James Michener once said, “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.” This is a powerful statement. First drafts are rarely good. What does it take to prepare a manuscript to be pitched to agents, and then publishers? I rewrote my debut novel seven times before I considered it ready to be reviewed by an agent. These are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
Hook ‘em on the First Page
Don’t you just love it when a book immediately sparks your interest? One of the most effective ways for writers to hook a reader is to place him in the middle of the action. Long before Oprah celebrated Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth as a masterpiece, I devoured it in college, relishing every description. The first line hooked me: “The small boys came early to the hanging.” Who are these boys? Where are their parents? Who’s being hanged? Why? It remains, for me, one of the most brilliant beginnings ever.
Now how do you keep the reader engrossed in the story? By making sure there’s a burning question or dilemma at the end of each chapter that compels her to turn the page, eager to finish the book without ever putting it down!
Follow Sister Mary Margaret’s Rules
For those of us who attended Catholic School and wondered why on earth God would want us to learn how to diagram a sentence, the answer is: in case you write a book one day!
I remain humbly indebted to the nuns who drilled the grammar and punctuation rules into my seventh-grade noggin. Luckily, for today’s writer, resources like the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and The Little, Brown Handbook are available to help us navigate the difference between past and past perfect tense, and to eliminate those pesky dangling modifiers.
Even better, if you know an English teacher, writer, or editor, it’s always advantageous to have them redline your manuscript for grammar and punctuation errors before submitting it to a literary agent.
Choose your Beta Readers
You’ve revised your book to the best of your ability, and now you’re ready to place it the hands of a few trusted readers for their review. Beta readers are the “advance team” you handpick to critique the grammar, punctuation, character development, technical aspects, plot and pace of your book. Ideally, these individuals should read extensively, enjoy reading your genre, and be able to give you constructive feedback without killing your dream.
Because The Vintner’s Daughter is women’s historical fiction, I chose ten very different women, aged 18 to 81, and, yes, one of them was my mom (always pick one who will love it unconditionally). A California winemaker reviewed the winemaking scenes of the book and, near the end of the process, I chose two men—one an English professor emeritus and the other a nuclear physicist—because I wanted their opinions of the male characters and their motivations.
When you hand your manuscript to these readers, ask them three to five open-ended questions, for example: Who were your favorite/least favorite characters and why? Which parts of the book were underdeveloped (i.e. where did you want to know more)? Which part(s) of the story did you most enjoy and why? Their answers may surprise you.
Keep the Faith
Any creative endeavor into which you pour your heart and soul, and then offer it up for the judgment of others is, by it’s very nature, an ego-crushing sport. When I prepare myself to receive feedback from my beta readers, I try to lose the ego, but keep the faith.
Ego, or self-importance, can be an impediment to the editorial process. If you strive to develop a fresh and concise story, elevating the reader’s experience to your top priority, then you will succeed. When I receive feedback, I try not to take offense, but instead dig deeper, asking clarifying questions of my readers. You won’t always agree with the changes they suggest, but if you make the corrections that serve the story and the characters well, you will polish your manuscript to a high shine.
For example, my readers uncovered that I have an aversion to commas and I overuse the words “annoyed,” “irritated,” and “vexed.” I loved my description of “purple and silver light from the retreating sun” streaming across a November sky. My nuclear physicist didn’t. He explained that colored skies at sunset were inconsistent with the past century. The “atmospheric optics and upper atmosphere crystalline structure of the 19th century probably wouldn’t have supported the colors mentioned at the location discussed.” Who knew? Not I. My November sky is now “painted with brushstrokes of orange and gold.”
Take a Page from Jane Austen
Once you revise your manuscript based on your reader’s suggestions and your intuition, consider setting it aside. When Jane Austen completed First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice’s original title) in 1798, a publisher rejected it without even reading it. She shoved it in her desk drawer and brought it out fourteen years later, to revise it and then publish it in 1813. Fourteen years is extreme, but the best advice I ever received was to set aside my manuscript for three to six months, and then come back to it for one final major edit. Your fresh reader’s eye will spot errors quickly, and you’ll correct them swiftly.
This is just the beginning. Once you sign with an agent and eventually work with a publisher, there will be several more rounds of edits, all in service to your readers.
I could go on, but I’d love to hear from you. What do you find helpful when editing your writing, or when critiquing another’s?