By Marian Rizzo

No manuscript should brave the scrutiny of an editor until the writer has first scheduled it for surgery. And the writer must perform the operation.

Having spent more than twenty-five years in the newspaper and magazine industries, I look back on thousands of stories that endured a slash-and-repair on my personal computer before I submitted them to an editor who then hacked it up even more.

Now, as a budding novelist, I find myself in a similar position. My home office has turned into an operating room. Wearing an imaginary surgical mask and non-existent latex gloves, I approach my patient. I’m not wielding a scalpel or a forceps. I’m using only a keyboard and a critical eye. My “baby” is about to have an operation.

Look at it this way—the same procedures we follow for our physical well-being should also apply to making our manuscripts healthier. To think the first draft turned out perfect is ludicrous. Once we’ve exercised our right brain creativity we need to turn the project over to our left brain. First we wrote from our emotions, now we’ll get serious.

But, before we start cutting, we need to go through several stages of preparation. We need to check with other authorities. Read books on the subject. Attend conferences. Join a critique group. And interact with other writers.

This stage is called Pre-op.

Pre-op can take the longest of all the stages, mainly because multiple specialists are involved. What you learn determines what type of surgery is needed. Does it require a local or general anesthetic? If you choose local, your creative side will be awake during the entire procedure. If general, you’ll put that part to sleep until stage two, Prepping.

For a surgeon, Prepping involves an interaction between the surgeon and the patient. The doctor may call in another specialist. For the writer, it means calling upon the greatest writer of all time. God himself. After all, he did a great job with the Bible, didn’t he? Like the patient, who can’t eat or drink after midnight. The writer may find fasting helpful. It not only clears the senses, it separates us from influences of the world and gets us ready to perform the operation.

For this operation, the moment the scalpel makes its first incision, something magical happens. Contrary to the writer’s expectations, no blood flows from the wound. The second cut is easier. So is the third, and so on. In the end, the manuscript has gone through a tremendous transformation, but there are no wounds, no scars, no loss of limb.

In the post-op period, the patient receives nourishment in small doses, and sometimes is left at bed rest. Give it time to recuperate from all the cutting. Even the surgeon must take a break. A day at the beach. A family gathering. A weekend cruise.

Then comes visitor’s day, time to share the patient with friends, family members, critique group buddies, even your Aunt Edna. Take their comments and criticisms seriously. Then, swallow your anxiety and take your manuscript back into surgery, where you can implement the proper changes.

From there, your manuscript may possibly move into rehab. In the physical world, rehabilitation means visits to therapists, trainers, gyms, and/or support groups. In the writing world, it means you might want to hire a professional editor to fine-tooth your manuscript. Injuries that seemed impossibly broken get fixed. Wounds heal. Scars disappear. The patient gets involved in activities again and is ready to face the world.

Which leads to complete healing. Just like a patient who sheds the crutches, the bandages, and the pills, the repaired manuscript finally can stand on its own two feet. Now it’s ready for an agent or a publisher. Or both. But don’t put away your scalpel yet. Chances are those professionals will require more surgery before you’re finished. Face it like you did the first time, with confidence that another operation can only make it better.

And so, we leave our parent side in the waiting room, and we proceed through the restrictive double doors into the area where all the nips and tucks will take place.

If anything, improvements came from following the rules  Has the writer used too many passive verbs? Do descriptions involve adjectives and adverbs, rather than powerful nouns and verbs? While I’m writing this, I’m learning too. I need to remind myself to pay attention to the rules.




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