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One-Manuscript Diva or Working Novelist?

August 5, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 5, 2011

Are you a one-manuscript diva, so sure that your story is so unique and powerful and life-changing that you won’t allow one scene to be altered, one character to be re-imagined, one word of dialogue to be dropped?

You might be.

If you only want to write the one story, if you think that’s all you have in you, if you think it’s so good that you don’t have to write another, then write that one story.

But realize that there’s more to being a writer than penning one novel.

A completed manuscript is wonderful, a milestone to be celebrated, as I’ve said before. Yet if you stop with only one, keep in mind that

You probably haven’t written your best novel.

You’re probably less willing to make changes than writers who’ve written a number of manuscripts.

You’re probably not pushing to improve your craft.

I know, I don’t live in your head, your heart, or your home. If you only intended to write the one manuscript, for whatever reason, or outside factors prevent you from writing others, I’m not saying that you haven’t accomplished something outstanding.

I am saying that people who call themselves writers need to produce more than one sample of their work.

If you haven’t released that one manuscript after years of tinkering with it and haven’t moved on to another, you’re probably still too attached to that first one. Unhealthily attached.

It’s likely that you think about it, talk about it, tweak it repeatedly, and feel that it’s without blemish.

It’s likely that you treat your manuscript as a delicate possession, one unable to stand up to harsh or even gentle criticism.

We all know parents who worry much more about the first child than their fifth, who protect the first child from imagined dangers and allow the last one freedoms that the first never experienced.

It’s natural. Once parents learn what children can handle, they allow them to handle those situations. And when parents see what a first child can manage, they’re less likely to impose the same limitations on subsequent children.

Writers need to do the same. Expose your manuscripts to others for critique and review. Allow your agent or editor* to make suggestions without assuming she doesn’t understand your story or your purpose or your theme. Write a second and a third novel and let them all loose. Give them freedom. They can handle it.

And you can as well.

Don’t be hesitant about standing up for your novel, of course. But don’t be hesitant about trying something suggested by someone else either.

If you’re a writer who continues to write, who doesn’t assume that you can’t possibly write anything better than your first novel, and you’re more concerned with getting the story right than you are about holding firm to your notions of what is sacrosanct about your story, then I commend you. You are a writer.

Writers want the best for their stories. They don’t hold on to words and characters and dialogue and plot lines that don’t work for a story. They don’t hold on to writing that stinks.

I did say stinks, didn’t I?

Face it, sometimes our work does stink. And it does need changing. Or excising. Or it needs trashing so we can write it off to a bad mood or life-changing events in our personal lives and get on with writing something decent.

While I encourage anyone to pick up a pen and write a novel, I also want to encourage those who aspire to be writers—who are writers—to do what writers do. And that’s not to proclaim how world-changing a manuscript is. Or how perfect it is. Or how good it is simply because it has a beginning and an end and it’s finished.

If you’re unwilling to honestly examine your manuscript for flaws, you’re not ready to be a writer.

If you’re not willing to assume or accept that a manuscript needs corrections and improvement, you’re not ready to be a writer.

If you only want to be known as a writer but don’t want to do what writers do, you’re not ready.

Writers create a draft. And then they rewrite and rewrite again. They make changes. They cut. They add.

They change words.

They change names and plot events and character motivation.

They stand up for their writing while at the same time welcoming advice.

They know there’s more than one way to say something, present something, advance the plot, reveal a character.

Be a one-manuscript diva if you want to. Recognize, however, what you give up when you refuse to change your story for the better simply because you think your story is perfect and above improvement.

You give up the achievements of the writer who grows in skills and insight simply by wrestling a single line or plot thread to perfection.

You give up the knowledge gained in rewrites.

You lose sight of the fact that there are options and that a different path might just give you a far better story.

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Writers who’ve completed only one manuscript share a common trait—they are often defensive when someone makes suggestions for improving the story, even if they’ve asked for suggestions. It’s as if beginning writers want to be validated, be assured that their writing is good and worthy. That it’s without flaw.

Your writing is of value, and completing a novel manuscript is a great accomplishment; don’t let anyone take away the thrill and power of that accomplishment. But a complete manuscript and a good manuscript are not synonymous. Please don’t confuse achievement with quality. Both are necessary for a successful novel. But one is not accomplished simply by accomplishing the other.

Writers with more than one manuscript behind them, especially writers who’ve been published, are almost always more willing to make the changes necessary to improve their work. Their egos have been dropped somewhere, perhaps flung aside, after that first story is completed, and instead of being defensive, these writers are eager to find out what works for their stories. They truly want to make a story better, and they don’t care where the knowledge to do that comes from.

If they need someone else to point out problems in their manuscripts, they’re willing to listen.

It’s not my intention to jump on the attitudes of writers here, but there’s no reason for this blog to deal only with issues for new writers and writing basics.

Attitude can carry you far.

But a bad or defensive or all-knowing attitude can stop your career. Or at least slow it tremendously.

If you approach agents and publishers and even other writers with an attitude that says your work doesn’t need changing, you’re going to have problems getting that work read and published.

I certainly don’t want the diva attitude to keep you far from writing success.

You could, of course, hold tight to your attitude and self-publish. But there’s still money and reputation involved in traditional publishing. Why allow your attitude keep you out of even one avenue to publishing?

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So, what can you do to keep from being a one-manuscript diva?

Write another story.

Understand that every writer rewrites and that your own value and worth are not being attacked when someone suggests changes to your manuscript.

Find a balance between confidence and humility that fits you and take that attitude into your negotiations with agents and publishers and critique partners.

Remember that you are so close to your writing projects that you might not see a problem or might not see how to correct it.

Realize that asking for and accepting help is not cheating; it’s okay to seek advice.

Understand that a publisher will quite likely know the market better than you do and that to fit into that market, you might have to make adjustments to your novel.

Set aside defensiveness. When you ask for suggestions or a critique, at least consider those suggestions.

Consider that there might be a better way to present a line, a character, an emotion, the plot.

Critique someone else’s work, putting yourself in their place. Offer a critique that will improve the manuscript without attacking the writer.

Keep learning.

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Writers have to be confident, so don’t think I’m asking you to back down from your convictions regarding your work; stick to your choices when it’s important.

But don’t adopt a diva attitude, one that will push agents and editors away. They want to work with writers they can actually work with. Show yourself a pro by your willingness to improve your manuscripts. Let others know that you know there’s more than one way to present a story.

Think of yourself as a working stiff rather than a diva. Writing, after all, is work. It can be great pleasure, yes. But the plots and characters don’t write themselves.

Writers are tough. They don’t need coddling and humoring. Why give the impression that you can’t handle the writer’s life when you can? Acknowledging the weaknesses in a manuscript and addressing those weaknesses doesn’t make you weak or wrong or a poor writer; it does make the writing stronger.

Write strong today.

Seek and accept criticism.

Look for ways to improve your stories.

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*The references to editors in this article are to those at publishing houses and not to freelance editors.

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