The stuff it takes to complete a book-length manuscript — the time, energy, and discipline alone, not to mention the talent, imagination, and, well, grammar — means that I can never really get over how many people there are out there who do it. If you’re attempting this heroic act, working on a manuscript, and hoping to submit it to agents or publishers, the grim fact is that despite your extraordinary efforts, your manuscript is still going to be one among very, very many that the agents/publishers/editors will consider each year.
I don’t really know about general advice for writers. Ryan O’Neill has recently lampooned the whole concept to glorious effect in The Monthly: for every adamant piece of advice from a famous writer, you can find another writer who has very sincerely counselled the precise opposite. Most advice is helpful to someone and irrelevant or downright unhelpful to someone else. But if you want them, here are my ‘tips’ for getting published — a few further efforts you might choose to make in order to give your work its best chance of catching a publisher’s eye — to be taken with salt, and ditched if they get in your way.
Try to publish some shorter pieces first
Writing a book can be all-consuming, but it’s a good idea to attempt to write and publish some shorter pieces and build up a bit of publishing history/experience before or while you get into writing a book-length work. This is both for your benefit, to weather you a bit and build your confidence, and to increase your chances of an agent or publisher taking your book manuscript seriously. From the publishing end, there’s often a marked difference in the skill and attitude of a writer who has had shorter works published compared with one who has never had anything published. Writing shorter pieces and going through the submission and editing process with newspapers, journals, literary magazines, or similar will help you learn how to write for a general audience and learn how to manage the editing and publishing experience (according to the wonderful Anne Lamott, being published is the worst part of the writing experience — but hopefully that’s not true for everyone). Also, for many publishers, including us, proof of previous publication is a requirement for an eligible submission.
Revise your manuscript on your own
First of all, if you haven’t already, follow the advice of my much wiser colleague David Golding on how to revise your manuscript, here. He’s collected the greatest hits of revision in one place for you.
Following these tips and your own instincts, try to get your manuscript to a state where you think it’s genuinely as good as you can get it on your own — not just to a point where you don’t want to look at it any more (which will probably come sooner). The next step after this is to show it to a few trusted people, and, unless you’re totally paralysed, it’s not worth using up the wonderful gift of a fresh pair of eyes on a version that you already knew you were going to have to fix up. Philip Roth worked this way — he would get his manuscript to a state where he believed it to be finished by his own (hideously high) standards, knowing full well that the feedback he would get once he showed it to others would probably mean he’d still have to revise it further.
Show your manuscript to a few people whose opinion you trust
Be discerning about who you show your draft to. It should be people whose opinion on writing/ideas you value, not just people who you have a beer with sometimes. Too much general positive feedback doesn’t really give you much to work with (though it is, of course, very nice). Likewise, if you get negative feedback from someone who doesn’t share your taste, it might be unnecessarily discouraging, or it might be accurate, but you won’t be able to take it seriously. Either way, too much advice from different quarters is confusing, and will almost inevitably be contradictory, so try to think about who you really want to hear it from, and keep it limited.
If you want to, or if you feel short on the right kind of friend (it can also be a fairly big favour to ask someone), you could also consider seeking a professional manuscript assessment, which will ensure that you’re getting an objective (as possible) appraisal.
Try to know yourself and what you can actually take, criticism-wise. If necessary, tell your readers exactly what aspects of the manuscript you want their feedback on and how much. If you’re likely to be shattered by criticism, tell them to be gentle, and if you don’t want any time-wasting compliments but just want to get to how to make it better, tell them that.
Then take this advice and revise again.
With luck, these will help you write the best version of your manuscript, so that it gets the attention it deserves.