Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Slicing and Dicing Your Manuscript

Lots of my readers are also writers, so I thought I'd devote today to a very important part of the writing process--self-editing. It can make the difference between hearing 'sorry' or 'sold,' so don't gloss over it thinking that's your editor's job. Believe me, she has enough on her plate.

Once the manuscript is finished, it's time to revise and polish. And let me encourage you to be brutal. This is your last chance to make the story as good as it possibly can be before you start submitting it. You only get one chance to impress an agent or editor. Make it count. If your prose sparkles, if the manuscript is clean (error free), you've made their job easier and given them a reason to trust you.

Start with the beginning of your manuscript. Does your opening sentence raise a question in the reader's mind, something to hook them into reading on? If not, work on it until it does.

Is your first chapter bogged down with back-story? Slash it now. Hit the ground running and don't look back. You need to know what's come before. Your readers only need the barest hint and then only if it's absolutely necessary for them to understand enough to continue. Keeping your reader slightly off balance, wondering why something is happening or why a character is reacting in an unusual manner is a good way to keep the pages turning. And that is your goal.

I always tell my DH he married a hooker. (Now, now, I'm talking about writing hooks!) These are tiny tantalizing bits of information that create a path for your readers. If you work it right, you can literally pull your reader forward through your story. This is what keeps readers up nights.

Check your prose. Are you using passive voice? Hope not. Lots of helping verbs? Weak. Circle every word ending in "ly" and cut them till there's no more than one or two per page. Use descriptive verbs and nouns instead of adjectives and adverbs.

Read your story aloud. You'll hear the echoes of over-used words your eyes may miss. Any sentence you have to take a breath to finish is too long. Cut it in half.

Look at your pages. How much white space is there? Are you too heavy on narrative and too light on dialogue? Do you need the tags on your dialogue or can you tell who's speaking based on their speech patterns? Do all your characters sound alike?

Can you smell your scenes? Have you engaged all the senses or are you relying merely on visual? Your reader wants to walk in the heroine's shoes. Give her enough to know where she is and how to feel about it.

Are you sticking with one point of view per scene or are you popping in and out of your character's heads so much you'll give your readers whiplash?

Do your characters have similar sounding names? Tolkien may have gotten away with Eowen and Eomer, but most readers prefer not to have to work that hard. Do your character's names start with the same letter? For the sake of clarity, change one of them now.

Use the spell checker. I mistrust the grammar checker, but the spell check is my friend.

When your story is polished till you're sick of it, turn it over to someone whose judgment you trust--generally not a relative or someone who wants to continue sleeping with you. Don't be defensive. Prepare yourself for requests for revisions. If you don't develop the hide of a rhinoceros, your stay in Writerland will be painful and brief. Accept their comments and consider them carefully. You didn't come down the mountain with the story carved in stone. Revise if you find you agree with them.

Once you're satisfied your manuscript sparkles, do your homework. Don't send it to an editor or agent who doesn't handle your brand of romance. Choose your targets carefully. Why set yourself up for a 'no?'

Print it up. Say a prayer. Submit to the agent or editor you're targeting and start working on the next book. Don't even think about contacting them for a response before three months.

Good luck!

As always, I'm happy to answer questions. Or if you have a self-editing tip to share, please leave a comment! I'm always looking for new ways to sharpen my prose.

20 comments:

JACLYN said...

We all have to do it. I don't know anyone who never has to?self-edit. (If you're that rare bird, let me be the first to congratulate you!) But for the rest of?us, it's two steps forward, one step back. I'm sharing my tips for sharpening prose on my blog today. Please come share yours!

Happy Writing,

Emily
DEAR EMILY,
I JUST RECEIVED A REJECTION FROM AN EDITOR THAT WANTS ME TO SLICE AND DICE MY WHOLE MSN. SO I SEE WHAT YOU MEAN.
ALTHOUGH SHE WAS VERY ENCOURAGING, SHE MADE A LIST OF THE THINGS SHE WANTS ME TO CHANGE. SOOO IT'S BACK TO PAGE ONE TO SLICE AND DICE.
JACLYN

Barbara Monajem said...

Contests helped me sharpen my prose. In order to meet the page count of a given contest and also end on a strong hook, I would go through the entry word by word, deleting unnecessary words, rearranging sentences to say the same thing in fewer words, etc. It was astonishingly easy to get rid of at least 10%, often more. Now I try to do it with the entire novel -- because the rest should be just as tight as the beginning, and also because fewer words usually mean a crisper pace.

But I don't worry about this on the first draft. That's likely to be littered with extra words, awkward sentences, duplication, etc. That's fine. During the first draft I want to concentrate on the characters and their story alone.

But I must say -- I do like adverbs. Sometimes one adverb does a better job than several words of description or action, or so I see it. Still, because they do tend to be over-used, I question every single one.

EmilyBryan said...

Jaclyn--Congratulations! You have received what we call a "good" rejection. This is a very hopeful sign. It means you are sooo close to getting things right. Editors don't have time to give that sort of detailed feedback if they don't see real promise.

Be happy! You are definitely on the right track.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--Excellent point. Contests force us to write crisply. (See, I used an adverb just for YOU!)

When I see an "ly" word in my work, I always think about it and see if I can choose a better verb, so the adverb becomes unnecessary. Ambled is better than walked slowly.

Ditto for using specific nouns. Why say red bird when you can say cardinal?

If you make your nouns and verbs do double duty, you won't need as many adjectives and adverbs.

Leanna Renee Hieber said...

Oh, man, Emily, this is my bane. I write long and wordy. Sharpening my POV was my first huge craft hurdle and even then, it still got trimmed a lot by my gracious and talented editor. I content myself with the idea that I can always offer "deleted scenes" on my website. *smile* Thanks for the post!

EmilyBryan said...

Leanna--I think it's also a matter of style. Anyone whose title is THE STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL TALE OF MISS PERCY PARKER has already telegraphed a more lyrical (all right, perhaps more wordy!) style. And that's appropriate for your story. You've begun as you mean to continue. The voice has to fit the story and yours does, my dear.

Donna Marie Rogers said...

I tend to self-edit as I go along, which really isn't a good thing when you're the world's slowest writer. *grin* But I've been told by each editor I've worked with that I write clean, so I suppose that's one upside.

I love what you said about making your nouns & verbs do double duty. I always see if I can replace a -ly word. That was one of the first things I learned, to watch those -ly words. Though, thankfully, I don't obsess over them anymore...LOL And I prefer action beats over tags in dialogue where I can use them.

Fantastic post, Emily. :-)

EmilyBryan said...

Donna--Re: Action tags. Good tip!

I find myself deleting he said as a lot! Why not just tell what he's doing instead of telling what he's doing as he said something?

Another thing I have to watch for are filler words--just, only, still, almost, that, etc. I try to do a Find search for them and see if they are justifiable or if they need snipping.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Emily, I'm big on the filler words, too. Lots of Find/Search going on at the end of my ms's. :) Actually, just and really are big ones for me, even when I'm aware of them.

Genella deGrey said...

. . . Except that you could sneeze on a piece of paper and it would sell.
:)
G.

EmilyBryan said...

If that were the case, Genella, I'd wish for a cold all the time!

Actually, I have little boneyard under my bed where bad ideas go to die. Linus Pauling, Nobel Laureate, says, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."

So I play with plenty of premises and get shot down with regularity.

EmilyBryan said...

Actually, Stacey, I really just am having a very hard time trying to only understand just what it is you are really meaning to say actually. ;)

Barbara Monajem said...

Heh. Leanna, I've been thinking about posting deleted scenes on my site, too. I'll be looking forward to reading yours.

Thanks for the adverb, Emily!

EmilyBryan said...

Let me know if you do post deleted scenes, Barbara and Leanna. It's always fun to peek behind the curtain!

Patricia Barraclough said...

Wonderful post. There is a lot of excellent advice in it for any writer - new or already published. You are so right about opening sentences. Some of my favorite authors excel in opening lines.

EmilyBryan said...

Patricia, you've struck a resonant chord with me. Opening lines are so important. I don't think it's possible to overstate how essential a dynamite opening is. It's the author's first promise to the reader, the first hint at what sort of story you'll deliver. Think how many first lines you have memorized without realizing it. Here are a few that stuck in my head:

Call me Ishmael.

She woke in the body of a dead friend.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Anybody else have a good opening sentence to contribute?

Sandra Kay said...

Thank you, Emily, for posting great self-editing tips. Like you said--we all need them!

Sandra

Ashlyn Chase said...

Greetings to my favorite slicer and dicer!

Critique partners are awesome when it comes to hearing what needs to be cut or changed.

Of course, if you're determined to keep a favorite bit that your crit partner really has a problem with, be prepared for a phone call like I just got from my editor. The one that begins with, "What were you thinking?" LOL

Ash

EmilyBryan said...

In addition to critique partners, having a beta reader you trust is invaluable. Listen to her. She is the voice of your readers.

Julie Robinson said...

Thanks Emily. I can say I self-edit so much I have nothing to show. Thanks for the guidelines.
Julie