Three Principles for Revising a Novel Manuscript – NaNo-Now-What Part 1

So you have a complete first draft of a manuscript. That’s incredible! Fantastic work.

Whether you finished it in one month via NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), or you’ve been working on it for some time, that’s an incredible accomplishment. Now it’s time to get serious.

I see two common mistakes when it comes to editing a novel manuscript. The first is to assume that your work just needs a quick fix up for grammar and spelling, and then it’ll be ready for a publisher. The second is the exact opposite – the author who won’t walk away despite revision after revision because he feels that his work could always be a little bit better.

Setting up some ground rules will help you avoid these mistakes. Whether you’re starting a business, a home construction project, or revising a novel manuscript, you’ll always be more efficient if you begin by carefully defining what you’re setting out to do, and what the parameters of the task are.

Your manuscript needs revision. It probably needs a serious overhaul. All manuscripts do, nothing leaves the word processor ready for publication.  Use these guidelines to complete your revision efficiently and with the best results.

There are three principles that we’ll use to define our manuscript editing process. While your exact method and operation can be flexible, these precepts are inviolable.

1. Revision is a function of sale. The core purpose of revising your manuscript is to make it more suitable for sale to a publisher, or to readers.

If you wrote your manuscript to express yourself, or simply to accomplish the feat, you’re done. You have no business revising at this point. You’ve done expressed yourself already, and revising will only tarnish that. Move on to another project.

If you have no intention of pursuing publication (either traditionally or self-publishing), don’t spend a moment editing. You can find a better hobby.

Revision is the process by which we take our expression, this story and these characters that we’ve pulled from within ourselves, and make them palatable for someone who might like to pay you for your work.

This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon all of your artistic principles and write Die Hard the book. It simply means that when we edit, we need to take into account the real goal, which is sale of the book.

2. Evaluate for Return on Investment (ROI). Cold hard fact: this manuscript may not be your winner. At every step of the revision process we need to evaluate the manuscript to determine if it’s worth putting more time into.

There’s a good chance, especially if this is your first book, that your manuscript should be used as a learning tool for future writing, but isn’t worth investing a lot of time into. That’s OK. If you decided to start building cabinets on the side for extra cash, you’d probably give the first few away until you got really good at it.

There’s also a good chance, especially if you wrote this book for NaNoWriMo, that it’s a big pile of word-shaped crap, piled up to about 50,000 words high. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and there are certainly some notable books that were first drafted during NaNoWriMo, but it’s also OK if you wrote a lot of words, but the book isn’t terribly good. It’s OK if the best move is to pitch this one, take the lessons and the writing habits you’ve developed over the last month, and do something better.

At any point in the revision process, you need to be able to evaluate your manuscript and determine whether more time into this project is likely to net a sale, or a sufficiently higher sale (reference Principle #1), or if your time will be better spent on a new project.

The caveat is that you need to take into account your personality. I meet lots of authors who think that everything they crap onto a page is gold destined for the bestseller list. On the other hand, I also meet lots of incredible authors who won’t let their work see publication because they’re convinced it’s worthless drivel. The hardest part in this step is accurately evaluating your work, and giving yourself the proper credit.

This principle also comes into play later in the process. After a revision or two you may find that your work is quite good, but that there are a couple of little things that can be fixed. Sometimes you need to leave well enough alone. At some point you can ask the question, “If I spend ten more hours with this manuscript, is it going to increase the saleability or sale price enough to make that time a worthwhile investment?”

3. There are objective standards. Simply put, there are some things that are better than others. Not all analysis of writing is subjective on the part of the audience.

Certainly, there’s some room for creative expression, and doing things your own way, but don’t forget Principle #1. There are some things that American audiences nearly unanimously agree are better in books. There are other things that virtually all people don’t like.

I’m not suggesting that you adhere to a bunch of arbitrary academic “rules” for creative writing. But there are times when there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.

Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of saying, “That’s the way I meant it/like it/want it/feel it.” Especially when it comes time to get objective third-party feedback on your manuscript (more on this in NaNo-Now-What part 2), be aware that your gut is not going to sell your manuscript. While the world would love to see you bust open the box in a way that is awesome and effective, in most cases you need to be open to the fact that you’ve done something incorrectly, without a good enough reason, and your method needs to change.

With these three principles for revising a novel manuscript in hand, you can move forward effectively and efficiently. When you’re considering whether a task is important or a good use of time, simply compare it to these three principles. If it falls in line, do it. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it’s a waste of time, or maybe a little vanity poking through.

In NaNo-Now-What Part 2, I’ll outline some specific steps to take to effectively revise your manuscript. Stay tuned for that coming soon.

Brad Pauquette is the director of Columbus Creative Cooperative, which is a volunteer position.  He is also the CEO and a developmental editor for Columbus Publishing Lab, and the owner of Columbus Press.  Find his book, The Self-Publishing Handbook, on Amazon.

For Best Results, Rinse and Repeat

Although the deadline isn’t until June 24, we’ve already received several submissions for the Best of Ohio anthology.  That’s awesome, keep them coming.

But before you submit, take advantage of reader feedback if you can.  Whether it’s one of our live peer workshops, our members-only feedback forum, or another of the great writing groups around town, take the time (and the courage) to get your work in front of some objective readers and make revisions before you submit.

Sorry, your friends and family won’t work.  Find a group of people who are committed to giving you brutally honest feedback, so that you can make your work all that it can be.

Writers who bring their work to our workshops have a tremendously higher success rate with their anthology submissions.  There’s no favoritism or extra points for coming to workshops, it’s simply that writing that has been put through the ringer and torn apart is just better.

For best results, get feedback, make revisions and then get feedback again, followed by more revisions.

If you’re a CCC member, even if you’re not local, you can get feedback on your work at any time by logging in and then posting your work to the forum.  If you are local, come out to one of our workshops, or find another one of the groups around town who provide real feedback (beware of the “follow your dreams” crowd though, that feedback may be less than useful).

There are no prodigies.  No pieces roll out of your head ready to be chiseled onto a gold tablet.  The art of story writing requires an audience.  Test your work on live humans.

Stuck? Four Ways to Get Your Pen Moving

I don’t know if “writer’s block” is the right word.  I have ideas, I have projects I’m in the middle of and I know what to do, but sometimes I just can’t shut out the distractions and start putting words on a page.  I know I’m not the only writer who’s wasted forty minutes staring at a blank page before.

When I want to produce written work on a deadline, I can’t always wait for inspiration to strike.  I can’t stop the car, pull out my computer, cancel my afternoon and write until the inspiration leaves.  I have to take advantage of the two hour block I have available at 10am on a Friday or sacrifice my freetime on Monday night.

Getting the pen moving can be tricky when I don’t want to write and it feels more like a job than an artform.

The good news is that once you get your fingers warmed up and your brain moving, the inspiration will come.  Here are four suggestions to start placing words on the page.  Once you’re running, you can switch off to the project you’re trying to accomplish.

1) Write instructions.  It doesn’t matter about what, the more specific the better.  It could be instructions on how to mow the lawn, how to turn on a water faucet or even how to make a baby.  You’ll find more success if you focus on something small, for instance, try to write a half page on how to load a bullet, rather than how to clean an entire gun–this will get your mind moving in terms of details and imagery.

2) Describe something.  If you’re sitting outside somewhere, describe a pedestrian or the person next to you in detail.  If there are no objects around, Google something absurd, like “cat wearing a tophat” and then write a description of the first thing you find.  You can also describe actions, like how water might slip past a fish while it swims.  As before, the more specific you can be, the better.

3) Copy something you think is amazing, word-for-word.  Hunter S. Thompson copied A Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms word for word, in their entirety, on his typewriter before he wrote his first book.  This will not only get your pen moving, but you’ll be able to observe how a great writer uses language in a more specific way than you ever have before.

4) Read something.  Reading might seem like copping out and relaxing.  But if you simply can’t get words out of your head and onto paper, get some words off of a paper and into your head.  Eventually it will overflow.  If you reread something you’ve read a dozen times before and thought was great, your mind will be engaged but still free to roam new ideas at the same time.

Getting started is the hardest part.  I hope these suggestions help.

Many writing instructors recommend that you write for an hour (or even two!) doing exercises before you get into your project.  I’m lucky if I have an hour to write in one sitting at all, let alone an hour just to warm up.  These suggestions might be a little quicker.

Start with suggestion #1 or #2 and you might even find yourself starting a great story by accident.  #3 you should discard.  🙂

Tips for Reading Your Story in Front of a Live Audience

Reading your story in front of a live audience is an interesting, and sometimes terrifying experience.  With modern technology, there’s really no reason to read out loud to each other, and that can make the stakes even higher.

Here are some tips to making sure that your reading is successful, and your audience is entertained.

1) Be heard. The most certain way to lose your audience is to be too quiet to be heard.  Project your voice to the back of the room, it’s always better to be way too loud than a little too quiet.

2) A microphone is not an excuse to whisper. Keep the microphone 2-4 inches from your mouth (it feels unnaturally close, but it’s correct), and project as if the microphone isn’t there.

3) Pretend like you’re reading to children, even if you’re not. It’s important to be overdramatic.  You have no visual help describing your scene, it’s all in your voice.  Yell when people are angry, sob when they’re upset, be silly…it’s fun.

4) Change your voice for different characters. You don’t have to do a cartoonish different voice for each character (although you definitely can and your audience will appreciate it), but you have to help your audience understand which person is talking.  If nothing else, shift your body to the left and look to the right for one character, and shift to the right and look to the left for the other.  (Don’t lose your microphone though)

5) Choose a good section to read. When choosing what you’re going to read, imagine talking to someone at a party.  Would you rather listen to a woman who’s going to drone on about her intimate thoughts and feelings towards her ex-husband, or would you rather hang out with someone talking about climbing mountains, chasing bad guys, and performing a magnificent heist.

I’m not suggesting that there’s not a place for reflection and emotion, but remember that as a live reader, you’re now an entertainer, and it’s your job to put on a show.  Look for sections with action and dialog.  Stray from sections with long periods of internal reflection.

6) Stick to reading. If you’re not a New York Times Best-Selling Author or presented as an expert at some fascinating subject, stick to reading your story.  Don’t babble on about your inspiration, your background, your politics or your aspirations, give the audience what they came for – a good story.  Get up, read your story, sit down, unless something else is specifically asked of you.

7) Have fun with it! If you have fun and the audience can hear the fun you’re having, they’ll have fun too!

Remember, tips 3 through 7 are worthless if the audience can’t hear you.  Above all else, make sure you’re loud enough.  If they can hear you, you’ll be successful.

To listen to some great readers, please come out to Kafe Kerouac this Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. for the release of Across Town: Stories of Columbus. Find the event on Facebook.

Rookie Mistakes: Over-Explaining with Dialog Tags

Most of the submissions we receive for our anthologies are from hobby writers.  A very small percentage of our submissions come from people who write as a full-time job.

One of the biggest mistakes we see if over-explaining, specifically with dialog tags.  This is part of that old “show, don’t tell” rule.

Let the actions that your characters are taking, and the words that they’re saying indicate how they feel and what’s motivating them.

Here’s an obvious example:

“Steve, I can’t believe you stole my girlfriend!” Tim said angrily, upset that Steve would betray his friendship.

First, as the reader we can assume that Tim said this in an angry fashion.  Second, we can find a word that means “said angrily” like “shrieked,” “lashed out,” or “berated.”

Finally, the reader can infer from the statement “Steve, I can’t believe you stole my girlfriend” that Tim is upset about being betrayed.

All this sentence needs is – “Steve, I can’t believe you stole my girlfriend,” Tim lashed out.

The more words you use to say anything, the less powerful those words become.  The longer you take to get to the next line of dialog or the next action, the more likely it is that your reader is going to abandon your story.

Over-explaining can infect your story in a lot of places.  Dialog tags are an especially apparent example, and disrupt the flow and rhythm of a conversation.

“So, check your dialog tags for over-explanations,” I said enthusiastically, hoping you’ll use less words to explain what your characters are saying in their dialog.  🙂

Happy writing!

The “Tales Of The Unexpected” Theme

Our next anthology will carry the theme “Tales of the Unexpected” in the vein of Roald Dahl’s collections.  More submission information (click).

Please feel free to take this story in any direction.  Really, any story in which something unexpected happens will qualify.

Roald Dahl’s stories sometimes contain these elements:
Items with arbitrary value  – like antiques or fine art
Scientific bizzarities
Deception – or deception that’s caught by deception, and then can not be exposed
Monetary value of life

Elements that are atypical of Roald Dahl’s stories (but OK for our collection):
Magic or Mysticism – he seems to prefer science to explain freakishness
Romance

Almost all of Dahl’s stories contain irony and end with just desserts.

Have fun with this one!  The single most identifying trait of a “Tale of the Unexpected” is imagination.

As always please contact us with any questions.  Also, check out more information on submissions, and our Publication FAQs.

Our writing prompts are also great places to start a Tale of the Unexpected.

Unpublished (Possibly Fake) Writing Tips From Great Humans

According to Cervantes, a story was not finished until it contained a windmill.

Said the great Spaniard, “A mountain is not a windmill. A city street is not a windmill. And so on.”

Of all the writing tips in the world, none relates more to alfalfa than this quote from Walt Whitman:

“An author should grow lettuce, and eat lettuce, and cherish lettuce, but never talk to the lettuce.”

Sorry. There are no writing tips directly related to alfalfa.