A multi-part article on writing, publishing and marketing your books.
So You’ve Written a Book.
Part 3 (of 10)
We are in the process of self-editing your work—your manuscript—the love of your life. This is the part of your job where you get rid of as many errors as you can, make the text as interesting and exciting as possible, and put your manuscript in a form that will entice a reader (and especially an agent/publisher) rather than scare them away. In the book publishing business, agents and/or publishers have many criteria they use to judge your work. Many times these are used very quickly, and if your work doesn’t match up, it’s gone. Thanks, but no thanks. The rejection letter. Before even being read. So, before you consider sending your work out to your list of publishers, take a look at the list below and be critical as to whether your work meets (preferably exceeds) these thoughts and suggestions.
Some people have said that any manuscript will have to be sent to 25, 50, even 100 (pick a number) agents or publishers before it will stand a chance of being reviewed and getting you some kind of an acceptance letter back. Whatever the number, you can make your odds so much better by making your work "the very best it can be." (Remember that phrase from the first two parts?) Even the best manuscripts have to go through many hands and past many eyes before they’re going to get into the publishing process. So, what’s your goal? "The very best we can make it."
Here’s a list you can start with, and, NO, it’s not everything. It does cover the highlights, though—the major areas that can very quickly make or break your book.
1. Is there something in the immediate, opening sentences and paragraphs that reaches out and grabs the reader? It may not set up the full direction of the book, but there needs to be something that shocks or surprises or intrigues the reader—that makes them say, "What is this? Where is this going? Wow." A long first paragraph or page or chapter describing the color of the clothing and the dreary rain, or dialogue that doesn’t really tell you where it’s going, is going to quickly put the reader (agent, publisher) to sleep or make them struggle to keep going. If they’re saying, "Where is this going?" in a bored voice rather than an excited one, you’ve lost them before they can even get started. And always remember, agents and publishers are the first, and most critical, of your readers.
2. Is the spelling and grammar correct? Are the sentence structures appealing? Is the entire manuscript well laid out? Again, in the very first words and sentences, a publisher is going to be making their decision as to the worth of the manuscript. That first "barb" that catches their attention will immediately be discarded when the first flaws appear in the spelling and wording. The hook that grabs them must then be followed by style, spelling and grammar that keeps them on your pages, not looking for the next manuscript to review. Yes, your editor can and will help you find these errors and make corrections. But, if you don’t even get past the publisher, the "big dude"…
3. Who are your characters and how are they developed? Do your main characters quickly take their place in the story? Are they interesting? (My editor wrote me and said about the chapter where I introduced my two main characters, "I see where you’re going with this, but it’s boring." Ouch, but true .) Does the dialogue flow to where you want it to go and is it natural? (Read it out loud to see if it sounds like a real conversation.) Do they sound like real people (even if it’s science fiction)? Do they work together well, like real people would? Again, the best way to determine this is to read your story out loud.
4. Does the dialogue between characters make the story flow, or does it become stilted or unnatural? Does the story bog down because the dialogue, or the general text, becomes hard to read or unexciting? No, not every part of your book can be exciting and a cliffhanger. However, if you have long pages of dialogue, descriptions or technical minutia, your reader may not get past them and into the fun or excitement you’ve created. (A certain very well known author got so involved in technical data after about book number two that I’ve stopped reading him.)
5. Do your secondary characters support the main characters and the flow of the story, or do they just take up space? You don’t need a new character every other page if a limited number of characters get the things done you need. If they undercut or overshadow the main characters, it must be for a specific purpose, and it must resolve itself, or your readers will question what it’s all about and get confused.
6. Are the relations or situations between the characters appropriate? Do they work their way through the story and bring out agendas and conflicts or relations that keep the story moving, or do they just get confusing? (Too many characters! I can’t keep them straight!) Yes, you can have confusion and hidden agendas for some time, but eventually they must get resolved or the reader loses interest.
7. For both characters and action, do you tell about them/it, or do you make it happen? (I had a character thinking about his agony, but then re-wrote it to have him scream, throw his glass crashing into the fireplace, and end with sweat-soaked clothes and trembling hands.) Will your readers perhaps gasp when your hero does something? (I had a "worker" walk out onto a building roof, admire the beautiful view, then casually fire some rockets into the city below. My editor said, "Wow. That blew me away.") Action scenes can be exciting; talking or thinking about the action can be just words. Either can be appropriate, depending on where you are in the story. But, action is action. My editor said that good writing shows or reveals things, it doesn’t just tell about them.
8. Does the story describe events to the point that your reader has an attachment to them? Do they "feel" it? Do they end with a mental image of your scenes? Does the story "flow" and hold the reader’s attention? Too much dialogue, or scenes that take the reader to different times and places, or activities that don’t seem logical—these can all make for hard reading or take the reader’s thoughts off the main direction of the story. What about your use of cliches, technical jargon, facts and figures that show off your knowledge but disrupt the story; name-dropping for ego’s sake? If you do use facts, technical information, street names and directions, ethnic language or philosophical discussions, are they real and correct, or believable? Yes, you can make up your own "facts" and "locales", even your own language, but do they sound believable or is your reader going to be trying to look things up and be saying, "Where did he get this garbage? What did she make this up from?"
9. Again, before you finalize your writing or your thoughts, read your story completely, OUT LOUD. Read each paragraph, each chapter, OUT LOUD. If it doesn’t sound right to you, how is your reader going to feel it? And, if you still can’t get an answer to how you feel about the reading—the flow—have someone else read it. (Yeah, I know. But, ultimately you’re going to have other people read your work, or you hope so. Much better now than then.) Remember: "The very best we can make it."
10. Your ending can be anything you want. You might have the story completely set out and it’s the way you want it to end. But, how many times have you read something where you said, "Okay. Same old ending." Or, the last couple of chapters, or the last "surprise" pages, just kind of die out. Consider an ending that doesn’t work out just right for the heroes. The hero kisses his sweetie goodbye and steps outside—onto a land mine. End of story with that sentence. Shocking. Leave your reader crying, and screaming, "Nooooo!!!" (One of my daughters has probably said, "You can’t end like that. You have to explain the ending. It’s not…") Your reader may not agree with, or like, your ending, but they need to at least be left saying, "Man what a crazy, scary, weird (choose a word) ending. I want more of this."
Find a book or an author that has really left you panting for more and copy their work. (Did I say copy? I really meant get your story, your ending, your style, to work the same as theirs.) If Steve Martini’s style is best-seller material; if The Assassin or The Last Days keep our hearts pumping and our minds calling for more, shouldn’t our own works "copy" those styles. If my neighbor barbecues the best ribs we’ve ever tasted, and mine come out burned and tasteless, would I still lay mine beside theirs in the taste contest, or would I try to find out their recipe? Read and study what the best sellers look like, how they sound and how they’re laid out. After all, they are the best sellers.
Remember, there are some 300,000 titles published each year now. What’s going to make your work rise to the top of that list? "The very best we can make it."
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