You May Write Better Than You Think You Do.
If you’ve done your homework (see my series of posts on The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing), and have put enough effort into proofreading and editing your rough draft (see The Joys of Editing), you can with confidence release your manuscript to your Alpha Reader and your Beta Readers, in preparation for its final polishing, before taking the plunge into publishing.
But if miscellaneous doubts and fears inhibit your writing from seeing the light of day, here are a few suggestions to help your story come out of the closet more easily:
If the story seems choppy, there may be too many chapters.
Perhaps the continuity of the story has been fragmented by an excess of major divisions: many of those chapter breaks may actually be scene breaks, instead. A reading dedicated to feeling the rhythm of the narrative may reveal that the chapters are too short. Longer chapters of 5,000 to 6,250 words, divided by naturally occurring scene breaks, can accommodate the flow of most major plot episodes, and take only 30 to 40 minutes to read (easily done during typical bus or train commutes, as well as in bedtime winding-down reading sessions).
Dithering about immaterial material postpones progress.
Finalizing decisions about descriptions of character appearance can fall into this category. For example, unless the color of a character’s hair is an important detail for character development (is s/he in the habit of dyeing it odd shades?) or its length is crucial for plot movement (is this a Rapunzel re-telling?), such characteristics can often be omitted. If necessary, there are many ways to describe hair other than its hue and length: is it curly, greasy, fluffy, plaited, tangled, carefully coiffed but infested with nits, or (as in the case of the main male character in Irish Firebrands) balding?
The same can go for a character’s name. If your story is written in the first person singular, the narrator need not be named, in order for readers to sympathize and empathize with that character. For example, in Rebecca (a Daphne Du Maurier masterpiece), the protagonist-narrator is unnamed throughout, but readers still find her story riveting.
Just be sure that such details are things we really need to know. Otherwise, use your carefully hoarded word count to describe the setting or other sensory experiences.
Trying too hard to vary the vocabulary just wears out your patience and worries the cover off your thesaurus.
There may be a good reason for an author to keep using the same words over and over again. Pay close attention to those words in their context: they may indicate meaningful foreshadowing, repetition, symbolism or parallelisms. These things can arise spontaneously when writing is inspired, and may need only a little gentle polishing to make them shine.
It seems that nothing can be done about awkward passages.
The story may resemble a shipwreck in places, but that could be because of what’s going on inside the characters’ heads (or even because of where the characters live), as the main female character in Irish Firebrands experienced, in this excerpt:
Now Lana gazed gloomily up at the canopy of the four-poster bed. Life itself hardly seemed worth the effort of getting up and living it.
She listened lethargically as the wind picked up speed while it rushed through the orchard– Not another storm! Nature had already served up so much soft weather all summer– ‘Soft’, my foot! Squishy – sodden – seeping – sorry excuse for weather! Ireland was a leaky old tub adrift in the North Atlantic, shipping water faster than Lana could bail it out.
Be careful when editing parts that may not seem to hang together: they may not all be defective. Some may be just fine, although written strangely, because they reflect the state of mind or represent the perceptions of a character. Others may be perfectly good writing, but are misplaced pieces of the puzzle: once they’re relocated to their proper positions in the narrative, they segue seamlessly with what goes before and after them.
What about discouraging news from test readers?
You can’t please everybody, even with the flawless manuscript of a perfectly told tale. Good test readers ought to be able to transcend personal genre preferences and provide decent feedback; not only that they liked or didn’t like a story, but also why. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to do this (see my post on Adler & Van Doren’s How to Read a Book).
Some people just don’t make good test readers. They may be poor readers, or indifferent to reading, or their only experience with writing may be the uninspiring essay topics they were assigned to produce during their early school years, so they don’t comprehend what creative writing is, or what it can do for both writers and readers. They may be envious or resentful of your talent and persistence, or, misunderstanding where writing comes from, they may fear they will find themselves caricatured or ridiculed on the page, believing “you couldn’t make it up.”
Choose your Alpha Reader and Beta Readers carefully. They need not be college-educated, but they must love books, and the more eclectic their reading choices, the better. Let them know what you need to learn about their emotional and intellectual reactions to your writing. Particularly valuable is the test reader who may be willing and able to proofread, or give technical advice – especially regarding research and other points of plausibility – which could save your skin, later.
Nobody enjoys receiving criticism – even the carefully delivered “constructive” variety – nevertheless, writing is an Art, and the purpose of art is to communicate. This story wrote itself through you, and that means it has some important purpose: enlightenment, encouragement, entertainment. You owe it to the inhabitants of the Parallel Universe (if not to yourself) to share it with the world.