From Pitched to Published: Polishing Your Manuscript

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?

 

How to Be More Creative by A.J. Jacobs

How to Be More Creative by A.J. Jacobs  If you think some people are just born that way (and you’re not one of them), think again. Experts say we all have a wellspring of creative energy. The secret is how to tap it. 

Real Simple is one of my favorite monthly magazines and I’m always tearing out the best ideas and recipes to keep on file.  This is one of my favorite recent articles by A.J. Jacobs and I’ve bookmarked it and re-read it every time I hit a creative block.  Although it’s written by a writer, it is applicable to any situation in which you need to summon a little inspiration!

The Knocking at My Door

Since this is my first post about my writing life, I’d better come clean.  My love of writing evolved in a somewhat pathetic, although commonly tragic way.  I ignored my passion for writing for over a decade, but it kept nagging me, like a toddler vying for attention.

It all started with Mrs. Morris, my formidable English teacher at St. Bernard High School in Uncasville, CT.  She was whip-smart, tough as nails, and rarely cracked a smile, but man, did she know her stuff.  “People,” she’d coo sweetly, and let what was to come hang in the air like the silence before you lay your head down on the block, “your twenty-page paper is due Friday.”

This was one of the few assignments that struck terror in the hearts of the AP English crowd.  I feigned horror, but deep down, I was giddy with excitement.  I wrote twenty pages on The Importance of Trees and Stone Walls in American Literature and received an A.  Yet, even better than that A (and Mrs. Morris’ obvious delight over such a, I admit, lame topic), was the sheer exhilaration I felt when I sat down to write.

Soon I was off to college and, not trusting in my ability to parlait my love of writing into a financially flush career, I chose to major in the next vaguest subject I could find: Economics.  Loved the theoretical writing, abhorred the regression analysis.  Before I knew it, I had graduated from Villanova and had a tidy, enviable career at Chase Bank.  Flash to nine years later:  I’m pushing thirty, a retail sales director for a Boston bank, earning a decent living, but I’m completely uninspired.  The only thing that fired me up was sitting down to write marketing memos and copy for our sales contests.  Sad, but invevitably true.

Besides writing, I was inspired by the idea of starting a family with my new husband.  We moved from Boston to Connecticut for his work; I stopped working and was pregnant in, like, a minute.  While vacationing in the Loire Valley in 2000, I was standing in the middle of a Vouvray vineyard and was handed the inspiration for my first historical novel, The Vintner’s Daughter.  I wouldn’t seriously commit to its completion until six years, three writing classes and two kids later (with a third on the way).

Fast forward to May 2012.  The Vintner’s Daughter has been finished for 6 months now, edited, enjoyed by friends, family and a few writing professionals and I’m on the lookout for a literary agent to represent me.  Seriously, they need a “match.com” for finding one.  “Tall, dark, bookish, enjoys Cabernet and stepping out with a smokin’ 325-page historical fiction read.”  That would work.

So far this year, I’ve attended my first writer’s conference, pitched my book, sent out fifteen queries and received just as many rejections. Clearly, I’m still in the early stages of this ego-crushing sport.  If my queries don’t catch someone’s eye soon, I will move to plan b (stay tuned–still formulating that).

If you’re a fledgling writer looking to swap stories from the trenches, stop by this page whenever you’re feeling bummed out and I’m sure you’ll find something to make you laugh (or cry again)!

At this moment, however, I have a groggy three-year old wriggling her way up onto my lap and begging for chocolate milk behind the familiar sucking sounds of her pacifier (no, we haven’t given it up at naptime – mommy needs to blog!)  So, there’s nothing left to do but go enjoy a glass of liquid sunshine with my youngest daughter, Julia.

What’s the dream that’s been knocking at your door?  Tell me about it!