We all experience turning points. Those epiphanies that change the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves. Afterwards, nothing is ever quite the same again. It can’t be.
Of course, epiphanies can become addictive. There’s little to compare with that moment of blinding light and heightened awareness and the new sense of direction they provide, but sometimes they can leave us feeling as if we’ve been ground into the dust, and it can take a while to stand up, brush ourselves down and start crawling forward again. So it’s with a blend of embarrassment, humiliation and gratitude that I recall one of the most illuminating epiphanies I’ve had since deciding to write fiction.
Maybe I’d had my eyes closed previously, but, eight years ago, around the turn of the millennium, it seemed as though editorial and manuscript appraisal services sprang into vogue. Overnight, they were advertising everywhere. Or it may be that I began noticing them then because, after receiving too many rejection slips from agents and publishers, I knew something about my writing had to change ... even if I wasn’t sure what that something was.
All the same, having selected a business to entrust my manuscript with, I was still half-hoping to get the quickest response from them:
Your novel is fantastic, it’s as polished as can be, and we hope you don’t mind but we’ve forwarded it to one of our contacts in a publishing house who’d like you to phone them please.
Instead, I took an absolute hammering. The report I paid for was fourteen pages long and pulled no punches. It examined every aspect of the way I’d written my novel and highlighted every flaw. Under a series of headings and sub-headings (Style/Approach, Structure and Plot, Setting, Themes, Character, Grammar and punctuation, etc) it identified what I was doing wrong, with ample examples, and the approaches I needed to consider taking instead. Reading this appraisal was like taking one king hit after another. Fourteen rounds. I was gutted. And I was resistant to some of its truths at first. However, eight years later, I can’t fault the honesty, accuracy and fairness of this report. It was one of the best services I’ve ever bought with my hard-earned cash.
For eighteen months, I didn’t think about approaching publishers or agents, but worked at changing the way I wrote until I felt I’d addressed the criticisms. The report became my guide. After completing two different manuscripts since then, I've approached appraisal services both times before proceeding towards agents and publishers, and both these new appraisals have proved the value of learning from that first response.
Appraisals aren’t cheap, and that’s probably not a bad thing: there’s less chance we’ll ignore quality advice if we’ve paid good dosh for it. There can be no blinding light if our eyes remain screwed shut.