I had a manuscript that was done, at least I thought so. When I told people in the business about it, they showed interest, but when I sent sample pages, the interest died. That told me there was something wrong with the writing, but what was it?

It's hard for a parent to see her child's flaws, and it's hard for a writer to see weaknesses in a manuscript. We might sense from the reactions of others that there's a problem, but love creates a halo of goodness that blurs our vision and hides the bad. What to do? You need to get some new eyes.

Someone needs to read your manuscript, all of it, and make critical judgments about what's strong and what isn't. This is not an easy thing, and you mustn't assume that anyone will do.

In the first place, people who love you aren't a good source of criticism for several reasons. Some want you to be happy, so they say it's good even if it isn't. Some really don't care and may not even finish the job (that's happened to me several times). Some don't feel qualified and assume that since you're "smart" (I'm an English teacher, so I must know everything, right?) they won't find anything to change. And be honest: how many of your friends/family ARE actually qualified to make critical judgments about writing? Yeah, they know what they like, but can they analyze what they see and verbalize their criticisms well enough to help a struggling author improve her work?

There are other options. You can pay someone to do an analysis. This isn't a bad idea if you trust the person's qualifications and if you can afford the sometimes hefty price tag. You must remind yourself, however, that each opinion is one person's view, no matter how much you pay that person to provide it.

You can join a critique group, where barter is the norm: I read yours, you read mine. Again, if you trust the people in the group it can be helpful. Often, though, there are people in critique groups who enjoy sniping more than critiquing and make petty comments rather than helpful ones. Once again, what are their qualifications? In addition, if you get stuck in a group with an egoist, a terrible writer, a procrastinator, or an otherwise unhelpful member, you may tire of it quickly. I heard an author (I think it was Mark Billingham) say once that he didn't participate in critique groups because the product would not be his writing but some sort of group effort. I agree with that, at least in the writing phase. I would never submit a partial to a group for fear I lose my work's identity among well-meant suggestions.

So what is my solution? I don't claim it works for everyone, but here's what I prefer to do. I have two wonderful people who will read a finished MS when I ask them to. One is a retired teacher who is good at finding inconsistencies, errors, and such. She also gives me a general idea of how much the work held her interest so I can mentally rank them as good, better and best as far as readiness for querying.

A second person, an acquaintance made solely through the writing world, is invaluable because she sees the bones of the work. Is the writing strong enough to pull the reader along? Do the characters resonate? Is there tension when it's needed? And does it all add up to a compelling read? In other words, this person acts as a pseudo-agent, looking at the work as a possible sale. Unlike most agents, however, she gives me a specific list of what she'd like to see fixed with reasons for each. I can accept them or reject them, but here, she says, is what a first-time reader sees in this story.

Why do these people do this? The first because she likes my work and likes to read it before anyone else does. For the second person, I do the same type of thing for her projects, so we act as sounding boards for each other.

I must add that it isn't always easy to take the criticism. With the MS I mentioned above, the critiques I've received mean major changes, maybe a complete reworking of something I once thought was done and ready. But better far that your "people" should peek at your baby and tell you where the ugly spots are than to send it to an agent or an editor who will think the same things but respond with only a "Dear Author..."

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