By Florence Osmund
Is getting your novel published THIS year, one of your New Year’s resolutions? Regardless of when you plan to publish your novel, this article from Florence Osmund may help you to refine your manuscript. Be sure to also check out Florence’s previous articles here on The Book Designer if you haven’t already:
After months, maybe years of painstakingly keying in one word after another into a treasured computer file, you finish writing a novel. Now, you’re anxious to get it published. In an ideal world (i.e., with a sufficient budget), your manuscript will go through four levels of editing—developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading—to make sure the manuscript is in pristine condition before it gets presented to the world.
But wait, let’s be real. You may not be able to afford all four levels of editing services. What then? Do you take the risk of publishing it as is, warts and all? Do you throw it away after all that hard work? Neither option is ideal.
Regardless of how much or how little editing services you employ, there are certain things you can do to refine your manuscript before it goes to your editor or proofreader. The benefits differ depending on which levels of editing you employ.
Let’s say you decide to first send your manuscript to a developmental editor. Refining your manuscript to the best of your ability beforehand allows your editor to spend less time correcting things you could have done on your own, and more time helping you boost your writing to the next level, something editors do very well under the right circumstances.
On the other end of the spectrum, if all you can afford is the bare minimum—proofreading—refining your manuscript beforehand will make it easier for the proofreader to catch mistakes in it, and make your book more marketable once published.
In either case and every case in between, you always want to present your finest work—it’s a reflection of you, part of your image, your brand. Here are ten things you can do for your novel and yourself to ensure you are submitting the cleanest possible manuscript to your editor or proofreader.
1. Writing Style
The way you express yourself when telling the story reflects your writing style—some writers are blunt and to the point, others more descriptive, some conversational, and others poetic. Writing style is all about the way you put together words and sentences to achieve a certain tone and mood.
- Be consistent in your writing style—make the sentences flow smoothly one after the other.
- Use words that come easily to you.
- Be concise—eliminate words, sentences, and paragraphs that don’t serve to move the story forward.
- Avoid overusing “ly” words. Consider strong verbs instead.
- Vary the sentence structure within a paragraph or group of paragraphs by mixing in short (even one-word) sentences and fragments.
- Occasionally interrupt dialogue as would happen in real-life situations.
- Fix clumsy/awkward sentences.
- Create a good blend of narration, dialogue and description.
- Avoid head hopping in your chosen POV.
- Replace weak words with stronger ones.
- Avoid using trite clichés.
2. Story and Plot
Stories have three major components—beginning, middle, and end. Plot is the framework that holds the story together.
- Craft the first sentence/paragraph to “hook” the reader.
- Set the stage: the mood, setting, time period, and tone.
- Introduce the protagonist. Give the reader a good sense of the type of person he/she is.
- Clearly define the protagonist’s goal(s).
- Include action reasonably soon in the narrative.
- Keep the story moving forward with strong characters, meaningful dialogue, and an interesting journey for the protagonist.
- Include a steady stream of action to avoid a sagging middle.
- Constantly challenge the protagonist, slowly building up to a significant climax where everything comes apart, the tension is the greatest, and conflict peaks.
- Linger a bit on the ending—avoid wrapping it all up in one short paragraph or chapter.
- Make sure all issues have been resolved, even the smallest ones.
- Show how the protagonist has changed given his/her challenges/conflict.
- Allow the reader to feel some type of emotion at the end—don’t leave him/her feeling flat.
- Make the reader be sorry to see the story end.
Throughout the Book
- Establish the POV from which the story will be told and stick to it throughout the book.
- Make sure the story line is credible for its genre.
- Avoid too much back story.
- Verify details for accuracy.
- Check for plot glitches and holes.
- Keep the plot consistent from beginning to end.
Memorable characters are the heart of good fiction.
- Make each character unique.
- Create multi-dimensional characters, ones that readers can picture in their mind’s eye.
- Depict the internal qualities of the main characters.
- Make the strengths and weaknesses of the main characters evident.
- Clearly define the relationships between characters.
Dialogue helps to define your characters and give them individuality.
- Use natural dialogue—avoid stilted or “too perfect” dialogue unless it’s relevant to the character.
- Include only dialogue that is necessary to the storyline—remove mundane conversations.
- Avoid using dialogue as an information dumping ground.
- Create a distinct voice for each character.
- Weave in physical gestures with the dialogue.
- Avoid overusing someone’s name in a conversation.
- Use dialogue tags only when necessary.
The right images will entice readers into the story and make the place, event, person, or thing more believable.
- Use the five senses to help place readers in the middle of the scene—talk about how things sound, smell, taste, and feel.
- Show, don’t tell. As author/playwright Anton Checkhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Include enough description for the reader to visualize whatever it is you are describing.
- Don’t bore readers with overly long descriptions that may hinder the scene.
Pacing (the manipulation of time) controls the speed and rhythm at which the story is told—how quickly or slowly the action unfolds—and helps to keep the reader interested. Striking the right balance can be challenging.
- Avoid delaying action for too long.
- Use cliff hangers to keep readers interested.
- Avoid distractions in high-action scenes.
- Speed up or slow down dialogue to fit the scene.
- To change the pace, consider shifting focus to another scene.
- Quicken the pace with fragmented dialogue, short paragraphs, and punchy verbs.
- Allow moments for the reader to breath between high-action scenes.
- Omit long boring narrative that isn’t important to the story line.
The basic elements of a story come together and have meaning through the creation of scenes—scenes carry the novel. Whether you write romance or mysteries, fantasies or literary fiction, the key to keeping readers’ attention is creating effective scenes.
- Don’t forget to establish the setting in scenes.
- Follow the rules of narrative arc (beginning, middle and ending) when creating scenes.
- Include a level of conflict in each scene, even if it’s the protagonist’s internal conflict.
- Make sure each scene is plausible.
- Only include scenes that have purpose, ones that move the story forward.
- Transition from one scene to another with a smooth natural flow.
Effective chaptering helps to maintain readers’ interest and provide logical places for them to take a break from reading.
- Start each chapter with something that impels the reader to continue.
- Stick to a central theme for each chapter.
- End each chapter at a logical point such as a different day, location, or point of view.
- End each chapter with something that incites the reader to continue to the next one, such as a cliffhanger.
- Respect the thirty-minute rule—it shouldn’t take the average reader longer than thirty minutes to read a chapter.
Paragraph breaks provide structure that helps readers to follow the story.
- Start a new paragraph when a new character speaks, the subject/action shifts, or time changes.
- Smoothly transition paragraphs from one to another.
- Consider shortening or splitting up exceptionally long paragraphs.
10. Last, but Not Least
Save these three things on your “to do” list for last.
- While most spell-checkers and grammar-checkers have their inherent flaws, it’s still worthwhile to use them before submitting a manuscript.
- Check your document for formatting errors.
- Read the manuscript aloud or have someone else read it aloud—you’ll be surprised at the defects (repetitions, inconsistencies, awkward sentences) you can catch this way.
It has been my experience that the more time that I take to refine a manuscript before sending it to my editor, the more effort she exerts to help me bring it to the next level, making me a better writer and my books more marketable. Like most things— the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.
After a successful career in corporate America, Florence Osmund retired to write novels. “I like to craft stories that contain thought-provoking plots and characters with depth and complexity—particularly ones that challenge readers to survey their own values,” Osmund states. She has written four novels in the literary fiction genre and is working on a fifth. Florence lives with her eighteen-year-old cat Miska in downtown Chicago on the beautiful shore of Lake Michigan.
Osmund dedicates her website https://www.novelelements.com to helping new authors—offering advice she wishes she had received before she started writing her first book. There she talks about the writing craft, building an author platform, working with editors, book promotion, and much more.