The Frankenstein Manuscript, Part III: My Book Was a Teenage Werewolf

Hello, readers –

Well, I did get sidetracked there, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days. Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. Clearly, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit. In order to reject the manuscript, all the reader needs to say is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.” Or, even more often, it can be rejected with a form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.”

In other words: NEXT!

While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

If you are working on your first novel – or any other writing project – over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest. Most of us don’t find our specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book. And when you find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

And you simply cannot do this by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY. In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

I hear some of you grumbling out there. I know, I know – you’ve been working on this book forever, and you’ve revised it so often that you could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And I’m telling YOU to reread the whole thing – aloud, yet?

Yes – because, alas, the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book.

Can you really be sure that you remembered to take out your protagonist’s sociopathic sister in EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall? And no, merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the problem with a single, major change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book. See now why I have been harping for months on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors – but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

It is also far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein tendency. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s. (Although it would have been amusing: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one assume that this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I knew that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work. You never outgrow the need.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. (These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-France for the rest.) Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best. Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript. When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

But, really, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring an editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group. When you are making these calculations, though, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted last week: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me? Well, Pam, I am a member of the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild, which maintains a very user-friendly website. For each editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

I advise going through an organization to find an editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the editor. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

If you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline — say, between now and when entries are due for the PNWA contest — please do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

– Anne Mini

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