A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, this volume is an in-depth ready-for-market survey on the first five pages of your project, which is the most agents and editors will normally read unless the material grabs them in a big way. Lukeman offers no secrets, no tricks – just an analysis of common problems and their solutions, including examples and exercises to drive the material home.