Thursday 17 November 2011

Surviving the Slushpile: Editing Your Manuscript... After Feedback

by Jo Wyton

Notes from the Slushpile attempts to make some sense out of the mad scramble for a publishing deal. As the newest slushpile guinea pig, I'm going to attempt to take you all with me... This is the third in new series Surviving the Slushpile, where we'll highlight some of the highs and lows of the slushpile journey.

Today, it's the turn of the feedback helter-skelter..

The editing process is one of the trickiest things to learn. I think it is, anyway. You have to figure out how to stand back, remove those rose-tinted glasses you didn’t realise you were wearing and see your novel for what it really is. It’s a skill, and experience teaches you what you need to know.

You get the knack of it, and all is good in the world until...

Until you start getting other people’s feedback. Oh lord above, what to do now? Tom says he likes chapter one but doesn’t think chapter two is necessary. Dick thinks chapter one is redundant and the story should start with chapter two. (Harry isn’t impressed with any of it. You casually buy him a beer and hope he'll change his mind.)

You sit, and you stew. Different versions of your novel clutter your brain. It feels more like trying to play Giant Jenga than writing.

In the end, you delete chapter one, and start with chapter two instead. Hmm. Dick was right; it is a punchier beginning. And look – the main character seems more real already. Unfortunately it does mean that you’ll have to slot that lost information from chapter one in somewhere else, but that shouldn’t take too long, right?

Two and a half months later, you’ve finished your new draft. Punchy opening? Check. Lost information placed elsewhere? Absolutely. You even remembered to fix that bit in chapter fourteen that relied on chapter one living long enough to see the light on the other side.

You put your beloved manuscript to one side and start writing your covering letter and synopsis.

Oh, FOR GOODNESS SAKES. Your synopsis isn’t working. This isn’t the novel you wanted to write at all. The novel needs chapter one. No, it won’t do. You’ll have to start again.

It only takes a few attempts to find the old version. Ah, hello again chapter one. Long time, no see. Now then – what was it Tom said? Ah, that’s right – chapter two isn’t necessary. Well, maybe he’s right. Your finger hovers over the delete button for a mere twenty minutes before you finally hit it. Chapter two vanishes. OK, so now you just have to drop the bit about the pig into chapter eight and the drop about the time Bruce spent breeding crickets into chapter four.

Taadaa! Done.

You put it to one side again, and get on with that synopsis.

Argh! It still doesn’t work. Why can’t you just get it right? And what exactly IS the book you wanted to write again?

There’s one last person who hasn’t read it yet. Maybe they’ll know what’s wrong with it...

And so you continue, until any idea you had of what book you were trying to write fled a long time ago. You’re left with a jigsaw-puzzle of forced-together ideas that you know nobody will ever enjoy reading. It doesn’t even feel like it’s yours anymore.

Maybe you should send it out anyway. Maybe someone will take pity on you and publish it. After all, you can always keep editing whilst you’re waiting for the rejections to come through.

That’s pretty much the process I went through with my first attempt at a novel. Constantly trying to take everyone’s suggestions and opinions on board. Some of the suggestions may have been exactly what the book needed, and some of them may have done more harm than good, but truth is I’ll never know! Because I used just about all of them.

I’m at the same stage right now with my current attempt. Different people suggesting different things. But it feels a little easier this time. This time I have a better idea of what I’m aiming for, and what I want the story to be about. Just for a change, before I launched into editing, I wrote a synopsis. It helped me see which suggestions allowed my idea to come through better, and which changed the idea itself. (Which coincidentally gave me an idea for a shiny new novel!)

It’s still a struggle, separating advice that will change the book from advice that will make it better, but I guess I’m the only one who knows what book I want to write, and what story I want to tell. Taking the bits of advice from Tom, Dick and Harry that I think make the book more like the one I was aiming for all along, and leaving the rest behind, sounds good to me. I love getting friends to read my writing, and love getting their feedback. Some of the feedback has done amazing things. But it's important to know what is right for you and your book. because it is, after all, Your Book.

A friend gave me a great piece of advice the other day. ‘If you had each version of your book in front of you, which one would you want your name on?’

Think I’ll have to remember that one for next time.


  1. I love that advice at the end of your blog that your friend gave you. Fabulous! Thanks for sharing.

  2. "I’m the only one who knows what book I want to write, and what story I want to tell."
    So true. I once read an article interviewing a fairly respected/published artist, and she said something like taking critique was a balance between being open to feedback and maintaining your own vision. The temptation to get loads of critique and then act on all of it is high, but in the end you have to sift through it all I guess. This was insightful and inspiring – thank you. :)

  3. The problem with this business is it requires so much self belief. Self belief to receive critique without losing track of your original vision. Self belief to allow yourself to re-imagine a scene that doesn't work. Self belief to keep going even though it feels like the odds are against you. Self belief just to write the next line!

    Lots of inspiring stuff yet again, Jo. Thank you.

  4. I can't tell you how many times I've taken chapter one out and put it back in again to a book, even though it usually contains the inciting event and should be indispensible. Finding your own way is tough, but I'm getting better at it. It's all about saying no!


  5. What an insightful post. I know exactly what you mean. As if receiving feedback wasn't hard enough (am I the only one out there who only hears the negative comments?), then you've got to sort out what's useful from what isn't, while remembering at the same time that your readers have given time to trying to give an honest response. We all need to hear the truth, but a the same time a novel that tries to please everyone is never going to work. I think your advice to keep the book you want to write firmly in mind is the best.

  6. This is so TRUE. And I love your friend's advice. A great way of cutting through all the fear of failure and asking what we WANT to write.

  7. This is exactly the process I think most people go through. I sent mine out too quickly too.

  8. So true Jo. Taking crit is a definate skill, and so is ignoring it when you know exactly what story you want to write. I tend to feel that if I get excited about the changes they work, but if I'm not, sure and hack about anyway, I usually take them out again later...

  9. Oooo, I like that last bit! Your friend is absolutely right; every "new" idea someone suggests is going to give you an almost (if not) completely different book. You have to stick to your guns and trust yourself. And the book, too.

    Great post! Glad I found you all; adding you to my bloglist!

  10. Good stuff, Jo: finding your vision and going with it is so important.
    (and that Amy gives pretty good advice, doesn't she?)

  11. That's very true Astrid! You do get really excited if you feel something's going to work, and a niggling something if you're not sure. And yes - those edits often disappear quite quickly!

    Teri - that Amy definitely does give good advice!!

  12. This was sooo helpful!! I've just gotten feedback on my first novel and my first instinct (after having a mini pity party) was just to dive in and change everything. But I took a week break and now that I'm ready to get to editing I found the overall vision for the book that I wrote last year. So I'm going to take your advice about looking at your overall vision for your book and see what feedback will help make that vision better before going in to change everything.

    Thanks so much!!


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