When is 'The End' not 'The End'? Five tips on polishing your manuscript

Posted by Yvonne Barlow on Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The scene is quite clichéd. A writer hits a paragraph break, types ‘The End’ and lets out a huge sigh.

However finishing a novel is never like this. ‘The End’ doesn’t happen until the editor says it happens. Prior to this point, an editor will highlight issues – plot discrepancies, dialogue that could be improved upon or even recommend a structural change. I compare this to the polishing of a very rough table top – it might look beautiful at a distance, but run your fingers across the uneven surface and you will find bumps and cracks.

As an editor, my job is to polish a manuscript, make it ready for the book buying public. The following are eight tips for new writers, points that will help you examine your work after you hit ‘The End’:

1.     Use the Find key on Word and look at every single ‘was’. This is the dullest word in the English language. As a verb it is so passive it puts the reader to sleep. Did you mean to say, ‘She was hurrying…’ when you should have said, ‘She hurried…’?

2.     Avoid ‘info dump’. This is a lazy way of inserting background information en mass rather than gently revealing a character’s past in subtle descriptions or dialogue. When more than a short paragraph goes into a background explanation, ask what is necessary and how you can infer it elsewhere.

3.     Take a close look at your very first line. Does it draw the reader in or is it so vague that the reader has little sense of what might follow? A first line that certainly drew me in came from The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer: “We think we know the ones we love.” Dear writer, I now want to know so much more. Similarly, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan begins, “It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” I do want to know what began and why is it worthy of telling.

4.     Following on from this, your first paragraph should give the reader a clue as to the novel’s setting – place, time or both. Keep it tight, not too much detail, use it to draw your reader into the story. Browsers in book shops often read the first paragraph before choosing to buy. This is your chance to sell your novel.

5.     Examine your dialogue and the prose that surrounds it. It is worth remembering FAD – Feeling, Action, Dialogue. Scared, she grabbed his hand, “Don’t do it,” she yelled. Versus “Don’t do it,” she yelled as scared, she grabbed his hand. FAD moves the scene along as feeling, acting and then speaking is the natural flow.

6.     Unless dreams are part of the plot, avoid them. Showing a character’s inner turmoil through a dream is lazy and dull – avoid it if you can.

7.     Reread your plot summary – determine whether you have kept to the original design or taken another road. The alternative road is not necessarily the wrong one, but it is worth looking back on your plan and comparing it to the route your plot has taken.

8.     After applying the above points, put the manuscript away and don’t look at it for at least three months, preferably six. You may think you can ignore this advice, but time will truly reveal its weaknesses and its strengths.


Tags: 'creative writing' 'novel writing' 'info dump' self-editing 
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Yvonne Barlow Editor at Hookline Books - where book clubs and readers choose the novels that go to print.

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