Manuscript-Under-The-Mattress Syndrome

No matter what sort of writer you happen to be, there is some part of you that is confident. Putting the words in your head onto the page is the first demonstration of that confidence. Sharing them with others is the second. Asking for help is the third, and it is here that many writers fail.

As in many things, it is easier to quit than ask for help.

I kid quite a bit on this site about being a bad writer, but in truth, it’s far easier to be a martyr for your art than to be an actual artist. It’s easier to simply say that your book or story is no good and put it away rather than get down to the hard work of turning it over to more capable hands for serious evaluation and assistance.

Manuscript-Under-The-Mattress Syndrome

Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of the completion of my second novel. I didn’t have a cake, nor did I light a candle. In fact, I didn’t even realize it had been five years until someone asked me about the book last night:

“Why do you think it was bad?”

The answers ranged from the obvious (the person I paid to read the book couldn’t finish it) to pure avoidance (I “over-edited” the book). I also tried to frame my answer by trying to change the medium (the book would make a better play than a novel).

“Did you share the book with other writers or do you keep it under your mattress?”

I did share the book with a few writer-types I know. Those who managed to make it through the work panned it. To give a you a flavor of the comments, I one fellow put his copy in the closet and came across it recently when he was getting ready to move:

“Can you believe I actually sat down and read it? I mean, it sucks of course, but I think it’s amazing that you finished it.”

There are parts of the book that are funny and there are parts that are poignant and yes there are parts that do indeed suck. The same could be said about most books. Mine is really no different, but what is different is that I have never asked for help. I paid someone to read it and proof it, but that is hardly the same thing as asking for help.

As a result, the novel I wrote five years ago has indeed slept beneath my metaphysical mattress. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience?

How to Ask for Help?

Well, you could start a blog and write about your failures as a writer and hope that someone will come along and take pity on you…

On second thought, perhaps that’s not the best advice. :)

Actually, I’m hoping that you will help me fill in the blank here. (see I’m asking for help) I would love to hear from writers and editors on this subject. I’ve read a lot of books on writing and this is one area that seems to get glossed over and yet I think it is critical to moving on from Manuscript-Under-The-Mattress Syndrome.

25 thoughts on “Manuscript-Under-The-Mattress Syndrome

  1. I will admit that it took me a story or two to get over the abject horror of asking for critiques from others and then realizing that they will, in all likelihood, be honest. I do think I’ve benefited greatly from the experience, though. In one case, I sent a short story to a writer/editor friend I’ve made on Twitter and asked for her top-to-bottom advice on how to make the story better. I got the story back with a lot of tough suggestions, but the advice contained on those pages has stuck with me more than any book on writing or editing that I’ve read.

    So I say take the plunge. There are plenty of great writers on Twitter willing to help you out. I’m not one of them, but if you’re looking for the advice of a mediocre writer, you know where to find me. I’d love to be a part of you virtual Critique Group.

    Brandon Satrom’s last blog post..Memory and Storytelling Part 2 – Places

  2. Opening yourself up is not easy, for sure. It is akin to unlocking that soft inner core and giving someone the access, and a dull knife. I think the key is to find those who you trust to give that straight forward and tough advice, without twisting the knife as they slice.

    That said, how can one find the proper knife wielder, without risking a few twists? Depends on your healing powers, and how well the operation helped heal the problem.

    No, never was pre-med :)

    Critique group is good, if you can find/make a solid trusted aliance with like-minded writers. Don’t know if pirahna-style feeding frenzy critique en mass would be as helpful…could leave one as a picked over emotional skeleton…

    I should really work on these visual allusions. Heh.

    Another good thought provoking blog.

    Isle’s last blog post..Second Life: My Social Experiment.

  3. I am nowhere near having a manuscript under the mattress (mattress yes, manuscript no), but yesterday I decided – with a very funny feeling somewhere in my tummy – to participate in a writing project – in english, which is not my first language. I did this after asking some people at twitter if they thought I could. This was asking for help – I got it promptly and was encouraged to participate. After having written it I was helped again with some useful advice how to change the layout in order to make the post more readable. So it’s on the web now. It took some courage from me, the courage to ask other people.

    Ulla’s last blog post..Off-Topic – What I learned from Ants

  4. @Brandon I’ve had some great feedback from people I’ve met on Twitter. In fact, one of them posted a comment right after yours. :)

    Thanks for the offer to read and critique. I might very well take you up on it!

    @Isle I agree with finding the right people. It pays to spend time making sure that you are sending your work to the right audience. I have an old post on this subject. I think the comments from Mallory are far more helpful than the actual post itself.

    P.S. Thanks for being one of my knife wielders. :)

  5. I work with authors on a daily basis via e-mail, authors I’ve never met or contacted before. This editing process with “blank faces” has always been the most productive. I think that not knowing your editor or proof reader has great value, perhaps primarily in that you won’t feel like the person is judging you.

    The only thing on the table is your work: no ego, no insecurities, no “I wonder what he thinks about…”. Just the work.

    Edward Atkinson’s last blog post..Encouragement?

  6. @Ulla I understand what you mean. I worked in Switzerland for about a year some time back. I found it incredibly difficult to put myself out there in German, even though I had an excellent understanding of what was being said. I admire your courage to share your work. After visiting your site, I can only say, wirklich wunderbar, sollten Sie stolz sein! :)

    @Edward I agree that the blank face can be very productive, but don’t you think interest in a particular genre is important? I mean, if I have horror stories shouldn’t I work with a horror editor (or sci-fi, romance, etc)?

  7. Jamie, I agree with the comments here. I have edited client’s work and I agree it is helpful not knowing them. The process becomes entirely about the story and not the author. I’m not a fan of critique en masse, but that may be my own personal bias. I think if you can find readers who are your target audience for a first read that would be helpful. When you are ready for the editing process, have a professional do the job. I agree that readers should have an interest. If you asked to read a romance novel, I would vomit. :-) Now, off to read that manuscript you sent, no knife in hand…

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..What I Learned from Bullies

  8. “don’t you think interest in a particular genre is important?”

    That’s true. But perhaps a horror editor will miss many edits because he is already so immersed in the genre; that could really be true of any editor.

    In the end, any type of editing style or editor will have its drawbacks (though I do tend to prefer the anonymous route). The answer, I suppose, would be to have a few editors that hit the big points: anonymous, genre, etc.

    Maybe some editors to try could be: your enemy, your mom, your significant other, an old teacher, etc. :)

    Edward Atkinson’s last blog post..Taking Over the World: Is it for You?

  9. Didn’t the person you paid give you some constructive criticism with suggestions for improvement?

    One of the most important things any serious writer must learn to do is embrace feedback and put it to good use. If you really want to complete your book and perhaps get it published, I’d suggest paying a professional to proof, edit, and critique a chapter or two. Then, you can take the feedback, make the changes, and apply the suggestions to the rest of the chapters.

    Whatever you do, don’t give up!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..What I’ve Learned About Blogging

  10. @Karen I know the process for getting into Clarion West was about being anonymous. Just stories submitted by a crew of great writers, circulating with editors and writers who were looking for the best. I keep peeking in on those selected this year and I have no doubt that it the CW folks made the right selections (as far as my opinion goes in these things). By the way, hope you have a sharp knife. Those stories you have may be a bit tough. :)

    @Edward LOL! That list is perfect! I also agree that there is a benefit to getting an “outside opinion.” Who knows, maybe it would open a new market for a writer’s work? What is the best way to approach/find an editor?

    @Melissa Yes, the person I paid did indeed give good feedback. She used to be one of my more regular readers and so she was familiar with some of my other work. She suggested that I stick with what I was doing before I wrote the novel. That, of course, speaks to Edward’s comment above… I absolutely agree with embracing comments as long as you maintain perspective on your aims with the piece. Great advice, Melissa! Thanks!!!

  11. Jamie, forgive me because I don’t know if this will be relevant to you or not. I took an upper-level literature course in college that combined the works of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner — both very challenging, Nobel prize-winning authors. Long story short, the comments from many in the class were downright embarrassing. Someone had the audacity to say out loud in class that “The Sound and the Fury” sucked… the comments in regards to “Absalom, Absalom!” were profane. One girl even said that she didn’t think William Faulkner knew anything about what he was writing about.

    Comments like those are generally unhelpful… any editor or friend that takes the time to edit your work should be able to qualify *why* something sucks and offer suggestions that can help make it not suck, or, they’re simply not worth the money or your time.

    Shannon Paul’s last blog post..Evolution or revolution is a matter of corporate culture

  12. @ Jamie: Hrm, can’t say I really know any proven methods. I’ve always just relied on personal network. I guess you can always post on Craigslist and say you’ll pay, but you might end up with some shady characters that way.

    Perhaps you could write a blog post about finding an editor!

    Edward Atkinson’s last blog post..Taking Over the World: Is it for You?

  13. @Shannon I agree that vague or generalized comments are really unhelpful, whether negative or positive. Such blanket statements should make you wonder just how much time the person put into reading the story. Thanks for the comment. Nothing to forgive, and I’m not just saying that because I agree with you. :)

    @Edward I wonder if I could run a contest to find an editor…. Who would sign up? Now wouldn’t that be a strange turn of events. Editors submitting reasons why I should pick them. LOL!

    P.S. You need to get Subscribe to Comments installed on that wonderful blog of yours!!!

  14. “I wonder if I could run a contest to find an editor…. Who would sign up? Now wouldn’t that be a strange turn of events. Editors submitting reasons why I should pick them. LOL!” You have just described Elance! :-)

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..A Divine Slap on the Head

  15. @Karen There are great people on Elance. Like this person, for example! :)

    @Edward That brings up a good point. I wonder how much I should expect to spend for someone to edit my book. I’m not talking about proofing but consulting on the structure. This seems like it would take more than your average ipod.

  16. I love for people to read my work and provide feedback. But I feel like that’s taking advantage of people. It’s different if you run something by a friend as opposed to fellow writers. We’re always writing something — multiple articles daily. Jamie is probably talking about that one special project or one that rarely comes along, then it’s more doable to ask for help. I’d do it.

    Meryl K. WcNA’s last blog post..Telling the Hard Truths of the Writing Life

  17. Oh, phooey! That’s what I get for typing on a laptop in bed … a new last name. WcNa? Is that part Irish and part Welsh? Or maybe it’s a Freudian slip. I never proclaimed to love my husband’s last name (long story). Oh, I love my dear husband… we just celebrated our 19th last week.

  18. @Meryl You’re right, with manuscript under the mattress syndrome I’m really talking about book-length works. Short stories may certainly feather a fair number of nests, but personally I see them as the run up to the big show. I have less attachment to them and freely share.

    Of course, now that you mention it, I am working on a long history of Welsh-Irish experience in America. The current working title is WcNá go Brách! :)

    P.S. Happy Anniversary! My wife and I celebrated ours on Sunday!

  19. @Meryl As my wife is a regular reader of this site, I am contractually obligated to note that she is always right in all things. :)

    As an aside, I was at the cafe yesterday and listening to some young folks talking about the keys to a successful marriage. When asked my opinion I said, marry someone you can talk to. There is (or should be) more talking in a marriage than anything else.

  20. Absolutely, Jamie! Talking is key. I love talking to my husband. We talk about all topics, not just about the kids and our schedule. It seems we both have a working brain :)

  21. I was in the lucky position to be able to ask a professor of mine to read something I wrote (short novella), and he had a lot to say about inconsistencies and where the story was going–how I should change the POV–lots of things a writer can overlook w/out even realizing. And he was positive, so the criticism was HELPFUL. It didn’t hurt my feelings, or crush me – but it really made me feel good about where the story was going, even while I knew it still needed a lot of work. Haven’t published it yet, but its on the way. 😉 Its different if you have people you know looking at it, like friends and/or family. They’re going to be naturally biased, so unless you have friends who aren’t afraid to give it to you straight, I don’t think showing it to friends is the best way to get “help.” If you have writer friends though, it might be different. Plus, you can swap work and help each other out.

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