by Laurie Boris
Congratulations! You’re done with your novel. You’ve gotten feedback from your writing group or critique partner. You’ve gone through several drafts, taking their suggestions in mind, at times swearing like a trucker when characters won’t cooperate or loose ends won’t tie themselves up. You’ve burned uncountable meals, ignored many ringing phones, and put off several whining-to-be-taken-out dogs because you’ve nipped off to your writing room to “just make a couple changes.” Finally, finally, you’re ready to unleash your baby into the world.
But wait! Are you really done? Before you send the first query letter, before you pop open your celebratory beverages and start casting the film version in your head, make sure you’re ready for your close-up. Here are some “finishing touches” that can make your work stand out:
1. Cut the fat. Flabby prose can sink even a great idea, and could give readers a reason to ditch you in favor of another writer or another activity. Some common bugaboos that bug editors: too many adverbs and adjectives, excessive use of “overachieving” dialogue tags (“To the moon, Alice!” Ralph exclaimed passionately), or overuse of certain words like that or just. Do a search on your own work and see how often these often-unnecessary words appear. Yeah. I was shocked, too.
2. Got rhythm? Are all your sentences of approximately equal length? BOR-ing! You could lull your readers into dreamland. Follow a long sentence with a short sentence, a short one with a long one. Begin a sentence with a dialogue tag, reverse it on the next. You get the drift? Mix it up.
3. Open with style. Vary your chapter openings to keep things interesting. Begin some with dialogue. Begin some with exposition. Again, mix it up to keep reader interest.
4. Know when to walk away. When I edit my early-stage manuscripts, invariably I find that my chapters go on a beat too long. Check the ends of your chapters. Do they compel you to read the next? Or do they contain summaries of what just happened? Go back a sentence or two to find the cliffhanger and leave us dangling there.
5. Format for an easy reading experience. There is a reason why agents, proofreaders, editors, and publishers ask you to format your manuscript in certain ways. Because they read manuscripts for hours on end. They’re all human, with human brains and mostly, eyes that are no longer twenty years old. Skip the fancy fonts. Don’t cheat the margins to make your book look shorter. Double space. Put air around chapter headings and time/space breaks. If the agent or publisher in question asks for a printout, don’t create it while squeezing out the dregs of your toner cartridge. Put in a fresh one. If you’re sending photocopies, double check to make sure all pages are accounted for.
6. Pick up dropped stitches. Have you tied up your loose ends? Perhaps you’ve dropped an early subplot or have a character hanging around with no particular purpose. I use a simple chart to help me find major plot problems. List your character's names on the left, and then across the top, make columns labeled:
What Does This Character Want?
What Does He or She Do To Make it Happen?
What Effect Does It Have?
Why Should We Care?
How Are Other Characters Involved?
Is It Resolved at the End, And How?
This has been a great way for me to keep tabs on plot lines, character development, and motivation.
7. Do I really have to mention this? Seriously, you’d be surprised at how many typos and grammatical mistakes agents and editors find in submitted manuscripts. We’re all human. There are bound to be things you don’t catch even if you read over your manuscript a dozen times. But this is where you, the writer, can attain a greater mastery of your craft. There is no shame in hiring a proofreader or asking a trusted friend to proofread for you. Learn from them by absorbing their comments into your knowledge base. Seeing that you made the same punctuation error twenty times in one chapter is the first step toward learning how to stop doing it.
Novelists: how do you know when you’re done? Typically, how many drafts do you go through before you call it complete?
Laurie Boris is the author of The Joke's on Me, a contemporary novel due out from 4RV Publishing later this month. She also blogs about writing, books, and the language of popular culture at http://laurieboris.com.