The Editing Files–getting your fiction manuscript ready for querying (and self-pubbing)

Categories Editing tips

With quite a few extensive review loops under my belt (the reason this blog was so quiet for quite a while), I want to share my tactics, tricks and tips for successful self-editing.

Ultimately, the principles and techniques needed for kneading your story into shape also apply to those of us who prefer to self-publish. Authors keen on self-publishing “simply” will have to add a couple of copy-editing and proof-reading rounds, to ensure their manuscripts survive the critical eye of the reader. For authors signed up with traditional publishers, this part of the preparations should be part of the deal. If not, there should be no deal, but that’s another story.

Still, expecting your publisher or agent to beat your story into shape for you will not fly. They won’t. Also you first need to catch your agent or publisher. To do so, your story has to be the best you can make it.

This blog will help you with achieving your goal.

There are several great books on writing (and editing!) out there, which will also tell you how to get there. I have read quite a few of them. I suggest you do the same. In fact if you drop me a mail, I will gladly send you a FREE list of my favourite writing guides.

You don’t have the time to read tons of writing guides? Worse, you have already done so and find yourself going nowhere, frustration mounting, tempted to fling the manuscript into the nearest pond and write something new? Well then, this blog will provide you with nifty (and easy-to-use) tools and tips on how to sit on that temptation and keep editing.

Plus, there will be FREE offers for structural reviews. I’ll look at your first ten pages and give you some vital input for your edits. So, watch out for those offers (no, nothing in this post, sorry!).

I believe in writing towards a goal. When writing, I have an ending in mind. Like a shining beacon, this is what I aim for. The same principle applies to editing, only here your ending is not a successful conclusion of your character’s journey. Instead, you want to get a polished manuscript out there.

How do you know your manuscript is ready? What are the results your editing efforts are supposed to yield?

Below, you can find a checklist that might help you on your editing quest. I suggest you check this list before you grab your manuscript and take the plunge. Do not submit to either agents or publishers if there’s even a single point you cannot tick.

#1 Do your first sentence, first paragraph, first page and first chapter provide an excellent hook for the agent/publisher (and ultimately the reader) that draws them right in and makes them want to read on? What makes for a great hook depends on the genre, but a great place to start is with giving us some compelling characters facing impossible choice or odds. Three-dimensional characters with true motivations and goals readers can relate to. Characters with real stakes that forces them to succeed.

#2 Does the rest of your manuscript follow up on the great start? Do you have sufficient conflict to keep the story going? Conflict is not a series of random events you throw at your poor unsuspecting character. Conflict results from clashing character motivations. Each of your characters wants something. They all have compelling and realistic goals. The more they are at odds with each other, the better. Give the reader a reason to want more, to find out what happens next right until the end where you finally let them land in peace.

#3 Is your novel structurally sound? Do you work with a three-act structure, plot points, scenes and sequels? Does each of your scenes serve a purpose in the context of your plot?

#4 Have you applied proper pacing to create tension and suspense? Do you match sentence/paragraph length to the purpose of the scene?

#5 Do you understand the needs of the audience you’re writing for and does your manuscript meet all requirements of your genre? For example, I write cosy mysteries, where the word count is around 80-100 K words max. If I pester an agent with a 200K word document, that person is quite likely to reject me. If you write fantasy, your chances of getting away with larger wordcounts are better.

#6 Do you have a voice and is your writing on a professional level? This point is hard to define, and it is vital. You might plot and write and plan well. However, if your writing does not engage, people will not want to pay for your stories. This part is very subjective, I agree. What is an excellent voice for one person, puts another right off. It doesn’t matter–as long as you HAVE a voice that people can recognise. As to the writing–well, there are apparently algorithms out there that can scan stories for their quality, how they compare to bestsellers. Given that those programmes are not widely available, there is only one option.

Read. Read as much as you can. If you don’t read, you can’t write well. Reading will help you “absorb” the elements of great writing. And then, of course, there’s writing. The more you write, the better you will write. It is unlikely that your first novel will be ready for publishing for that very reason–you won’t have written enough. Practise your craft, and you will get better with time, find your voice and your unique style.

#7 Did you get feedback on your story? Join critique circles, find beta readers, publish (like I did) on Wattpad. The comments from readers and other writers made a huge difference to my writing. You need to know how readers respond to your novel before you brave the shark-infested waters that are modern publishing.

#8 Formatting, grammar and punctuation need to be spot on and match whatever requirements the agent has stipulated all the way. Read the submission guidelines carefully. Then reread them. When you think you have understood everything, polish your manuscript until it is as spotless as you can make it. A typo on the first page (or worse: in your title) can bounce you right into the slush pile

Wildcard tip for querying: Read Janet Reid’s Query shark Blog Posts. Preferably all of them. And make sure you understand what she says. Not only is the blog superbly well-written, it also offers tons of advice. Moreover, in critiquing the queries, she also teaches oodles of lessons on text coherence, messaging and text structure. THAT is not only relevant for querying.

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