So, you’ve written your first novel. Not a small achievement, no matter who you are. Getting to this point involved sacrifices: time, energy, edible dinners, being on time to appointments, dreamless sleep… the list goes on. Then comes the buzz of having some of your friends tell you what a terrific story you’ve written. Don’t skimp on buzz-time! Enjoy it. Savour it. Don’t second-guess it. You’ve worked hard on getting it right, and if you aren’t sick to death of reading it yourself after all this time, then that’s probably because it’s actually a good yarn. Of course, the next step of your writing journey is a little trickier. Whether or not you’ve ever been published before, you’re going to have to traverse the rocky canyon of The Submission Process. You’ve heard story after story about great manuscripts getting rejected numerous times before things clicked into place. You’ve heard about slush piles of manuscripts that get no further than someone reading the first couple of lines of your synopsis. So you consider paying an editor to give you a manuscript assessment. Then you get some quotes. Then you shrink into that circular argument that goes something like:

  • My story is fine the way it is. Heaps of people have said so.
  • This writing thing of mine is just a hobby, isn’t it? Why would I even consider spending that much money on it when I’ll never get through that slush pile anyway?
  • What if the assessor is some stuck up elderly matron with bifocals on a chain, who will only pick on me for the swear words I’ve used? She’s probably so out of touch with current *insert genre here* that she won’t understand the feel I’m trying to achieve.
  • For half that money, I could ask my old English teacher to do it.
  • My English teacher hated everything I wrote.
  • I was terrible at English – what am I even doing?
  • Besides, I’m only doing this to prove to people like my English teacher that readers might enjoy the sort of stuff I like to write.
  • I wrote this story for my own enjoyment. Who cares what the professionals think?

That’s about the time when you realise the truth. Up until this point, you’ve been telling everyone that writing is just a fun hobby. There’s been no pressure to even finish the project, and no pressure for it to be good. You may not have even planned to ever submit it to a publisher, until your best friend told you to. But if anyone finds out how much money you’re thinking of spending, that changes everything, doesn’t it?

Here’s my little gift to you. It changes nothing. Do you have any idea how much some people spend on their hobbies? Ever owned a horse? Learned to ski properly? Tried rally-car driving? Learned to fly a plane? Enjoyed buying a trashy magazine every week? Face it, there’s no such thing as ‘just a hobby’ any more, and are you wasting money on something frivolous and fleeting? No. You’re still investing in your education. It really isn’t all that different to signing up for a creative writing course. You’re paying a professional to teach you about your own writing. No matter what comes of it, that can’t possibly be a bad thing.

Or can it?

Assuming you manage to find a reputable editor, and you have done your due diligence in ensuring they are as good as they say they are (there are guides as to how to go about this on the Australian Society of Authors website, if you are a member), then be prepared for the first step along that rocky canyon path. Be prepared to wait a while (usually at least a few weeks). If you can negotiate a firm deadline, do it. Be prepared to pay upfront. Be prepared to have sleepless nights as you realise a complete stranger, who knows something about writing, is actually reading your story. And be prepared to have your heart torn out and stomped on when you finally get it back. Okay, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but if you’re like me, the last time I received blunt, harsh criticism like that was back in high school, and there’s a reason I’ve blocked most of those memories out. If your editor is any good, you may well receive something like thirty pages full of nothing but criticism. Not many editors seem to have heard of the ‘compliment sandwich’. They tend to believe more in the ‘criticism war hammer strong enough to smash the walls between dimensions’.

I suggest pouring yourself a tall glass of red wine before you open the file (assuming you are legally allowed to drink, otherwise, let me know and I’ll drink it for you). And perhaps grab a box of tissues. Whatever you do, don’t open it in your lunchbreak at work/school/uni! No matter how mature and ready you think you are, when someone picks on your protagonist’s character flaws, you will take it personally. That’s okay. It’s meant to be personal, or it wouldn’t feel real. It’s a sign that you’ve made a character worth crying over.

So here are my top 10 things that may make you cringe, if not cry:

  • When you realise just how many words you have been spelling incorrectly. Repeatedly.
  • When you’re told that half your plot line is based on a trope.
  • You’re told that the pace of your story drags in places.
  • Even after cutting out over ten thousand words from your original draft, your editor tells you you’re rambling like a history professor at Hogwarts.
  • Apparently your setting descriptions are either thinly drawn, or too detailed, and therefore boring.
  • You’ve made so many illogical time jumps, that somewhere in your universe, the Doctor has given up trying to fix things and has posted his real name on Twitter just to be done with it all.
  • Those POV issues you had early on are not as repaired as you thought they were.
  • Some of your narratives are so broken they need to be in traction for a year, and you need so many pins to repair them that they’ll set off the alarms every time anyone takes your book through an airport.
  • Your editor points out that you dropped a minor character somewhere along the way. Yes, someone did notice, and yes, it did matter.
  • You’ve somehow inadvertently managed to say something racist, or homophobic, or anti-religious, or culturally insensitive, or included a mental health trigger somewhere in your story. Despite that fact that you actively lobby against all those things in every other aspect of your life. ‘Heart torn out’ doesn’t seem like such an exaggeration now, does it?

 

The next few hours will probably be spent wondering what your next hobby could be. The next few after that will be spent justifying to anyone who’ll listen why you wrote your story the way you did. The next few may involve impulsively imagining ways you can fix each thing – despite vowing to yourself that you’re Done with writing forever. Then comes the part where you Can Not Leave It Alone until you’ve fixed every last problem. And just like that, you realise that there is no escape for you. You are a writer.

 

At this point, you will thank your lucky stars that you didn’t burn all your publishing bridges by submitting your novel before these issues were dealt with. You will also vow never to bad-mouth your English teacher ever again (he/she tried to help, after all). Most importantly, you realise how incredibly grateful you are that these criticisms were given to you in a private document, that you can hide from the world, rather than have them plastered all through your reviews, or worse, on someone’s blog post…oh, Good Lord…what have I done?

How To Survive a Professional Manuscript Assessment Without Losing the Will to Live
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