In the second article in her self-publishing series for Writers & Artists, writer, editor & blogger Roz Morris gives her advice on editing your manuscript - and how you can tell whether your novel is ready to be published.
You've finished your novel. Doesn't that feel good? It certainly should - and no doubt you're eager to get it out into the world. But despite the months - or possibly years - you've spent writing it, you might not be ready to begin the self-publishing process just yet.
To get much better value out of the experts you hire and to ensure your book is ready for the giant leaps, follow these tips.
Don't submit a first draft
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is to try to publish a first draft. In the writing world, one of our mantras is: 'writing is rewriting'. And although you can hire editors, they only come in after the writer has done a lot of fine-tuning. Rarely do writers get their novels perfect on the first draft. It's not unusual to go through a manuscript 10 times, honing it to perfection.
Does that seem shocking? Many novice writers find this surprising. But if you asked almost any bestselling author for a peek at their first draft, they would chase you away with a pitchfork.
To quote another maxim: 'easy reading is damned hard writing'. There is so much to get right in a novel manuscript that first drafts must be rough. Even if they have been written to a plan, they are explorations. They are the first time the writer has spent a sustained length of time with their characters and world, and experienced the story scene by scene. In more complex novels, the writer is discovering the soul of the book as they write, and later chapters become far more focused as they realise what this is. Many of us describe this as 'guided dreaming'.
If, as you wrote, you found you got caught up in the story, or characters started to surprise you, or events took an unexpected turn, then you know what I mean. But even if you stuck to your grand plan, you can probably add a lot more panache, focus and intrigue by going through the manuscript again.
Fear not; editing is fun
Many writers fear that editing will be a chore. Actually, it can be one of the most rewarding parts of writing a novel. By reworking a manuscript multiple times you can make it leaner, snappier, more perceptive and powerful - and really make the best of your idea.
So what should you look for when you edit?
It's not the language or spelling
Editing means far more than checking the spellings and tidying up the sentences. Although these are hardly insignificant, most professional writers don't usually address them until they have everything else in place.
Under the words, your novel is a machine. The plot must be checked for holes, confusions, unnecessary implications and inconsistencies. Sub-plots must dovetail with the main story. Characters must come alive. Description and writing style must sing. Viewpoint must be consistent and the dialogue must sparkle. Each of these elements may require close attention, which is why many novels need multiple passes before they're fit to sail. But this is also where the magic happens; where you find smoother ways for your plot to run and more original ways to tell your story and express your ideas.
Structure is all
One of the most useful things you can do is to find a way to check your book's structure - the sequence of plot events. Why? Because if you reorder them it can make a drastic difference to how gripping your book is.
In a nutshell, every scene creates a context for the scenes that follow; on and on like a chain. Imagine a story where two characters have a secret from each other and have to rescue a third character. The secret must out, but this could happen before the rescue or afterwards. Whichever you choose, it might create a drastically different effect. You also need to check that your story grips the reader. Does each scene introduce something new - a plot twist, a character revelation, a surprise for the characters or new information for the reader? Well-paced novels are constantly feeding us changes, whether they're breathless thrillers or literary character pieces.
How do you check your structure? Here's what I do. I developed a tool that I call the beat sheet. (Hollywood scriptwriters also use something they call the beat sheet, but it's very different.) You take a sheet of A4 or a spreadsheet and go through the entire book, listing the purpose of each scene in a couple of words. It builds in an at-a-glance x-ray of the book, and often shows you problems you couldn't possibly see with all the prose in the way. You can also use it as a route map to restructure the novel without getting in a muddle.
If you haven't checked the structure of your book, make a beat sheet.
Let it rest
We all get to the point where we can't tell if the book's magnificent or an unholy muddle. The only cure is a break, so lock the manuscript in a drawer and work on something different. Most writers leave their work for a minimum of a month, but if your creative schedule allows, leave it for longer.
Never rush the manuscript out because you're so fed up you can't tell if it's good or bad. Your own subconscious will sort out a lot of the problems if you let it. Put it away, let it settle, and when you come back you might see exactly what needs to be done.
What's more, you'll see it has strengths you'd forgotten about when you were in knots of frustration.
Even if you think everything is perfect and you've blitzed all the typos, put it aside for a few more days, then read through one last time. When the only tweaks you want to make are minor, it's ready.
Find test readers
There's a limit to how much troubleshooting you can do by yourself. All writers have a trusted set of friends and fellow scribblers who read a manuscript and point out the remaining flaws. But you have to choose these people carefully. Here are some tips:
Act on their comments - revise again
Critique partners always spot something you need to tweak or rework. It's usually annoying at the time, especially after all the work you've done on your own, but it's well worth acting on. And constructive criticism is a completely normal and essential part of the publishing process; it's not unusual for a writer to get notes from critique partners, then later from agents, then editors. If it's your first novel, there may be craft lessons you need to learn - but that doesn't matter. All writers learn this way - by doing it.
You've already accomplished a lot; you've created a story and characters out of thin air. By comparison, this feedback is fine-tuning. Even if your critiquers recommend you restructure the plot, it's relatively simple - especially if you have a document like the beat sheet. Remember we said writing is rewriting? This is why. Most well-written books are scar tissue.
Ready for self-publishing services
Once you've done all this your manuscript should be in great shape for professional editing. Your editor will be able to use their time to help you iron out the wrinkles no one else has spotted and help you publish a novel that's a credit to you. Good luck!
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Roz Morris is an author, editor, writing tutor and book doctor. She has worked in publishing for more than 20 years, run editorial departments, ghostwritten bestselling novels for other writers, critiqued for Cornerstones literary consultancy and also written fiction as herself. A manuscript she appraised in draft form recently went on to win the 2012 Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She has a no-nonsense blog for writers and self-publishers, Nail Your Novel, a series of writing books by the same name (Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence and Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life) and her first novel is now available (My Memories of a Future Life). Follow her on Twitter as @NailYourNovel.