Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ten Edits to Run Through Your Manuscript to Make It, At Least, Not Suck

Hey! Sorry again for skipping my post last week. And that this one's late. I guess you're used to this by now, though. On to the blog post:

You know those cleanses healthy people sometimes do? Like, drink pureed carrots for a week to get rid of toxins or whatever? Well, at a certain point in editing, manuscripts need to go through cleanses. And how would I know this, you ask. Well, I know this not just because I've arbitrarily appointed myself as some sort of authority on writing even though I'm not published and don't have any sort of credentials... but because I have to read unpublished manuscripts submitted to agents now.

And just... first things first, if you're submitting to an agent, you should not be submitting your first draft. Or your second, third, or fourth. You should have done some serious, serious editing before you even thought about submitting. That manuscript should have gone through several rounds of critique partners, English teachers you somehow roped into editing your grammar, beta readers, etc. You should be able to at the very least read your own manuscript without finding it riddled with errors.

But I guess if you don't have experience with editing novels, this can be difficult. I wouldn't recommend starting with this blog post for sources on editing. Before you can even think about the edits I'm suggesting below, you should probably rewrite the whole novel from scratch and do a complete overhaul, and then probably a few other edits before you get to this point.

The edits below, however, are based on mistakes that are just... just way too common. Like, annoyingly common. And they're so terrible that it makes me really want to hate a manuscript, even if the plot's good. So if initial edits and critique partners don't catch these mistakes, make sure you catch them before submitting to agents. If you do this, your manuscript will stand out from the crowd at least the tiniest bit in the sense that it won't want to make the interns reading it punch something.

Please. Please learn how to use punctuation. Or, if you're allergic to proper punctuation, give your manuscript to someone who knows how to use punctuation and give them free reign with rearranging all your commas. This is surprisingly important. Punctuation seriously governs the way people read a text, and if you're placing commas everywhere, or creating nightmarish run-on sentences, or anything like that, it makes what could be a good text unreadable.

I touched on this in my post Five Mistakes Beginning Writers Make, but it apparently isn't just beginning writers. I'm putting this in capital letters so that even if you skim the post you won't miss it: YOU NEED MORE PARAGRAPH BREAKS. If your story is told in giant chunks, it is impossible to read. You absolutely need paragraph breaks every time a new person starts speaking. Besides that, where to break the paragraphs is up to you, but it needs to be as often as possible. Why? Because it makes it easier to read, and I swear to God if you think that your story should be a challenge to read, you can just go submit to the Pretentious Early Twentieth Century Modernists Press because no one else wants to read your annoying book.
Paragraph breaks, as often as you can possibly fit them in, are an absolute necessity. Please go back through your book and break up your nightmare paragraphs.

No matter how much description that you, the author, think is necessary, you probably need less. Readers are smarter than you think, and one of the great things about reading is building a setting in your imagination. And it doesn't matter how intricately you describe the protagonist's house- if a reader wants to picture their own house, they will, and the three pages you spent describing furniture is just going to be useless gunk that makes them want to stop reading.
Of course, I would hope that at this point in the editing process, you've already got rid of the giant page-long awful descriptions that come with first drafts. But there's still little bits of excessive description lurking all over your manuscript, like dust and dirt clinging to a surface you thought you already cleaned. Go through and cut everything except what is necessary, and maybe a few bits that help set the mood in scenes where mood is vital, and if you must, allow yourself to keep one or two turns of phrase that you're really attached to. Everything else, gut it. Your beta readers (and potentially your future agent/editor) will tell you if they feel like something's missing.

This is specifically for adult authors writing young adult manuscripts. Even in good YA manuscripts, you'll still catch the occasional bit of slang that no one says anymore, but in the bad ones, the teenagers just seem unrecognizable. Please note, because I've seen this more than once: just because technology and the Internet seem like FUTURE SCI-FI MAGIC to you, doesn't mean that teenagers who were born into a world with iPhones are going to think like that. Thirteen-year-olds don't go on the Internet and marvel at how absolutely strange it is that we can connect to the World Wide Web at the press of a button. There are a lot of things that teenagers have different mentalities about now, as well- no one gets made fun of for playing video games or reading comic books anymore, since those things are mainstream culture now. Basically, either immerse yourself in youth culture somehow so that you don't sound super antiquated, or give your manuscript to a couple of teenagers and ask them if any parts sound unrealistic.

The beginning of your book is the place where you hook your reader, and the place where an agent or editor is going to decide whether they care enough to put effort into this. This should be the place in your book that you polish the most and try to make the most interesting, the place where it is absolutely vital that your reader just can't stop reading. For some reason, though, a lot of authors start their book off with some boring nonsense that no one wants to read.
Mind you, I'm not telling you to start in the middle of an action-y fight. In fact, it's usually better if you don't, unless it's a thriller or something I guess, because fights aren't that interesting unless you care about the characters and plot. And at the beginning of the book, your reader doesn't care yet about the characters and plot. You have to make them care.
So go through your first few scenes and get rid of descriptions, pointless action, boring exposition, and stuff that doesn't make any sense without context. Instead, put something there that would be fun and interesting to read for anyone, even if they know nothing about your book.

Most manuscripts could benefit from being shorter, so this is a good idea if you're trying to shorten word count. Additionally, too many extra words everywhere can just clog up your manuscript and make it annoying. Comb through your book and see what words each sentence can do without. One common edit is to get rid of every instance of "that." Kira Brighton has a good post about words to get rid of here. If you're worried that those words were necessary, again, don't worry- your beta readers and editors will let you know if they feel something's missing.

This is one that my creative writing teacher suggested to me while helping me edit my manuscript. Dialogue is the heart of novels- it's where character is revealed and where plot, for the most part, really happens. So your dialogue has to be stellar.
First: if you're writing a spec fic (fantasy, sci fi, etc) book, it's common to fall into the trap of "fancy dialogue." Antagonists giving mustache-twirlingly Victorian speeches, mentors talking like Gandalf and Shakespeare had a word-baby, ancient magical beings practically speaking in iambic pentameter. There is zero need for this. It's difficult to read and it's cliche and annoying. No one, not even fancy magic people, talks like they're in a book; they talk normally. Get rid of all unnecessarily fancy dialogue.
Second: differentiate dialogue between characters. Everyone can't speak the same way, because in reality, everyone has different characteristics to their speech. Since dialogue is so vital to revealing character, you should be sure that your dialogue actually reveals the character of whoever's speaking. You should be able to take a line entirely out of context and be able to tell who said it. Try going through and reading every line of dialogue to ensure that it really feels like this character said it.

If you're writing a book about something you haven't personally experienced, you should have done  a lot of research on the subject before writing the book. If you didn't do that research before writing, you should do it now. If you suck at research, don't worry; you're not writing an academic paper, you just need to understand the topic. You can watch YouTube videos and read fun books and blog posts (as long as they're by people who know what they're talking about). This includes if you're writing a book with characters of a different identity group.
If you know anyone who's an expert in the topic, or who belongs to an identity you're writing about, see if they're willing to read through your book to check for inaccuracies. Because you never know if one day someone who knows about the topic will read your book and cringe at how badly you messed up. Plus, you should be respectful of the people you're writing about.

One of the most annoying things about some manuscripts is the terrible pacing, especially at the beginning. If you drag too slow, I stop caring; if you whiz by everything too fast and throw scenes at me, I get confused. And if you do a combination of the two, I'm just going to throw your manuscript out.
Editing for pacing is difficult, but it's necessary. Your book needs to move along like a well-edited movie- moving fast at scenes where things are high-intensity, and slowing it down when we need to understand details, with a good, constantly moving pace in the scenes in between. You need periods of cooling off after heated moments, and something exciting after a slow scene. Etc. This is something that beta readers help with a lot- you've read your book too many times at this point to understand that something is too weirdly paced. A fresh pair of eyes can tell you when they're getting bored or confused.

This is the easy, but boring, edit. If a manuscript is riddled with basic mechanical errors, it doesn't make me personally want to stop reading, but it is annoying and shows unprofessionalism. And there are some agents who are hella strict about that. So go through and look for every typo, missed word, grammatically incorrect sentence, etc, with a hawk's eye. Or, alternately, get one of your grammatically talented friends to do it.

I realize now that half my advice is "get someone else to read it." So that'll be my final piece of advice: use critique partners. It is vital that someone else looks at your book before you start submitting it, preferably a lot of people. You, the writer, are way too close to your work to be able to edit it thoroughly. And a variety of readers will give you a variety of opinions, which you need, because your ideal audience isn't going to be a hive mind.

Anyway... I hope those ideas were useful. There are way more edits out there you should be putting your book through, suggested by way more experienced authors in their blog posts, but these are good for your basic making-your-book-not-totally-suck needs.

Good luck editing! Thanks for reading,

1 comment:

  1. " like Gandalf and Shakespeare had a word-baby " LOL

    "It is vital that someone else looks at your book before you start submitting it" WELL??????? Can I get a copy?

    Other than that, I am no writer, but this sounds like excellent advice and very professional. You should offer your services (for a fee, of course) as a grammar, punctuation etc, editor :)