Monday, November 5, 2012

Author Cally Jackson: The Best Writing-Related Decision I Ever Made

Writing (and subsequently publishing) The Big Smoke has been an incredibly long journey – eleven years to be precise. It’s been a fantastic learning experience, and I feel that my writing has improved so much over that time. But the main reason for that rests with one important decision I made many years ago.

Rewind to 2007. I had a complete, polished draft that I was immensely proud of. It had taken me seven years already to reach this point (with a number of stops and starts long the way), and I was ready to send my masterpiece out into the world. Despite what everybody said about how hard it was to get a publishing deal, I secretly believed that it wouldn’t take long for an agent or publisher to recognise my writing brilliance.

Then I came across an advertisement for a manuscript appraisal service. The service promised to answer the question, how good is your manuscript, really? Their website said that if your manuscript was ready for publication, they wouldn’t hesitate to tell you, but if your manuscript still required work, their appraisal would outline in detail what areas needed improvement.

I thought about it for a while and decided that it sounded like a worthwhile investment. I’ll be honest and say that I expected an appraisal report that gushed over my writing ability and confirmed that my manuscript was ready to be published.

The report I received was ten pages long and detailed several areas of my manuscript that could be improved. Reading that report was like being slapped repeatedly across the face. I quietly closed the document and didn’t say anything about it for quite a few hours (which is a record for an over-sharer like me).

It took me a few weeks to build up the courage to read the report again. The second time, it didn’t hurt quite as much, but still a fair bit. Did this mystery assessor really know what she was talking about? Perhaps I should just delete the report and pretend like I’d never read it?

But, over time, I let go of my defensiveness and began to see that a lot of what she said had merit (dammit). The two paragraphs below (taken directly from the report) particularly struck a chord:

Because the story moves so fast, and there’s so much going on, there’s no space for you to pause and delve into your characters’ emotions and responses, etc. At present you skim the surface of who these characters are (and who they come to be), so we don’t get to know anyone in any great depth.

The tone of this MS was one of the main things I had concerns about, and I kept wondering as I read what the best tone for this would be… I don’t think you need to have too dark a tone, and a light tone is fine. However, it needs a bit more sophistication – it’s a little too like a soap opera at the moment, and a little too twee. A more sophisticated tone is particularly important if you stick with the university setting.


Unfortunately, despite all of the work I’d put in to date, it seemed that I still had a lot further to go if I really wanted to make my manuscript all it could be.

As a result of the appraisal, I decided to completely rewrite the manuscript, streamlining the plot and changing the narration from third person to first person from two perspectives (my two main characters). I felt that these changes would address the crux of the issues that the assessor identified – limited character development and a narrative style that didn’t suit the content.

That decision was the best I’ve ever made for both my manuscript and my writing in general. It propelled me to study other books (fiction and writing craft) and learn how to develop rich characters and establish an authentic voice. The re-write took four years, and I considered giving up on many occasions. But, finally, I reached ‘The End’ for the second time.

But had I succeeded? Had I actually improved my novel’s characterisation and voice? Considering my inability to judge the merits of my own work previously, I decided to let my beta readers be the judge. Here are some of the comments they made:

·         The way the book reads, it is as though Ceara and Seb are telling me (the reader) their stories over coffee and that's a great achievement for you, Cally the writer, as I am hearing their voices not the writer/narrator intruding. Well done.
·         The characters feel very real for me and I'm invested in what happens to them.
·         Because you are telling the story from both Seb and Ceara's points of view, the reader gets into both their heads and it gives an almost voyeuristic POV. The reader is in on it all and privy to both main character's innermost thoughts. It feels real and immediate and took me back to those days of feeling insecure and uncertain what was expected of me (and that was a rather long time ago so well done Cally).
·         I think you have really nailed both voices. They are realistic and most engaging.
·         My first reading I stayed up late as I could not go to bed without finishing it; that was how absorbed I was in both their stories.
·         They definitely have distinct voices in both personality and gender. Their inner narratives drive the story.

After reading these comments, I was satisfied that I’d achieved my goal. Hooray! It only took me four years! ;) But if it weren’t for that initial appraisal, I never would have known these issues existed in the first place, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to challenge myself and grow as a writer.

So what’s the moral of this (slightly long-winded) story? Get feedback. Professional feedback. You don’t necessarily have to pay for an appraisal like I did, but don’t take the word of your friends and family who would love anything you’ve written regardless of its actual quality.

I’m so glad I got that appraisal and decided to act on it. Hearing the truth about my writing may have hurt, but it was worth it in the long run.
Thanks for stopping by, Cally! You can purchase a copy of The Big Smoke:
  • in paperback format from Cally's buy page (Australia and New Zealand) or Amazon (rest of the world)
Your Turn: Have you had any major wake-up calls with your writing? What have you done to make sure your work really is ready for the world?


  1. Thanks for this post. I need to do this, terrifying as it is (I SO do not take constructive criticism well...). How do you find the right person to do this, and how much should you expect to (ulp) pay for it if you don't know any professional writers or editors to do it for you?

  2. Finding the right person to critique your work can be tricky, but a lot of good critiquers will provide you with a sample critique so you can see whether their style works for you. If they don't offer a sample, they should at least be able to give you references from people who have been satisfied with their work in the past.

    I'd try to find someone who has demonstrated experience in your genre - there's no point having a romance specialist critique your work if you write science fiction.

    I know that Aimee has offered a critiquing service in the past and from the examples I've read on her blog, she's darn good at it. Not sure if she's still doing this though so I'll leave that to her to respond! :-)

  3. I agree with everything Cally said. The best way to find the best person is to get a sample (or at least an example of work they did on someone else's manuscript).

    I do run a critiquing service (thanks for the shout-out, Cally!) but I am booked solid for the rest of the year, and not sure at this point whether I'm going to keep going next year. Sorry I can't help right now!

  4. I have two test readers and three critique partners, and they've been the greatest help. Sometimes we just can't see the issues until someone else points them out.

  5. Cally I can totally relate. Honest feedback is brilliant, but it often hurts to hear it. I'm so glad you were able to take the time to process it and really improve because of it. Your perseverence is admirable and encourages me to keep going!

  6. I'm thrilled to hear that I've motivated you to keep persevering, Raewyn! It's almost always worth it in the end. :-)

  7. It's so hard with that first ms. You are so lucky you had a reliable source that didn't steal your money. They really gave you what you needed. I was so convinced my first ms was genius too cuz you know, my mom loved it. lol But not one agent snatched it up.
    5 years later I cringe at the thought of how bad that story must be, altho I still love the idea and characters. Writing fiction is so much more than we start out realizing it to be. Good for you for persevering thru the hard times. We become stronger writers for it.