My first title for this essay was, “What I have learned from re-reading my final manuscript AFTER receiving it as a fancy bound copy from my MFA program”. I decided that title was a little long winded. You’re lucky that I edited it down.
The original long, verbose title represents the thought process in my head after I re-read my final manuscript. Last week, I received a large package from AULA’s MFA program and I thought to myself, “What could they possibly send me that was like my residency boxes after I graduated?”
(Before each residency at my program, I would receive a large box with all my materials and readings. It was actually pretty exciting. Not just being able to read my peer’s work that I was going to workshop, but more importantly because it meant I was getting close to seeing my Antioch family of writers. I miss my Antioch family.)
The package held my bound final manuscript. I had no idea it would come looking like an actual book. It was thrilling to hold it in my hands. It was beyond exciting being able to place it on my overflowing bookshelf, among my favorite authors.
I dream of the day that I can witness a published copy of my novel among my favorite books and authors. Until then, I have a bound manuscript from my MFA program.
Having my novel in my hands, I realized that I have been focused on my next novel and should find time to bring back my attention to my first one. I have been reaching out to agents so that I can be a step closer to getting it published. Despite this, I had not actually read my novel on paper.
I decided to print it out and take a red pen to the pages for what I hoped to be positive changes and maybe even a few more chapter additions. My red pen received a nice workout.
Thirty-nine mistakes. Yep. That’s how many mistakes I found in my “final manuscript”. Keep in mind that my final manuscript is equivalent of the master’s thesis and was turned in as such, bound by the MFA program, and a copy is now sitting among other bound final manuscripts at my graduate school for others to check out.
Now, some of these mistakes were a missing comma, maybe a word like “a” or “the”, or even just an incorrect verb tense for that specific paragraph. Still, I was horrified. The upside is that I did make changes that I believe strengthened my story and now I am working on a few new chapters that I believe my future readers will appreciate and enjoy.
I learned a few lessons from reading my manuscript in print after it was so called “finalized”. Naturally, I made a list of what I learned and the results it had on my writer psyche.
These tips are for myself and not meant to generalize the writing style of any other writer; however, I do welcome you to learn from my mistakes.
1. ALWAYS print out your work to edit.
I repeat, PRINT out your work to edit. I know there are those of you who disagree with me. I hate wasting paper and ink. It doesn’t feel right to me. However, I do hope to one day see printed copies of my book in bookstores around the country, and who knows, maybe even other countries too. I used to print out several chapters at a time, but I thought it would be too much to print out my entire manuscript. The reality is, I have read my novel so many times that I actually have the story memorized. On the computer, it’s easy for me to skim over parts or fail to pay attention to small details after the hundredth time editing, especially when I start to see spots and colors emerge on the screen from focusing too intently.
My final manuscript was sent to both my mentor and a good friend of mine who is a strong writer. That doesn’t excuse me from not catching those thirty-nine mistakes ahead of time. Printing out the manuscript made me see details I missed while it was sitting on my computer. I noticed longer paragraphs and run-ons that could have been separated, areas where I will now expand and bring to life in a more descriptive way, clarifications that should have been made, and chapters that I am now excited about adding that didn’t seem to be too necessary with how long a 230 page novel looked on my computer. Getting through it after the fiftieth time of editing was exhausting and took me forever.
So, yes, I do believe printing out my novel and making edits also made me excited to read it all over again because I was able to turn the pages in the same way I do with my favorite books.
2. Share your work with two types of friends: the reader and the writer.
It’s very difficult for me to share my novel writing with anyone, let alone friends. For a long time, the only people who had seen my novels or any of my writing were my AULA mentors. (My workshop peers at Antioch only received first versions of usually first chapters.) Instead of requesting a new mentor each project period, I successfully alternated between two and consider myself blessed to have carried on the mentor-mentee relationship after graduating.
My wonderful mentor and brilliant writer, Gayle Brandies, was my main reader for the novel Café Francisco. Although she is brilliant and always honest with her feedback and creative criticism, I knew I needed another pair of eyes, if not more, to read my work.
I sent specific chapters to two friends that I trusted who served as readers. They provided me with their reactions and feedback as my future audience. Their focus was on the flow of the story and strength of my characters. My only other reader was a friend who I knew would be willing to read my manuscript from the first word to the last and also open track changes to provide changes and feedback he thought would serve my story and readers. I consider him to be a fellow writer and someone I trust. I have already told him I’m writing new chapters that I will ask him to provide feedback.
I use the word “trusted” very strictly because I trust very few people in my life and even fewer with what I hold deeply close to my heart. Recently, another close friend, the reader type, has asked permission to read my manuscript completely and offered to use track changes to give me commentary. I’m waiting until the new chapters are inserted to share the novel with her.
I should also add: get over your fear of criticism and send your work to a writer you believe is more experienced and just better than you at writing as well as editing. I plan on reaching out to one of my AULA MFA buddies to find a friend who is willing to read my novel for me. This is warning to them… (Contact me if you’re up for it!)
Every friend I have reading this story is a different type of friends. Each come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and I know hold very different views of the world. This helps me immensely to gage how wide of an audience I can reach with my writing. As a writer, I want to reach as many readers as I can.
3. Don’t be afraid to make changes, BIG CHANGES, to your work.
When I write, I try to control my OCD and perfectionist tendencies by shutting them out. I write a chapter when it comes to me or a scene despite where it may end up in the novel. It may be the second to last chapter that is written before the first half of the story. I find that there are two chapters I can’t move around – the first and last chapter of a story.
I always need to write the first chapter before I put anything down for the rest, even if I know for a fact that another chapter will precede it somewhere down the line. This was the case with Café Francisco. I also need my last chapter to be the last thing I write for my novel. There’s a rush of finality to knowing that I am writing the last chapter and I can almost say that I have completed a novel. I had many versions of the last chapter for Café Francisco in my head but none of these versions were written until I knew my journey with my characters for this book were ending. The final version of the last chapter came to me around three in the morning. I stayed up past sunrise until I had finalized it and then crashed from both excitement and exhaustion.
Despite all of this, I have a crazy organized folder on my computer with all the different versions of my novel and extra chapters that may never be seen by anyone. While at Antioch, I changed verb tense of my entire story as many times as celebrities change their hair color. There are many scenes that have different versions and different points of view. Sometimes when I would receive feedback from a strong writing peer or mentor to change something in my novel, I would do it even though I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t going to stick with the change and it wasn’t right for my story. I always had the previous version to go back to, but I knew I shouldn’t be afraid of trying the change. Who knew if it would actually strengthen my story.
Recently, I realized that I do indeed need several more chapters to make my story whole. Yes, I have the ending and that won’t change, but I’m currently writing chapters that will go in near the beginning of the story. That’s more than okay. It’s exciting to see my novel continue to evolve and fill out.
As writers, we have an understanding that until our novel is sent out to the final publication process and hits bookshelves (or short story/ essay/ piece is accepted by a journal), we will continue to edit out work. I don’t think I will ever feel like my work is 100% perfect. The characters and story live in my head and their lives don’t end with “The End”.
4. NEVER stop writing… especially if you’re stuck.
This should be obvious and self-explanatory, but it’s one of those “easier said than done” statements. We all have days where we just want to curl up into a ball and hide under a blanket all day. Let me ask you fellow writers this: was there ever a time when you were working on a story of any kind and decided to take a “break” and your mind actually let you take a break? My answer? No.
My brain is constantly “writing” even when I don’t have a writing utensil, paper, or computer near me. While driving. After an argument with a friend or family member. Staring up at my ceiling. After a tragedy. In moments of happiness. My mind is always on the go, even when I’m asleep. I often suspect that the reason I dream excruciatingly vividly is because there’s a story that needs to be told. It can be one that is only for my eyes to heal me when I’m at my lowest. It’s still worth something.
When you’re on any emotional high, be it sad or happy, it’s the perfect time to write… and edit later.
I find that when my emotions are at their highest levels, that’s when I’m finally able to put anything down. Other times, I really do just want to rest on my bed and stare at my ceiling, only getting angrier at myself for not being able to write down what I’m thinking. At this point in my life, I the only excuse I should have to not write when I know I need to are when my migraines attack. Dealing with one of migraines are the only moments when I don’t have enough control to write. That’s okay.
When you’re stuck with one piece, move on to another. Write gibberish if you need to. Hey, stare at the words you’ve already written. Re-read what you’ve already written, even if it’s the first 100 pages of your novel. Whatever keeps your mind going. Just don’t stop writing. Personally, I hop over to one of my other novels in progress.
As a writer, I find reading and writing to be my medicine… Recently, it’s been writing that brings me more happiness than reading.
5. When you receive a rejection from an agent, find 10 more.
I have been trying to find an agent for my writing and a home for Café Francisco. This is not new news for my loyal readers, friends, and family. As all writers are aware, this is a very difficult process. AlhamduliAllah, I have very supportive friends and family in my life and an incredible mentor who has been a source of advice and comfort on this journey.
I have found that receiving a rejection is better than never hearing back from an agent. Not hearing back keeps me wondering if she ever read it or what could have gone wrong for her to skip over my email. Was my story really that horrible?? This Tuesday I received my first real rejection. I hope that it’s okay for me to share it (without naming names of course)… If not, I’m sure one of my writer friends will alert me so I can edit it out.
I was sitting at the Toyota dealership waiting while my car was being checked out. It was 10:20 AM when I decided to check my email. There it was. A response to a query I had sent out five days prior. The response was twenty-two minutes old. (Yes, I know the exact time.) I was shocked that I had gotten a response from an agent who claimed it would take her about six to eight weeks to get back to a query letter. I reluctantly opened it:
Thank you for your query. After consideration we have decided not to pursue this project, as it doesn't seem quite right for us. As you know, this is a highly subjective business, and other agents are sure to feel differently. We wish you all the best in your search and hope your book finds a good home soon.
I went through a few reactions, all while feeling numb.
1. Wow, that was a really nice rejection letter.
2. At least they responded back.
3. I shouldn’t be surprised; I’m very familiar with rejection.
4. I can’t believe I just got rejected by my favorite author’s agent.
5. What’s wrong with my story? Am I a horrible writer?
6. It was because my stories are colored with multiculturalism and diverse characters, definitely not mainstream.
7. I’m being an idiot. Reading is subjective. It’s not like I would be willing to pick up every single book or story I laid eyes upon.
8. Their loss. There’s an agent out there who I can trust with my work, will support what I love, and will find herself very lucky when my novels break out in the publishing game.
9. Patience grasshopper!
10. AlhamduliAllah, everything happens for a reason.
I wish I could say that I went home and went back to writing or searching for more agents and sending out query letters. I’m human. That numb feeling turned into sadness. I wanted to spend the rest of the day sulking around my room. I couldn’t even pick up a book. Talking to my family members felt like too much effort, which was difficult because that day my mom needed help in the kitchen and later that night my younger sister needed help with her English homework.
I went to bed early. A little after midnight. That is really early for me. Needless to say, I didn’t fall asleep. I felt like I needed to figure out why my story hasn’t been worthy of an agent. I turned to Allah swt and spent much of the night in massive dua’ (supplication) as always.
I woke up with new motivation. The agent who responded represents my favorite author and her rejection gave me the greatest push to find that perfect agent for my work. I copied and pasted that letter on my desktop so that it can be there whenever I’m writing, researching more agents, and sending out query letters. So, thank you Ms. Agent for reminding me why I feel so strongly about my work and why it needs to be read!
Use what you find to be your weakness as your greatest motivation to succeed. Be patient. It will come when you least expect it…
6. Constantly remind yourself why you write.
ALWAYS remind yourself why you choose to write.
Whenever I need the inspiration I read my own essay.
Works every time.
Find what reminds you why you write.
7. It’s okay to take a break… Just not indefinitely.
This may seem contradictory to my number four tip to myself. The reality is, rest is needed. For me, this is with the ability to actually stop thinking about writing enough to sleep.
I heard sleep is good and healthy for you.
Find new ways to take a break. Everyone needs a breather. Sometimes I take my writing with me when I go relax, but I find time to clear my head. I love going to Coronado Island. It’s my favorite place in all of San Diego. When I’m overwhelmed with basically everything and everyone in my life, I hop into my car and head over to the island. It’s always a spontaneous drive. Driving for me is one of my best breathers.
I take a pen and something to write in, never my laptop. I always grab coffee at my favorite coffee cart and take a nice, long walk around the area. I clear my head. I refocus my attention from my own thoughts to the people and little details around me. It’s soothing. When I feel like I’m ready again, I find my nook facing the ocean and return to writing. For every page I write, I look up and take some time to breathe in the ocean smells and watch the waves crashing against the rocks. I tune out the world around me. It’s just me and the ocean.
I can’t always abandon my responsibilities or my “to do” list for the day. Another way to find motivation or just inspiration is to find a new place to write or mix up your writing spots, even if it’s writing in a new spot in the same coffee shop or library you always seem to find yourself. Sometimes the familiar is the best for a specific story or piece.
Find what works for you. Just remember to breathe!
I am OCD and love my odd numbers, so I stopped my list there.
I hope that my dear, fellow writers were able to find something of substance from this list of reminders I have written for myself. Essentially, we write because it gives us peace. I know that the road will forever be full of dense trees and scary monsters and the waters are just as rough, but I love it.