Manuscript assessment: two points of view

Oh, dear, how long has it been since my last post? Three weeks? Sorry about that—things got busy. But anyway, here we are again, and it’s time to talk about point of view.

When I’m assessing a manuscript, along with plot and character I have to think about the question of point of view—or more accurately, the questions of point of view, because there are two aspects to it. Firstly, there’s the question of which character is telling the story. Secondly, there’s the question of how it’s being told.

Who’s telling the story?

As I read through a manuscript, I make a note of which character is telling me the story in each scene—or which characters are. Can I tell from the text who’s eyes I’m supposed to be looking out of? Do I stay inside this person’s point of view consistently, or are there points where I slide behind someone else’s eyes—and if so, when and why? If there’s no clear answer to the question of why, maybe revise the text to stay in the same point of view all the way through.

Is the point-of-view character telling me things they could plausibly know, or does the extent of their knowledge ring false? Are they a reliable or unreliable narrator? What are the gaps in their knowledge, and how to do those contribute to their story, and their reliability (or lack thereof)? And of course, are they the best character to be showing me this scene? Sometimes, as writers, we try to protect ourselves a little during difficult or complex scenes by retreating—hiding in the point of view of a character who’s detached, or unaffected, or who wasn’t even there and gets told about things by a third party. Sometimes these are good dramatic choices that build suspense or contribute to character development, but sometimes…sometimes there’s a better character to tell that story, and if you want your work to have the greatest impact, you need to find them.

How is the story being told?

Another thing I pay close attention to when I’m assessing a manuscript is which ‘person’ it’s in. Does it use first-person narration, in which your narrator tells the story directly to your reader using ‘I’? Or is it in the second person (‘you’)* or the third (‘he/she’)? Are there parts of the narrative that are in first person and parts that are in third, and if so, are the rules for when you use first person and third person clear and consistent?

If you’re using third person narration, is it third person limited, or third person omniscient? Are you looking out through the eyes of a character in the story, just at a little more distance than you would in first person? That’s third person limited, and it’s the most common form of narration in fiction today, especially genre fiction. If, on the other hand, your point of view is that of an external observer—not a character in the story, nor even yourself, quite, but a distinct point of view that can see everything, know what characters are thinking, and even comment on the action, then that’s third person omniscient, the favourite technique of writers like Jane Austen and George Eliot**. Neither is any better or worse than the other, but they are distinct techniques with distinct rules, so it’s best to figure out which you’re using and why, and keep it consistent throughout your book—and, of course, be prepared to swap to a different technique if you realise there’s a stronger way to tell your story.

Next up—I hope, next week!—dialogue, description and exposition. See you then!

 

*This is rare, but not unheard of; it tends to work better in short stories than in novels, though, because it does put a bit more strain on the reader than the more familiar first and third person narration.

**Though not so often recognised these days, and sometimes derided as ‘head-hopping’. Good third person omniscient is nothing like the kind of ‘head-hopping’ that results from losing track of where your point of view is, however, because the point of view in third person omniscient always remains with the detached, external observer.

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Manuscript assessment: A question of character.

One thing manuscript assessors look very closely at when working with a new manuscript is the characters and their relationships, because character is what brings plot alive—you can have the most exciting idea and best-constructed plot in the world, but without vivid, engaging characters who make emotional sense to the reader, and a clear sense of how they’re connected to each other and how they feel about each other and the things happening to them, it won’t come alive.

The things I look for most when assessing characters are voice, consistency and connections.

Voice

Characters keep the reader engaged in the story, and the best way to do that is through their voice. No two characters should sound identical unless it’s a plot point!

If you have a character whose voice is uncertain, or isn’t standing out as their own, look at what you know about them already to see what you can build on to create an authentic voice for them. Are they based on stereotypes, or do they subvert stereotypes? Are their objectives or their needs clearly defined—what do they want to gain or accomplish? What’s their take on the world—are they a cynic, an idealist, a pragmatist? How does this clash with or support their goals? What’s their background, in terms of ethnicity, class, education, place of origin and income, and how do these factors influence how they speak and act? What does their working life look like, and what does their personal life look like? Who do they talk to most often, and how does that affect the way they talk to everyone else?

Writers are often advised to create a ‘character sheet’ for each character and fill in as many pieces of information as they can before they start writing a story. I don’t know if this is a great tool for character development—a lot of the writers I know prefer to discover their characters on the page as they write—but it’s definitely effective for figuring out what you’ve discovered about a character after the first draft is done, and filling in the gaps to give a character you’re not sure about a stronger voice.

Consistency

There are two pieces of advice writers often get about consistency of character. One is that consistency is the key to believability, and the second is that if a character does something that’s out of character, they should keep it and see what it leads to, because inconsistency is both relatable and revelatory.

Both of these things are true. At the same time. Of course.

The trick is that for inconsistency to be relatable and revelatory, it has to derive from, and connect to, a larger element of consistency. Is the way in which your character behaves out-of-character in that one moment consistent with their larger character? If so, how? If not, why not—what’s happened to knock them that far off course, and how do they react to their own actions afterwards, as normality reasserts itself? If you can’t figure out the connection, then maybe that’s a path you don’t want to take the character down after all…or maybe you have a game-changing plot point that takes you into a genre you didn’t realise you were writing…*

But at the same time, consistency doesn’t mean eternal sameness. A character that doesn’t grow or change over the course of a story is, at best, boring. What impact do the events of the plot have on your character? Do they change the way they think or feel about things? How they see the world? How they react to stress? How they choose between options? Check in with your character at the beginning, middle and end of your story and ask yourself some questions about them at each point. If you get the same answers to all of the questions each time, it’s a sign that your character hasn’t really been affected by the plot.

Connections

No character is an island, entire of itself; each one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…with apologies to John Donne! But it’s true. Characters don’t exist independently of each other**, so in addition to thinking about how the plot affects a character, you also have to think about how their relationships with other characters affect them.

Ask yourself what you know about characters as pairs, trios or groups. What do they like or dislike about each other? If there are lots of things they dislike, why do they stay around each other? What would be bad enough to change that? How do the characters’ relationships support or hinder them when it comes to achieving their goals, and would they ever be prepared to sacrifice the relationship to achieve the goals—or the goals to protect the relationship? How do the relationships change as the characters change? What would happen to the relationship if one character changed so much that the other didn’t recognise them any more?

Remember, too, that relationships overlap, and they don’t only come in pairs. Your protagonist might have relationships with a romantic partner, three business associates, two children, two siblings, a parent, five friends, eight employees, and one frequent Facebook commenter! So look for the overlap points and see if you can discover some character-revealing, plot-driving tension there. What happens if your protagonist’s best friend loathes their closest sibling, for very good reasons? How your protagonist reacts will say something about who they are, and possibly drive the story forward.

As with individual characters, you can do spot-checks for relationships. Ask yourself questions about your characters’ relationships at the beginning, middle and end of the book, and see if you can figure out what changes happen, or need to happen, to create your story.

And all of these points apply to non-fiction as well as to fiction, although of course in non-fiction you don’t have the option of making up characters or relationships. After all, where would a biography be without its subject’s voice, or their network of relationships, or a sense of when they were acting consistently and when they did something completely out of character?

Next week, I’ll look at finding the right point of view to tell your story from.

 

*A wizard did it! Alien mind-control! They’ve been replaced by a secret agent in a really good disguise!

**I was going to write ‘in a vacuum’ but if you’re writing SF, you never know…

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Manuscript assessment: What’s up, plot?

When I’m assessing a manuscript, there’s a long list of things I look for. At the top of the list is plot, for one very good reason. Narrative, as Peter Brooks has pointed out, is a form of problem-solving that works by illustration rather than by explication. Plot—one thing happening in response to another thing that happened—is the tool by which narrative shows problems being solved.

So if you don’t have a plot, or if your plot isn’t working as well as it could…you’ve got a problem*.

The three things I look for when assessing a manuscript to see if it has a plot and how well that plot is working are: structure, turning points, and ending.

Structure

The most common structure for narratives in English literature—though certainly not the only one—is the three-act structure derived from stage and, more recently, film and TV**, in which Act I is the set-up, Act 2 is the confrontation, and Act 3 is the resolution. When you sit down to work out what’s going on with your plot, it can be helpful to map it out in a linear format, no matter how you actually organise it in your book, and check to make sure that you actually have all three elements.

Does your narrative introduce the situation, the characters, their problems, needs and plans? If your protagonist and secondary characters don’t have problems driving their choices, you don’t have a story.

Is there an extended section in which your protagonist is genuinely challenged by obstacles that prevent them from getting what they need or achieving what they want? Are their challenges too easily overcome, or so overwhelming that the protagonist just stops and wallows until they’re rescued? Does the story divert onto something else altogether? It’s not a confrontation if the protagonist doesn’t actually confront their problems, one way or another.

And does the narrative actually conclude? Is the problem established in the set-up phase resolved in some way? Or does the story just stop? A short story can get away with stopping; a novel, which has far more going on, needs to wrap things up more securely.

Turning points

It’s not enough just to have three acts to your story, though. How does your protagonist get from Act I to Act II? What takes them from enduring their problems to confronting them?

The mechanism for moving your characters from one act to the next is called a ‘plot point’ or ‘turning point’: it’s a thing that happens, often external to your protagonist, that shifts the ground under them and forces them to take action. It could be a murder, a theft, a letter bringing bad—or good—news, a conversation, a sick child, a broken dishwasher…anything at all that shakes things up and makes your protagonist do something.

Most stories have at least two plot points—one that transitions the protagonist from Act I to Act II, and one that takes them from Act II to Act III. When you map out your plot, look for these turning points. Do you have at least two? Are they strong enough to have the effect you want? Is your protagonist’s reaction to them believable, or at least relatable? Does a plot point pass by without the narrative turning at all? A narrative that doesn’t ‘turn’ isn’t really a narrative; it’s just a sequence of events.

Ending

Once you’ve figured out your turning points and what effect they have on your narrative, you also need to look at where they take you: the end of the story.

Is your protagonist’s problem solved? Do they have what they needed at the start of the story? Have they achieved their desires? It might seem like the answer to all of these questions should be yes, and for some stories it absolutely can be. But it can be just as effective to complicate the resolution. Can your turning points lead your protagonist to an unexpected solution to their problem? Can the priblem remain partially unresolved, but in a way the protagonist can accept? Can they get what they need, but not what they wanted back at the start of all this? Can they end up somewhere that’s actually better than what they were aiming for—or at least, better for them? The wrap-up is often more satisfying if it’s slightly unexpected in a way that feels right.

But plot is only one element of a narrative, and one thing that manuscript assessors look at when they analyse a narrative. Next week, I’ll look at the element that makes plot come alive: character.

 

*Which is not to say that there are no books without plots—there are plenty—but they’re out of fashion nowadays and hard to get into print outside of the litfic zone.

**Though TV is more likely to use a four- or even vaguely Shakespearean five-act structure these days, thanks to advertising…

 

References

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1984.

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So what is a manuscript assessment anyway?

Yes, the blog is back!

To borrow a phrase from the late great Terry Pratchett, I ATEN’T DED. I’ve just been busy. But now I have a free Monday morning and something interesting to write about, so let’s dive on in!

The topic is manuscript assessments. You may have noticed that I recently updated my website with a page about manuscript assessments, a skill I’ve learned thanks to the wonderful Connie Berg of Sunshine Press. So the question is, what exactly is a manuscript assessment, anyway? It sounds like some kind of a test, or a checklist for authors to make sure that their book meets a list of criteria for publication…but in fact, it’s a lot more useful than that.

What is a manuscript assessment?

A manuscript assessment is a tool to help an author get objective, constructive and detailed feedback on, and pointers for revising, a completed work—fiction, non-fiction, short, long, manuscript assessors work on them all. It’s a global analysis of a text that considers how all the parts of it fit together, which parts work and why, and which need more development to make the whole text cohere.

A manuscript assessment will give you feedback on every aspect of your manuscript:

  • plot and structure.
  • characters and their relationships.
  • point of view.
  • dialogue, description and exposition.
  • style elements and use of language.

This feedback usually comes in the form of a written report of between 5 and 10 pages, and more detailed individual notes about specific points—often these are handwritten onto a hard copy of your manuscript, at least if your assessor has decent handwriting!

What a manuscript assessment is not

A manuscript assessment is not a statement that your work is ready to be published (though your assessor might give you that feedback if they believe it to be true!). That, after all, can only ever be your decision. Nor is getting your manuscript assessed a guarantee of publication—publishers won’t care if you tell them that your manuscript has been professionally assessed, as their editors will still have to look at the work on its own merits and see how it matches with their lists and their needs. Finally, getting a manuscript assessment is not the same thing as having your manuscript edited or proofread (though the good news is that it’s cheaper than either)—a manuscript assessor will give you feedback on language use and issues such as unnecessary repetition, patterns of comma misuse and so on, but will not check for errors or correct typos.

So why invest in a manuscript assessment if it doesn’t guarantee publication?

Every writer I know wants to be a better writer (and to sell books, of course, but that’s a given). A manuscript assessment is a tool for helping you to improve your writing, because of course, everything that you learn from this assessment carries forward to the work you do on your next manuscript, too. It isn’t an investment in the success or failure of a particular manuscript: it’s an investment in yourself as a writer—professional development, if you like. And that’s always worth it.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a series of posts on the various things a manuscript assessor looks for when writing a report on a manuscript. First up is plot and structure, so join me next Monday for some fun with narrative!

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Converting your thesis to a monograph

Back again! And I just remembered that I promised you guys I’d tell you about what I was planning to do for my Masters thesis once I got the details hashed out with my supervisor…so, here goes!

This what I’m doing, and what – so far – I’ve learned.

My thesis is actually going to be a practice-led project – a project/exegesis combination. Partly this is because the ‘practice’ part is valuable for me right now, and partly it’s because it’s new. I’ve already done a large research-centred project, and I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience. Instead, I’m transforming that old project: I’m taking my PhD thesis, revising it into monograph form and self-publishing it as an e-book, and linking that to a research project on how and why self-publishing hasn’t taken off in academia the way it has in trade fiction and non-fiction since the invention of functional e-books (think peer review and impact measures and you’re at least partway there).

What this means in practice is that I’ve spent the last few weeks refamiliarising myself with my thesis manuscript and working through the first stage of revising it.

This is the simple bit – the bit that all the web pages and publisher sites tell you about. Taking out the heavy-handed signposting, as many block quotes and integrated quotes as possible, and as much repetition as you can get away with losing. But there’s more to getting a monograph out of a thesis than that, and this is the phase I’m about to embark on.

It all comes back to reader-centric writing. A thesis, as I’ve said before, has an audience of about four – your thesis supervisors and your examiners. Possibly six, if your parents leaf through it too. It also has a specific set of academic training-hoops to jump through, to show that you’ve mastered the requirements of your discipline. A monograph, however, has a potential audience of your whole discipline, and a lot fewer hoops, but these are people without any commitment to read and engage like your examiners have. So when you come to revise your thesis for publication, it doesn’t just need to be tweaked here and there, and the thesis ‘stamps’ scrubbed off. It needs to be reconsidered down to the structural level to make sure those readers pick it up – and keep reading. Here are some questions to ask yourself, to help you get started:

  • What’s the heart of your thesis – the original contribution to knowledge, the one big thing that makes it worthwhile?
  • How can you make that the heart of your book? Do you need to restructure, rewrite, rethink?
  • Does the monograph really need a dedicated literature review? If it does, where should it go? If it doesn’t, what does it need instead?
  • Are there elements that are distractions? Can they be cut, or reshaped to suit your new argumentative line?
  • Do you need to do more research to bring the book up-to-date?

You’ll need to map out your entire thesis all over again and find the book in it. Be prepared for a lot of structural changes, and a lot of new writing, particularly in the introduction and conclusion.

The hardest bit is that if you’re doing this for formal, scholarly publication, you’ll need to do at least some of it first – before you even submit your proposal. You won’t have much editorial support and you won’t have huge amounts of time. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll have a looser timeframe, but even less support. And you really do have to think about the issue of peer review (yes, book publishers do peer review for scholarly texts right alongside journals, though it looks a little different). The academy uses peer review for quality control, but it also uses it for gatekeeping and to confer legitimacy, especially in the Arts and Humanities – despite the fact that it’s a flawed system. You’ll have to decide whether you want to engage with that system and present yourself as an independent scholar, or step outside of it and take the risk of your work being seen as illegitimate even if it makes your publication process easier.

You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to handle indexing (the answer will be different depending on whether you’re aiming for print or electronic self-publication), getting and giving quote and image use permissions, and which platforms you’ll use to publish and promote your work.

So, this project is going to be quite a ride! I’ll report back from time to time and let you know how it goes…

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The final step: working with a thesis editor

So here’s the secret that not enough people get told at the start of their PhD or Masters: when it comes to finalising your thesis, these days, you don’t have to do it all alone. There are plenty of editors out there—like me!—who will help you edit, proofread and polish the expression of your thesis so that the work you submit is as good as it can possible be.

However, there’s more to the process of working with a thesis editor than just handing over a manuscript. Last week I published a guest post over at DoctoralWritingSIG on how supervisors can help their students to work effectively with a professional thesis editor that goes through all the details—everything from timelining to assessing quotes to organising your acknowledgments. I’d definitely recommend you have a look at it at some point! But today, I’m going to keep it simple and just list the three big takeaway points for students who are thinking of working with an editor.

1.Plan ahead

Even these days, students often get the option of working with an editor thrown at them in the last stages of their thesis, when they’ve already got a million and one other things to think about and deadlines bearing down fast.

That’s not helpful. And worse, it often feels punitive—as if you’ve got this far and now you’re supervisor’s telling you that your writing’s not up to scratch. The truth is, though, that working with a thesis editor is supposed to be helpful. At this point, you know your manuscript so well that when you look at it you’re more likely to see what’s in your memory than what’s on the page, and let me tell you, that makes spotting tangled sentence structures and typos very difficult indeed*. A professional editor or proofreader is a pair of fresh eyes that can come in at the last moment and spot these issues, clear them up for you and take a job off your plate at a point where you’re already overburdened**.

So start thinking about it early. Research your university’s policies on use of editors, allowable methods of editing and ways of finding a good editor, and make a decision about whether or not you want to go down this path. The more work you do early on, the less stressed you’ll be in the final weeks of your thesis.

2.Write a brief

Editors are used to working to briefs—documents that list exactly what is expected of them for each job they do, and that also details what they are not expected to do. If you just send your editor your manuscript and a request to ‘please edit this’, they’ll be left trying to guess what you actually need done…and they may guess wrongly.

To avoid this happening, make sure that you write your editor a brief. All it needs to be is a short list spelling out what you want them to do, e.g. check for typographical errors and grammatical accuracy, minimise use of the passive voice, reduce unnecessary repetition, ensure all lists are in parallel structure, and ensure all captions are in the same format. The Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) in Australia  has some good online resources available on how to write an editor’s brief, and so does the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK.

3.Allow plenty of time

It’s dispiritingly common for editors to get emails from students who have a 70,000-word thesis manuscript that they need edited…before their submission deadline in five days’ time. And okay, a good editor who doesn’t have any other work on at the same time could probably turn the job around that fast. However, if you want a really good, thorough edit done over multiple passes, with as few errors missed as possible, it’s best to build a decent amount of time for editing into your submission plan.

A good rule to work by is this: you’ll need a month or so to request quotes, compare them and choose an editor to work with (this should happen before you hand in your Notice of Intention to Submit); then allow two to three weeks for a really good edit, and a week to read, assess and respond to their suggestions, and key in changes to your manuscript. Then you can send your manuscript for printing and binding.

 

Finally, I recommend spending some time at the IPEd website, or your local equivalent, to find out some more details on thesis editing in general. I’d also recommend looping your supervisor in on the process, and making sure you get a contract with your editor that outlines clearly what’s expected of both you and them. And a quick note about the cost of thesis editing: while editors are a notoriously underpaid and undervalued mob, we still tend to reduce our rates substantially for students. However, the cost of editing a 70,000-word thesis manuscript is still highly unlikely to be fully covered by the $840 thesis production allowance provided by most Australian universities. When you’re making a decision about whether to use an editor, you’ll need to take that into account as well. If your budget only stretches so far, consider getting a proofread rather than a copy-edit, as it will be cheaper..

 

*As the five-page list of them that one of my examiners submitted with her report on my thesis can attest.

**What they will not do, and what you should never ask them to do, is fix holes in your argument or structure. They can offer suggestions, but rewriting to make the content work (not the same as editing for expression) is your job and yours alone.

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The big job: revising your thesis manuscript

So, you’ve written your thesis! You have drafts of every chapter, your introduction, your conclusion, your abstract. Your bibliography is looking pretty. You’re done, right? Right?

…sorry. No. There’s more work to come, I’m afraid.

As we say around this neck of the woods, drafts are called drafts because they’ve got great big holes in them that the wind whistles through, and that’s as true for academic writing as it is for fiction. Before you can submit your manuscript, you need to spend some time revising it—taking out all the gaps and making sure every link in your argument holds together like chain-mail.

It’s a big job, made harder by the fact that it’s very difficult to try to hold a clear picture of three years’ work in your head all at once. For this reason, I recommend—not breaking it down into sections, for once, but getting it outside of your head. This will help you to spot problems, gaps and changes that need to be made. Then you can start work on a plan of attack.

1.Map your thesis

This is kind of like drawing a mind-map, but not quite, because you don’t free-associate ideas. Instead, you draw up a visual representation of your thesis—colour-coded if that helps—that breaks down the argument chapter by chapter, step by step and link by link and lays out how it’s organised, how the sections connect to each other and how the argument develops. It’s incredibly helpful for spotting gaps in your argument or evidence, repetition between chapters and spots where you haven’t yet spelt out the connections between points.

Be aware, though, that this is not a small project—either physically (mine took up six sheets of butcher’s paper taped end to end) or in terms of the time it will take. But it will help you with the next thing you have to do, which is…

2.Identify necessary changes, and be prepared to make them (when you’re ready)

These can be big, structural changes—the location or content of a chapter, the focus of a discussion and so on—or small specific ones. They can even be changes to your argument that ask you to do a lot of tweaking and revising to tighten everything up to a new line: How do I know what I think till I see what I say? is a phenomenon that can affect academic writers too, especially on big projects! The main point is that at this phase of your work, there will be changes to be made, and you can’t back away from that.

However, you don’t have to jump into them straight away (unless you feel like it, of course). Completing a first draft is a lot of hard work, and if you need a short breather before you get back into rewriting, that’s fine. Take some time, identify the changes you need, plan them, and build up your strength again before you start revising your text.

But when you do start again, this time, work through your text in order from the first chapter to the last. It will help you to keep that sense of the larger pattern in your head as you write.

3.Revise your conclusion, introduction and abstract last

And yes, I listed them in that order for a reason. Even in the process of revising, you’ll be discovering new things about your project, creating new connections and making your argument more cohesive and sophisticated. By the time you get to the end of the argument, you’ll probably know exactly what it is that you’re trying to say, and will be able to wrap the ideas up nicely.

Then you have to take those insights back and embed them into your introduction. No spoilers in academic writing, remember? And no saving the best till last. Grab your best and most completely expressed ideas from your conclusion, transplant them to your introduction, and polish them up some more. This will both hook your examiners’ attention immediately (reader-centric writing!) and keep your argumentative line straight as an arrow from introduction to conclusion.

And then, of course, you line the abstract up with that. You can’t summarise what you don’t know yet, so wait until you’ve finalised your argument to finalise the abstract too!

…Oh, and one final point: if you’re using EndNote to create your bibliography, please make sure you check it against your university’s style guide! EndNote is great but it’s not perfect, and it can throw out small errors and odd punctuation issues from time to time. Check it at the revision stage and there’s less likelihood you’ll spot an error at the last minute and have to check everything in a screaming panic just before your print deadline…

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