Use early drafts as a springboard

Thursday, April 28, 2016
Shivaun Plozza interviewed by Alex Fairhill

A photograph of Shivaun Plozza
Shivaun Plozza

Sending a manuscript to a publisher too soon is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make, says Getting Your Manuscript Ready for Submission tutor Shivaun Plozza. She tells Writers Victoria’s Alex Fairhill why critical reading and redrafting are important steps in the process.

You’ve recently published your first YA novel, ‘Frankie’ (Penguin 2016). How different is post-publication life to pre-publication?

Not different at all – no private jets or fans mobbing me or million-dollar paycheques, unfortunately. I’m working on the next novel and going through the same anxieties and stresses associated with any creative project – I haven’t given myself time to take stock of what I’ve achieved with ‘Frankie’. Plus I’m a bit of a pessimist so even though great things have been happening – such as good reviews and the book being stocked pretty much everywhere – I’m still looking out for what could go wrong. There are a few subtle differences, perhaps, such as getting to run my ideas and drafts by my editor (such a luxury!) and lovely people contacting me to tell me how much they like the book. 

How has working as an editor and manuscript assessor influenced your writing?

It’s given me a more objective approach to drafting. I’m able to take a step back and critique my writing with greater clarity and a better understanding of the craft. But I don’t think you need to work as an editor or a manuscript assessor to get that kind of critical distance – you can equip yourself with effective self-editing tools by reading widely, taking short courses, joining a writers’ group (giving feedback is more important than receiving feedback I find) or just by doing it over and over again until it sinks in.

What’s the biggest mistake authors make when submitting a manuscript to a publisher or agent?

Doing it too soon. It’s so exciting to finish a project but what many emerging writers think of as ‘finished’ often isn’t finished enough. And I say this from experience – my first couple of projects (which now live in the depths of my desk drawer and will never see the light of day) were submitted way too early and were of course rejected. I live by the adage that there’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing and I think that’s some of the best advice a writer can get – to draft and draft and draft and draft and just keep going until you’ve interrogated every aspect of your manuscript. You’re not going to write at your best the first time around (my first drafts are hideous!) but those initial drafts are the springboard for what your story can become – it’s you testing out characters and the plot and changing things when they’re not working.

Is it possible for a writer to be objective about his or her own work?

To a degree, yes. You can never be truly objective, or not as effectively objective as you can be about others’ writing, but you can certainly train yourself to approach the drafting process with a dispassionate, critical mind-set. It comes back to informing yourself about the craft of writing. How you go about informing yourself is up to you, but I don’t think you can gain objectivity until you’ve looked hard at the writing of others. Because giving feedback, reading critically – asking what makes me enjoy this book? Why can’t I put it down? – gives you the language to articulate what works and what doesn’t and then hopefully you can apply this knowledge to your own writing. On a side note I would also say that it’s much easier to be objective about your writing if you’ve given yourself time away from it. Every project needs multiple rest periods – reviewing a story after a lengthy break will allow you to look at it without the same level of attachment and blinkered thinking.

What role does supporting documents, such as a bio and synopsis, play when approaching agents and publishers? 

It’s difficult to say because the people reading your submission – editors, publishers, agents, etc – are all going to have different preferences. I know I find the synopsis very important but I’ve had editor friends tell me they don’t even read it. I think it’s best to assume that everything you submit is vital and therefore don’t leave your supplementary material to the last minute – craft it in the same way you would your manuscript.

I find a synopsis important because it’s a quick way for me to see if your plot makes sense, that it has a good, clear structure and that it’s a unique, engaging story concept – you’d be surprised how much information about the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript I can glean from the synopsis alone. It sets the mood for my reading – a good synopsis might make me overlook minor flaws in the submission if I feel the strength of the overall idea.  

About Shivaun Plozza

Shivaun Plozza is the author of ‘Frankie’ (Penguin, 2016), her first novel. Her short fiction, flash fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in anthologies and journals including ‘Where the Shoreline Used to Be’, ‘Above Water’, ‘Text’, ‘Vivid ‘and ‘The Victorian Writer’. When she’s not writing, she works as an editor and a manuscript assessor.

On this website, you can read Shivaun's advice on how to be ruthless, her thoughts on her Glenfern Fellowship, or her explanation of what it means to be a manuscript assessor.

Update: Shivaun will be running a Write-ability workshop on What About YA? in Melbourne in August 2017 and a regional workshop on Writing YA in Bendigo in October 2017.

About Alex Fairhill

Alex Fairhill is an emerging children’s and YA author. She posts writing-related thoughts on her blog and Twitter (@AlexFairhill).