To formally start the assessment and revision process for my first novel, MEET THE BOYS OF CASPER, I hired a professional to perform a manuscript analysis. The insights gained from this effort not only provided tangible suggestions to improve the quality of my writing—which I was expecting, but they also unexpectedly forced me to consider why and to whom I was writing my book.
A manuscript analysis is a high-level review of a prospective book. Rather than addressing detailed considerations such as sentence structure, its purpose is to assess the general flow of the story. Does the plot make sense, and is it well executed? Are the characters developed? In my mind, the manuscript analysis is an advance critique prior to starting the back and forth interaction with an editor. In fact, adjustments in your story as a result of feedback from a manuscript analysis might make the difference between being accepted or rejected by a publisher.
In my case, I had already decided to self-publish; however, I had reached the point where I needed some other eyes to review my work. After taking a few passes at my manuscript and bringing it to what I believed was a semi-polished state, I solicited feedback. Earlier in the effort, I ran my work by family, friends and some independent publishers. Their reactions tended to be positive, but no one offered any substantial type of constructive analysis, so I searched online for some help and ran across an indie publisher/author who offered a manuscript analysis for $125. I thought her price was reasonable, so I pursued an engagement. Within two weeks after submitting my work, my reviewer delivered a thorough and candid analysis.
She carefully described my writing style and assessed the story’s content. Specifically, she observed that I wrote from an omniscient point of view in an expository manner. Having never taken a creative writing course, these terms were new to me. I’d never really thought about my particular style—only that if felt natural to me—and appreciated the fact it had a formal definition. She also accurately described my book as a set of character studies. Finally, she provided a sample edit for the first few pages of my manuscript and pointed out some weaknesses.
In her summary, she identified the problems she perceived with my manuscript. First, she indicated though my prose was good, my type of writing style is out of date and would not grab/maintain readers’ attention (especially young adult readers). Then, she noted my work was long on detailed character descriptions and devoid of plot. Again, she stated I would lose the readers’ attention because the story lacked tension that is created from a conventional protagonist/antagonist conflict. Further, she indicated my characters had no connection with one another and their existence and events were haphazard. She concluded by saying the manuscript needed a major amount of rework before it would be attractive to a publisher. Then to her credit, she provided some constructive tips and resources for novel writing.
After roughly a year’s worth of sweat, this was not the analysis I was hoping to hear. I stepped away for a few days and then began thinking about her comments. Finally, I decided to perform my own analysis of her review, and in doing so used this feedback vehicle as more than just mere guidance on writing mechanics. This exercise forced me to revisit the most basic questions in my effort—How did I write this story, why did I write this story, and for whom did I write this story?
In one of her summary statements, my reviewer noted while I might enjoy writing character studies readers wouldn’t enjoy reading them. Her observation consisted of two parts: 1) I enjoy writing character studies but 2) readers wouldn’t. She was spot on regarding the first part. I hadn’t thought about it previously, but I do enjoy writing character studies. It’s my style and my voice. Instead of changing to a different style, I decided to own it and move forward.
When I thought about part 2, readers’ reactions to my story, I was conflicted. It was apparent from her detailed comments that she did not enjoy the story; however, when I had previously run my material by others, several liked it including another indie publisher. The thought of readers rejecting your book is terrifying, but that image of rejection forced me to honestly address why I was writing it in the first place. And then I realized my “Eureka” moment. I wrote my story because I wanted to create a tribute to my teenage friends that said, “Once upon a time, we roamed this land, and this is how we rolled.”
Along with this realization, came clarity about my target audience. I decided my primary audience consisted of my old classmates. I would declare my effort a success if my peers concurred my novel accurately captured the spirit of our teenage years (and I could put a few smiles on their faces). However, that cluster of friends represented a tiny audience. Was my novel commercially viable as written? The reviewer didn’t think so, and she was a publisher. I believed her take on the young adult market was accurate. This story was too slow for them, but still I believed my potential audience was greater than just my friends. The key was to identify readers with whom I shared something in common.
I had tried to write a story I would enjoy reading, so I speculated that people with similar experiences or reading tastes to mine could fit into my potential audience category. I am a male who grew up in Wyoming during the ‘70s, and the following novels influenced me: The World According to Garp, Catch 22, and Lamb. Perhaps my novel might resonate with the following subcategories: men, anyone who grew up in the ‘70s, someone having familiarity with Wyoming, or readers who enjoy literary fiction with a splash of humor.
Having considered my own traits, I thought again about my reviewer and what, if anything, we shared in common. The answer was not much. She was female and a citizen of another country who liked stories packed with conflict and tension. At best, she represented a tangential member of my target market. At this point, I realized not everyone will enjoy my book, and I had better mentally prepare for those instances when someone does not.
Now at peace with my purpose for writing and an understanding of my target audience, I read through the reviewer’s analysis again. She had made two excellent points that I wanted to incorporate into my revision. First, I had established little, if any, connection among my characters early in my narration. This absence left readers confused throughout the story. I would address this issue by adding a chapter to the beginning of the book. Second, the narration was too passive in too many places. I would revisit each chapter and look for opportunities to apply a “showing” vs. “telling” technique.
In summary, the small investment I made in a manuscript analysis paid off handsomely. It not only identified areas in need of improvement but also forced me to understand my purpose and expectations in writing a novel.