: What you can (and can’t) expect if you ask someone to evaluate your writing, and what kind of sample you should offer them
Once upon a time, there was a young man who wanted to be a violinist. He believed he had some talent, but he wasn’t certain it was enough. So when he heard that one of the greatest violinists of his age was giving a concert in his city, he acquired a back stage pass, and when the concert was over he approached the maestro.
“Sir, I don’t want to take much of your time, but could you listen to me play, and tell me if I have the talent to become a master violinist myself?”
The violinist looked at him a moment and nodded. “I will listen.”
The young man played his best for several minutes, then lowered his bow and regarded the master hopefully.
The violinist shook his head. “You lack the fire,” he said.
The young man was crushed, but surely this man would know. He left the theater and put his violin aside. He became a successful businessman, married, and made good life for himself. Many years later, when the great violinist returned to his city, he went to the concert to hear the master play again, for he still loved music. After the concert he went backstage to thank the violinist for having been courageous enough to be honest with him.
“You probably won’t remember this,” he said, “but many years ago I played for you, and you told me—”
“That you lacked the fire,” the old man said.
“You still remember that?” the man asked, astonished. “I’ve always wondered, how did you know? What was it about my playing that gave it away.”
The master sighed. “Young man, I barely listened to your playing. I tell everyone who plays for me that they lack the fire.”
The man was outraged. “How could you do that? I might have been a great violinist!”
“You still don’t understand,” the master said. “If you’d had the fire, you wouldn’t have listened to me.”
The first time I read this story, in an article in Writer’s Digest magazine, I hated it. I detested the idea of that old man crushing people’s dreams, putting one more stumbling block in the way of their success…and the longer I’m in the writing business, the more accurate I think it is.
But I’ll spare you the lecture on perseverance. This essay is about why the young violinist sought out the master’s opinion; why, periodically, beginning writers ask me to read their manuscripts and give them my opinion…and why, when they do, I talk my way out of reading their manuscripts as fast as I can babble.
Would you read my manuscript, and let me know what you think of it?
No. And it’s not because I selfishly don’t want to spend some time helping beginning writers. OK, it is partially that. But I don’t think most people realize that when you ask me to read and critique a novel-length manuscript, it’s going to take me roughly eight hours. I don’t have so much working time that I want to give it away by the day. So yes, I guess I am that selfish.
Well, you don’t have to read the whole thing. You could just read a chapter or two, and tell me if I really have talent, or if I’m wasting my time.
This is closer. I might be willing to read a chapter or two—but I still can’t tell you whether or not you have the talent to make it. All anyone can tell, from any piece of writing, is what’s right and wrong with that one piece of writing. There’s no way I can tell whether you might be a brilliant writer two, or four, or fourteen books from now. Talent is the ability to learn something, not the ability to do it without having to learn how. And no one can tell how much ability to learn you might have, because most of that depends on how much persistence and passion you apply to it. The only thing anyone can tell by looking at your writing is how much you have or haven’t learned yet. This is what’s good in this piece of writing, this is what’s bad, right now, today. What happens with your writing in the future is up to you.
OK, I’ll give up on asking whether or not I have talent.
But if I want someone (fellow writer, agent, editor—it’s the same answer for all of them) to evaluate my writing and tell me what’s strong and what needs work, how much should I show them?
Good question. The answer varies slightly between different agents and editors, and if you’re submitting you can (and really, really should) use their particular guidelines. Generally it’s a one to three page synopsis and the first three chapters (roughly fifty pages) of your manuscript. If you’re hitting up a writer to look at your work and give you a quick evaluation, I’d say go even shorter. The same one to two page synopsis you’re submitting professionally, and the first three, five or ten pages of your manuscript. And speaking for myself (I’ve already confessed to being selfish) I’m more willing to look at three pages than ten.
But, but, but… But the best stuff in my manuscript doesn’t even start till that cool scene on page 33. And a mere one page synopsis can’t begin to describe my complex, multi-layered, richly themed, etc. etc. You couldn’t tell anything about my novel from a sample that small!
Wrong. Though I must admit, I used to think that myself. I used to think that no one could tell anything worthwhile about my wonderful books without reading much, much more than ten pages. Then I volunteered to judge a children’s writing contest for the SCBWI, and found myself looking at the first ten pages of about a dozen manuscripts. And I discovered that you can learn almost everything you need to know about someone’s writing in the first ten pages. The first ten pages will tell you whether or not this writer knows how to begin a story, or whether they’ve started in the wrong place. It tells you if their characters are cardboard or come alive. If their dialog is sparkling or flat. If their humor works. It also shows you any bad writing habits and flaws in their style, and gives you a more than adequate sample of their voice.
You think I’m wrong? Go to a library with a friend and walk through the whole fiction section grabbing ten books off the shelf at random—all the genres; SF, mystery, mainstream, western, literary. Make it a really random sample. Cut up some paper bags or manila envelopes or something, and wrap them around the outer cover and title pages so when you open the book you can’t see anything but Chapter 1—then swap stacks with your friend and read the first five pages of each book. You’ll be amazed how much you can tell about those books from the first five pages.
And the synopsis (if it’s well written) can tell your reader whether you have a novel’s worth of story, or if you’re just spinning your wheels for three hundred pages.
For my advice on writing a good one page synopsis, which is a very difficult thing to do, look up my writing tip from Winter ’01/’02. For my advice on what to put into those first few pages you’ll be handing a reader—including the one who may someday pick up your book in the book store—you can check out my next writing tip, for Summer ’07; Doghouse on the Malibu beachfront: What you need in the first five pages of your manuscript.