I talked to a group of new authors at L Festive at the weekend, and went through some tips that I’ve found useful for editing and polishing manuscripts after the first draft. I’ve had a few requests for notes on the session so I’ve posted them here for wider use. They’re intended for authors preparing their manuscript for submitting to publishers or self-publishing.
You’ve written your novel – now what?
(1) Get feedback
If you are self-publishing, beta-readers take the place of a development editor. If you are submitting to a publisher, feedback will only help your chances.
- Get a mix of people to read your story, ideally including other authors and people who read your genre
- Ideally cultivate a mix of beta-readers who will both pounce on every issue and pat you on the back where you’ve done well (usually different people!)
- Be brave and listen very carefully to issues – if beta-readers find an issue so will a paying reader or submissions editor
(2) Read through the draft critically for structural and other large issues (forget about style for the moment)
Some common and useful tips:
- Make sure the start is strong – captivating and gets straight into the story
- Are the characters distinguishable? This is especially important in lesfic with so many female characters – and don’t rely on the short/tall, dark/blonde distinction
- Watch out for unnecessary scenes / description / characters that are appealing to the author but not necessary for the story – readers will get bored. Also watch out for your research showing.
- Pacing and proportion – are scenes overwritten / underwritten given their importance
- Conflict – is there enough to keep the reader interested?
- Inconsistent point of views –mainly slips in third-person POV. Some readers hate head-hopping.
- Is there too much telling and explanation – respect the reader’s intelligence and dramatise scenes to – show don’t tell (but not all the time!)
- Too many flashbacks? Use with care – slows the momentum of the story and are hated by some readers
- Any loose ends?
- Are there too many characters / locations? Too much detail on minor characters (don’t name incidentals).
- Do the main characters develop over the novel?
- Ensure there is a strong ending
Note this step usually requires several drafts where you refine and bring out themes, give depth to characters and refine the plot and structure
(3) Line-editing and polishing
- Overuse / underuse of dialogue tags? Simplify most to “said” to avoid annoying readers.
- Cliches – think of fresh vivid phrases instead
- Metaphors and similes are loathed by a great number
- Use precise language for impact and edit out unnecessary words – adverbs for example can be overused and words such as “seems”, “almost”, “then” are usually redundant
- Watch out for repeated words
- Also repeated phrases or habits – characters winking, or leaning forwards, describing the hair colour of every single character
- Vary the sentence structure
- Strengthen sentences – end powerfully
- Watch out for overuse of participle phrases, including in dialogue tags. “That’s fine,” she said, sipping her tea.
- Unrealistic dialogue to progress plot
(4) Read the whole manuscript aloud
- Extremely useful for making sure the work reads smoothly
- Great for realistic dialogue
(5) Finally (if self-publishing), get someone else to copy-edit it (it’s extremely difficult to spot your own mistakes):
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation
- Factual errors
- Inconsistencies (e.g. character changes name in places) and plot holes
Finding beta-readers and editors
- For beta-readers – make friends with authors of Facebook and ask around on online discussion groups such as the Virtual Living Room. Most beta-readers will give you feedback in exchange for a printed version of the novel. Authors may be willing to swap beta-reads.
- For editors, ask for recommendations from other authors and The Society for Editors and Proof readers. Smashwords also lists editors (Mark’s List).
Some recommendations for books
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown and King – extremely good and popular book – pay attention to what it says because others (like submissions editors) do
- Revision – A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by Kaplan – difficult to get hold of (available on US Amazon) – but good for practical examples of how to edit for structure, meaning and style
- Plot and Structure by Scott Bell – very prescriptive but a great way of looking at your story and a way to ask yourself the right questions to help strengthen a novel
- The Art of Fiction by Lodge – fantastic insight into fiction techniques – stream of consciousness, sense of place, etc. – illustrated with a range of texts
- Popular lesfic author Jae has plenty of great writing tips on her website.
- And in general read other fiction critically – what works, what doesn’t and why