Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Gleeful Shine: What I've Learned About Polishing Your Manuscript

I'm no expert, let's get that out of the way right off the bat.  But I've learned a few things during my writing journey and if they can be of any help to anyone, that's awesome.  That said, there are three things that I hear over and over again about my writing from readers, agents and even a few editors and those three things are:  it's gritty, it's clean and it's polished.

I work hard to make my manuscripts as polished as they can possibly be.  What does that mean to me?  I think of it as trying to make my books "shelf-worthy."  That means if I write a book, it should be good enough that when someone reads it, they feel like they just pulled it off a shelf at their local bookstore.  It's really hard to do alone (especially when you're not a professional editor!) so my very first tip for getting your manuscript polished to a gleeful shine is to use critique partners and beta readers

My second tip is to get an aerial view of your manuscript.



Make yourself an outline:  not of what you want the book to look like but of what it actually looks like.  This will allow you to see the big picture and how all your scenes, chapters and subplots hold together.  This should also help you with pacing.  Examine the big picture.  Does anything look out of place?  Are there parts of the book that could be re-ordered to make it flow more naturally?  Are you giving out too much information in the beginning and not enough in the end?  Or are you not giving any information until late in the book?  Do you have a bunch of shoot-outs and car chases (or other equally exciting things) right at the beginning and at the very end but nothing pulse-racing in the middle?  That makes for a saggy, boring middle that might lose the reader.  Does your book peak too early?  Does it peak too late?  Is there a super-important character who doesn't show up till 3/4 of the way through?  You want to look at your overall structure and examine it for any potential problems.

So once you've done that, you want to go through your manuscript scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself the following questions:

1.  Is this relevant to the story?
2.  Does this advance the plot?
3.  If I took this out, would the book still make sense?
4.  If I had to argue for keeping this paragraph or scene in the book, could I argue successfully in its favor?

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says you must murder your darlings.  That means you have to cut.  You have to cut and you have to be ruthless.  That means all those scenes that you've written that are just right, that feel like the best thing you've ever written may need to go. 

Cut.  Cut.  Cut.

Being exceptionally long-winded, I run into this all the time.  In my second book, Aberration there was this awesome sub-plot that I tried desperately to keep in the book.  To me, it fell right in line with the theme of the book.  It was entertaining and gripping and I felt like it really added to the book.  But when my agent suggested revisions and I had to drastically reduce my word count, I had to take a long, hard look at it.  What I discovered was that while it was somewhat relevant in that it had to do with bullying which is a theme in the book, it did not advance the plot and taking it out of the book made no difference at all.  I mean sure I had to re-order some things and rewrite the ending a bit so it would make sense without the subplot but once I took it out, the book was so much better.  In fact, it was my struggle to keep it IN the book that made me realize that it had to go.  I kept trying out arguments that I could approach my agent with for keeping it in and none of them worked.  I simply could not justify it remaining in the book.

This goes for scenes and paragraphs as well.  I remember writing a scene in That Book On a Flash Drive In My Nightstand.  In it, one of the characters, Brenda reunites with an ex-boyfriend.   I wrote five paragraphs setting up this reunion where I briefed readers on every relationship she'd had before the ex.  During revisions, I realized that the reader doesn't need to know all that.  What is really relevant?  Her relationship with the ex.  Her other relationships had no bearing whatsoever on anything.  All that stuff, while I really liked it, had to go.  Yes, you want to give your characters depth and you want them to be relatable and likeable but at the same time, you don't want to overdo it.  Cut whatever can be safely cut.

Go through your entire book asking these questions for each subplot, each scene and each paragraph.  Tighten it up.

Next go line by line checking for overly-long sentences and/or awkward or clunky wording.  That means sentences where we are using five words when two will do just fine.  Or we use three verbs when one is all we need.  For example, if you've got the word "and" in one sentence three or four times, you probably need to break that sentence up a little.  Or we have words hanging on the ends of sentences that don't need to be there.  Or we over-describe things. 

Here's an example of some of the above from my WIP: 

First draft:  Jocelyn and Caleb reached the car, sliding into their seats as tension grew in the air around them.

Next draftTension filled the car as Jocelyn drove Caleb back to police headquarters.

Look at your sentences:  Read the sentence out loud. Does it seem to go on a beat too long?  It is so long that you could break it up into more than one sentence?  Could you take some words out and still get your point across while being grammatically correct?

I could go on and on but these are the main things that I do when I'm trying to polish my manuscript.  How about you guys?  Have any great tips to offer?

18 comments:

  1. Great tips! I have started being ruthless with my cuts now, and sometimes I really hate it! Taking out well written parts makes me sad, but ultimately, it makes for a better story overall.

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  2. I kind of enjoy the polishing process. Makes me wish I could get this stupid first draft I'm working on written faster. Actually, I cheat and polish as I go, which is probably why I'm so slow. :-/

    Great advice!

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  3. And WOOHOO! Thanks for getting rid of word verification!!

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  4. Great stuff, Lisa. And your work IS very polished. I know I was impressed. I think one of the toughest things I have to deal with is the 'aerial view' thing. I'm amazed at what I can remember - hey, I used that exact phrase 200 pages ago - but I also frequently forget. I'll start doing a rewrite on chapter 10 and use a passage that is in chapter 20 (but it sounds so great in chapter 10!).

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  5. I agree with Jeff. Your work is so polished, it smells like lemony Pledge. ;) As for me, I try to read my MS out loud whenever possible. It helps. (Or at least, I hope it does!)

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  6. Great tips, Lisa. I bookmarked your post. And, scrolling down, CONGRATULATIONS! What an awesome Valentine's Day. I hope you and your husband enjoy life's every happiness.

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  7. I highly recommend making a scene tracker chart to track each scene's goal and character's emotional development. Blockbuster Plots is a great resource.

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  8. Polishing is definitely one of your greatest skills. I've learned all that and much more working with you for the last year & a half. Having said that, I loved the bullying subplot you cut from Aberration, but it's true, the books stands strong without it. Great advice, Lisa!

    I "invite" everyone to follow THIS blog! This woman knows what she's talking about!!

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  9. Wonderful advice here, Lisa. I love the revising process. I can be fascinating. It always amazes me that after months of revising, I still find issues when I read the manuscript aloud or out of order.

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  10. Thanks for the terrific advice. I can't wait to get into the revisions you've suggested.

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  11. I rewrite individual sentences every time I reread them. I think I'm insane, actually. I also hate when I use a word twice in two consecutive sentences. For example: "I was thrilled to be going to the game. I hoped it would be a thrilling experience for my son."

    I catch myself doing it all the time and it drives me nuts! lol

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  12. I think my husband thinks I've gone batty because I read my stories out loud when I think I"m on the final draft. Sometimes you just don't know until you hear it read.

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  13. Terrific advice. Like you, I finish by reading every single word out loud, listening for the rhythms. It's my favorite step, although it's the most tedious and takes the longest. But that rhythm is so, so important.

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  14. Great tips! It's an endless process for me. The more tricks to make my writing stronger, the better. Thank you :)

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  15. These are great tips for me as I am knee-deep in editing right now and feeling more than a little overwhelmed. I love the idea of an "aerial view" of the manuscript. Your posts are always so helpful, thanks for sharing what you've learned along the way!

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  16. Outstanding post! I was wondering if I could possibly shoot you over my novel so far and you could check it out. I'd love to help read yours and assist in any way :)

    Cheers!

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