If you're serious about getting published, clean up your manuscript!
I've got a little side project going on for the next week or two. I've been reviewing entries for a major bookseller's 'breakout novel' contest; they send me excerpts from submitted novels and I rate them on originality, style, and so on. It's been very illuminating. First of all, if this is any taste of what it's like to work at the bottom rung of a publishing house, than I never want to get into that line of work. You have to sort through a lot of dross to find a decent story! Second, it is MINDBOGGLING how little effort some people put into cleaning up these manuscripts before submitting them to contests and/or publishers. 'Hot mess' doesn't even begin to describe the problems.
So with my (extremely limited) experience, here's a little list of steps that it is only COMMON SENSE to take before sending off your precious novel if you want to have a prayer for acceptance:
- Don't forget to spell check. Seriously. It's built RIGHT INTO THE WORD PROCESSOR; HOW DO HOPEFUL AUTHORS KEEP MISSING THIS STEP?
- Don't forget to grammar check. Again, Microsoft now builds that directly into the software, so basic grammar errors shouldn’t be a problem. I’m talking about basic stuff: ‘Jennifers new bag’ and ‘David want’s to buy a bag of Frito’s’ and ‘Wren wakes up this morning, she went to class, it is fun they make pancakes.
- Choose a tense and stick with it! Throughout one excerpt, the author kept switching between past and present tense, even within the same paragraph. It drove me nuts.
- Laundry lists aren’t character development. So many authors would introduce a character, and describe his physical appearance, personality quirks and age immediately. Then two sentences later, when another character appeared (often to engage in dialogue with character one) the process is repeated. Like so:
“The angel Raziel is two thousand years old, but doesn’t look it. He has a face like Adonis and a body like Michelangelo’s David. He is blonde, with his long hair tied back in a ponytail tied with a thin strap of leather. He usually wears long robes, although he can wear jeans if he has to hide amongst mortals. When he is worried, his regal brow furrows and his sensual mouth purses in an expression of concern. He likes watching soap operas on TV and his secret ambition is to be Spiderman. His favorite food is chocolate. His piercing green eyes penetrated deep into the soul of Melissa, a beautiful girl from Kentucky. At only sixteen, Melissa was petite, with deep violet eyes that sometimes looked blue or grey, depending on her mood or the light you saw them in. Her long brown hair fell down to her shoulders in a rich tangle of curls-
Seriously, who is still reading at this point?
- Try to have some variety in your sentence and paragraph structure. Just like the laundry list formula for character development, many writers followed a basic template for structuring the story. Changing the word for ‘said’ in a he-said-she-said exchange doesn’t fix the basic monotony of he-said-she-countered-he-retorted-she-re
- If it doesn’t move the plot forward, it probably isn’t necessary. I don’t need to know every article of clothing worn in every outfit of every character…and I like fashion. I also don’t need to know every flower growing in your character’s garden, or an in-depth layout of a house that hasn’t been entered by any characters. Cut the descriptive fat from the story and do us all a favor.
Actually, I think the biggest favor anyone can do if they’re serious about getting published is hire an editor to help you clean up the story. I know, the book is the author’s baby and no one can understand it as well as the author…but trust me. Every writer needs someone objective who will come in and tell them the story’s strengths and weaknesses while helping them clean up grammar and spelling. I can’t tell you how many of the stories I had were decent or even good plots buried under a mound of bad storytelling.
Obviously, if you’re just writing for fun and don’t care who reads your work, paying someone money to ‘fix’ it isn’t necessary. But if you’re a writer trying to land a publishing contract and competing with thousands of people, make a small investment and give yourself an actual chance at getting that prize!