From First Growth to Maturity—
Developing a Publishable Manuscript
Copyright 2001; 2016 by Patricia Anderson
A bright idea for a book is often born in a flash of inspiration. But if it is to thrive and to become a publishable manuscript, it must grow to maturity.
There are three main phases in this developmental process: first growth, growing pains, and maturity.1) First Growth
Most writers are familiar with this phase in the development of a manuscript. It often begins with a few first tentative words put down on paper and, in most cases nowadays, soon transposed to a computer file.
One by one, the words multiply into pages, which in turn grow into full chapters. By this time your momentum is up and you are in the middle of a growth spurt. What had started slowly, and perhaps with difficulty, is now thriving with the vitality of creative energy. This can be a particularly satisfying phase in the writing process, as you feel the pride of seeing those computer files increasing in number and, if you're also printing at this point, that stack of pages mounting higher every day.
Though such momentum is not always continuously sustained, most writers experience enough spurts, combined with slower-paced progress, to carry them through until they have a completed manuscript. This is what is normally called the first draft. The term is, however, slightly misleading, because you have undoubtedly already fixed typos, corrected errors of grammar and spelling, and reworked whole sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters.
Many authors think this is enough and, at this point, send the fledgling manuscript out into the world to agents or publishers. Sometimes, they're successful; more often, they're not.2) Growing Pains
In today's competitive publishing business, a rejection or two means nothing. But if you've been turned down repeatedly, you need to face the truth: Something is wrong with your manuscript. Discouraging though this is, it's a typical part of the process of getting published.
So what do you do now?
The best thing is to stop the submission process before you've exhausted too many options. Most publishers and agents do not want to take a second look once they've already passed on a manuscript.
Now here's where the pains start. You have concluded that you need to develop the manuscript further in some way. The agonizing question is: In what way?
You have two possible options for discovering the answer: Figure it out yourself, or seek out professional advice.
If you decide to exercise the first option, the best thing to do initially is to put the manuscript aside for a while—anywhere from two weeks to several months. You need to create some distance and objectivity before you can take a fresh look and decide what is the best plan for revising the manuscript.
Your other alternative is to hire a professional freelance editor, writer, book doctor, or literary consultant to assess your work for problems and, possibly, to edit it as well.
Now if this is starting to sound like an advertisement for Helping You Get Published, it really is not. Both options—doing it yourself or hiring someone—are acceptable in the publishing business and potentially productive. It's a matter of knowing your own personality and weighing the pros and cons.
Doing it yourself. If you are the rugged individualist type, then this is the approach for you. Not only will you save the cost of editorial services but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you, and you alone, have solved the problems in your work.
The principal drawback is that it may take you a long time to figure out what the manuscript needs to attract the right agent or publisher. This can be confusing and frustrating, and it can cause you many sleepless nights before you finally come up with a new spin on your project. If the core idea has a potentially long shelf life, then in the end the passage of time does not matter. But if the subject is time-sensitive in any way, months, or even weeks, can mean the difference between publication and wasted effort on a stale-dated project.
Hiring a professional. An astute professional editor or writer can quickly home in on the crucial problems in your manuscript that are standing between you and publication. An expert assessment can save you months of agonizing and floundering, as you grope in the dark trying one dead-end approach after another before you finally stumble onto the right direction to take.
The two main disadvantages are, first of all, cost—editors charge fees—and, secondly, the feeling that this is no longer your work. Deciding on the extent to which cost is a problem depends on your personal finances and is a fairly straightforward matter. The second issue is a question of personality and is a completely individual decision. In any event, at some stage in the publication process you will have to relinquish some control of the content and style of your manuscript. This might happen at the point where you meet an interested acquiring editor, or it could happen during copyediting or even later in the production process. You might therefore want to consider giving up some control earlier on and thus smoothing your way at these later stages.3) Maturity
The growing pains of developing a manuscript to a mature enough point to be agent- or publisher-ready can be too much for many novice writers. They simply lose interest and go on to other less demanding and more instantly gratifying pastimes.
But if you're one of those with the patience and perseverance to keep on working with even the most troublesome of manuscripts, you need to know when enough is enough.
Just how do you know when a manuscript has reached maturity and is truly ready to be submitted to agents or publishers?
Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to this question. Favorable input from professionals—freelance editors, book doctors, and literary consultants—can certainly be indicative of readiness. In some cases, even agents or publishers who have declined on your work may soften the blow by offering a few encouraging words as to its overall publishable status.
In the end, however, only you can know when that manuscript has reached maturity. And this is more than just a matter of recollecting the time, thought, and, possibly, dollars you've invested in rethinking and rewriting. Recognizing the maturity of your work—its full publication potential—cannot ultimately be quantified. Rather, it's a deep qualitative conviction of having done your best, of having given everything you can at this point to this particular project. If, on the other hand, you have the least inkling that there's still more you could do, then the likelihood is that you indeed better do more.
But if that inner conviction is there, you'll know it. And, just as certainly, you'll know what it means. At long last, your manuscript—the offspring of your creativity and continuing effort—is truly ready to leave the nest.