Wanda Whiteley on the six things she learned as she moved from editor to author, as well as some things to consider once you have a manuscript that you're happy with.
Here are the 6 things I learned in making the move from manuscript doctor to fiction writer:
- It is much easier to doctor someone else’s work than to see faults in one’s own.
Trying to critique your own work is almost as impossible as psychoanalysing oneself.
- Writing a synopsis saves time and creates a tightly plotted whole.
I wanted to plunge straight in, let it flow, but I forced myself to write a section synopsis for each new act, and I’m thankful for that now. One’s plot develops in unforeseen ways as one goes along, so that’s why an updated synopsis for each new section as you get to it really helps.
- Don’t give your ego its head.
When someone is kind enough to critique your book, don’t be tempted to brand them an idiot when they don’t like one of your favourite bits. Thank them kindly, go away and rage, and let their comments percolate. Invariably their insights, even if all you get is a confused response, are invaluable.
- ‘Research’ is the key to unlock the imagination.
If you’re not the sort of writer blessed with stories and characters flooding through your head, it doesn’t mean you’re not the real deal. You just need to do a bit of research. That will spark ideas, every time.
- Try not to annoy your household.
It’s not easy living with a writer. You know you should put the chicken in the oven, walk the dog, do that other piece of paid work, but suddenly ten minutes becomes three hours. I learned not to wear a faraway expression when my husband or daughter tried to talk to me.
- Expect to write upwards of five drafts.
I reckon that I must have edited each scene at least 15 times. It’s so tempting to jump the gun – send it out before it’s totally ready – but you only have one shot with an agent, so I knew I shouldn’t waste it.
And once you have a draft you’re happy with...
Use readers. If necessary, pay them. If you can find strangers to read and report, so much the better. Anyone who has a connection to you will want to please, and this isn’t helpful (I found this especially so with my young adult readers). Not all readers will like the same thing, so you have to trust your gut instinct as you navigate their comments. I found that each reader tended to unlock a different thing for me, and there was always something useful to take away from their notes.
The gold standard. I quickly learned that unless a reader writes the words ‘I loved it’ in their feedback, with an indication that they raced quickly through the book, I shouldn’t class them as a bona fide fan of the book, however admiring they were in their critique. This is especially important if you’re thinking of sinking money and energy into self-publishing. Go ahead only when you feel confident of your novel’s potential to be a word-of-mouth success.
Promotion. It is super-hard getting any PR features or reviews for a novel. Think really hard about all the angles that might be article- or interview-worthy. I was grateful I had come up with the character of my grumpy rescued turnspit dog, because the history of this now extinct breed made a media-worthy subject to focus on in the press release. Also, having a book steeped in local history was another plus. One should never underestimate the ripple effect from a few local bookshops, talks in libraries and schools, as well as local radio and press. Communities tend to be clannish, and if they champion a book you’re in luck.
Wanda will be running a 90-minute workshop for writers on How to Make a Character Leap off the Page, as part of the Essex Book Festival, Saturday 11th June. Further information and booking
Wanda Whiteley was a publishing director for HarperCollins before starting her own writers’ service: manuscriptdoctor.co.uk. She is co-author of Streetkid, which spent three months in the top 10 of the Sunday Times non-fiction bestsellers list. After a decade spent polishing other writers’ work, she thought it was time to put her head above the parapet and make up her own story. The Goldhanger Dog, a Tudor tale of two misfits set in the wild marshes of Essex, is published May 26th, 2022.
Find out more about Wanda at wandawhiteley.com