Monday, February 6, 2012

How do you know when your manuscript is ready?

Soon after I got my book deal, several people asked me to do a post on how to know when your manuscript is ready. How to know when you are DONE! When you've crossed the finish line!

I’ve put this post off because.... well it’s HARD. And totally subjective. And one person's take. This isn't researched in the sense of me spending a month combing through everything on the subject and giving you a comprehensive report. (Wow. I gave myself a headache just typing that!) However, it is researched in the sense that I spent the last four years gleaning everything I could, and found what works best for me.

Will it work for you? Idk. Probably parts will and parts won't. Most of it you probably already do. Either way, here you go. Peggy's Guide to Editing and Revising. :)

I am DONE. Why oh why should I keep going through it and through it?

There are lots of reasons why you should work hard to make your MS shine! Reasons I may be just a little passionate about.
  • Because nobody is brilliant enough to get all the depth needed into a manuscript in one pass. (I know you're brilliant. Incredibly brilliant! Even so, it still can't all happen in one pass.) There are so many things you need to focus on in a book. Making sure the characters are fully formed. That the setting feels real. That the plot has the high points and low points in the right places. That the conflict is engaging. That pacing is good. Using varied sentence structure. Not using passive voice. Making sure the voice itself is compelling. Along with about a million more things. Don't panic! There's no way anyone can keep all those things in focus while drafting. And herein lies the beauty of revisions. They let you get to all of those things, dealing with as many or as few at a time as you'd like.
  • Your [current or future] agent has strengths. Editing might not be one of them. They may be good at negotiating contracts. They may be good at foreign rights. They may be good at brainstorming with you. They may be good at keeping you updated. They may be organized. They may be a good editor. THEY WILL NOT BE ALL OF THESE THINGS. They shouldn't be expected to be all these things, so don't expect your agent to be able to tell you everything that should be fixed for your book to sell well. That might not be their strength. And that's totally okay, because you'll be head-over-heels in love with whatever their strengths are!
  • All the work it takes to get your ms ready? That work has to happen sometime. If you put it off until an editor or agent asks you to do it, it still has to be done. By you. No one does any of it for you. And if you wait, it has to happen on a schedule. Do it now, and it happens on your schedule. :)
  • If you get impatient with revisions and query too soon, an agent / editor might pass, when maybe they would have said yes if it was in better shape. And that chance with that agent / editor is gone. Sad, sad day.
Things to do when revising
(Revising to me means changing content.)
  • Think about every single piece of advice that you hear in the context of the book you're working on. You read a lot of blogs, right? Maybe even read a lot of books on craft? Go to conferences? Think how you can use what they suggest to make your book stronger. Then add in those layers into your manuscript. Add that depth to that one character. Spend some time thinking about how changing your book based on those suggestions will help it. Do this enough times, and your setting/characters/plot will feel like they're a real place / real people / could really happen. The more layers you get, the more people will be invested in this world you created.
  • When you read through your ms, if you ever think, “I don’t know how they’re going to take this part,” change it. That's the little warning light in your brain, blinking, letting you know that there's a problem with that section. Keep going through your ms until you don't have any more parts you wonder about.
  • Read it through and see if it reads like a published book. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that it's supposed to be rough until an agent and an editor works their magic on it. Think about the last "just okay" book you read. There were things that you didn't love, or that weren't done well, right? Each time you ran into them, you pushed them into a little container in the side of your brain and kept going because of the parts you liked, right? But if there were too many things that bugged you, your little container got full, and suddenly you cared a whole lot less about finishing the book. Agents / editors are the same way. Try your best not to give them things that are going to go into their container.
Things to look for when editing
(Editing to me means grammar stuff.)(These are some things that are my biggest pet peeves, or things that I think can make writing SO MUCH STRONGER.)
  • Don't use was ___ing (or were ___ing. Or am ___ing) unless you have to. As in, don't use something like "We were running down the street." (Or "I was running down the street," or "I am running down the street.") Just use "We ran down the street." (I ran... I run...) Why? Because was ___ing is less concrete. Notice how "We were running down the street" feels more like you're watching from a distance and they're kind of floating down the street. With "We ran down the street," you can feel the pound of each foot on the pavement. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT make it feel more "in the moment." I just doesn't. Is there ever a time you should use it? Yes. When something is actually in the middle of happening. For example: "When we walked outside, the sun was shining." You can't really change it to say "When we walked outside, the sun shone," because then it sounds like it JUST started happening when they walked outside. Basically, if you change it, and it changes when something happened, leave it. Otherwise, get it out. :)
  • Inanimate objects can DO things. This is a HUGE one! Using "was" or "is" isn't all that desirable, is it? As a reader, it makes it feel like you're being told everything, instead of seeing it. So, instead of saying "The building was at the end of the road..." Use "The building sat at the end of the road..." Instead of "The clock was in the middle of the wall..." use "The clock hung in the middle of the wall..." Easy peasy. Yet makes a huge difference.
  • Walking to the door, she opened it. Okay, um... You can't open the door at the same time that you're walking to it. Be careful with these! It's a rare case when it's a good idea to start a sentence with a word that ends with "ing."
  • Almost never use filters. I think (or he/she thought), I knew (or he/she knew), I saw (or he/she saw). Or smelled. Or felt. Or any other filter words. Use these, and the reader stops feeling like everything is happening to them, and starts feeling like they are watching the things happen to your character. It’s no longer personal to the reader. Why? Instead of imagining how something feels, the reader has to imagine how it feels to that character, then think about how they feel about the character feeling that way. There's a filter there. THINGS GET TRAPPED IN FILTERS. That's kind of their job. Don't use filters! There are very few cases when you need to point out that the character hears/sees/thinks/feels/knows/smells something. Most of the time, that's understood. If you come across any of these, take it out and see if it still makes sense. Chances are, it will.
  • Use economy of phrasing. It's amazing how complicated we make sentences the first time around. Take a look at each and every sentence and see if there is a simpler, more concise way to say it. Your job is to never confuse the reader. (Withhold things from them, sure. Use red herrings, absolutely. But never confuse. Especially in the wording of a sentence.)
  • Look for pet words you overuse. For me, it's "just" and "that." And I am TOTALLY FINE with them going in the first draft. Everything flows better when I do. But when it comes time to edit, it's time to take them out! Actions can be overused, too. Glancing, shrugging, eye rolling... Just keep an eye out of anything you overuse. 
  • Change your font. Sounds weird, I know. But somewhere toward the end of revising, change the font. If you've been using Times New Roman, change it to something like Arial, or vice versa. You'll be amazed at the things you'll catch when you aren't staring at the same font that you've stared at for the past gazillion revisions! Then when you're done, you can go ahead and change it back. :)
What if I’ve been changing it for forever? I could always revise more and make it better.
  • This one's hard! I say if you get down to the point where you are fiddling with wording over and over, and you're only making minor tweaks, it's probably time to call it DONE.
Are you sure? Are you sure I'm ready?

Two things. 
  • Don’t confuse hope and desire with being ready.
  • But don’t confuse fear of rejection with not being ready.
Your gut will tell you when you are there! Listen to it. Then summon all the bravery and confidence you can muster and move forward with it in whatever direction your headed.

What's been the hardest thing for you when you're editing / revising? And do you have any more suggestions to add? We really want to hear them!

47 comments:

Leigh Ann said...

Your "last two" are perfect. JUST PERFECT.

I have a nearly unheard-of number of team members (12!), but I know it's ready when the current round of CPs comes back with nitpicks only. (That is, tinkering with wording, confused by things that could be fixed with a half-a-sentence explanation, no issues with character or pacing.)

This time, it only took two revisions to get there. Next MS, maybe I'll get even better. :)

Paul Tobin said...

Fantastic post, good information and well written. As a poet I feel that poems are never really finished, you could tinker forever with them. You set me thinking, thank you.

Cristina said...

I am bookmarking this post . and changing the font to pick up new things.. what a great idea!

Thanks Peggy, I love your posts, so so helpful!

S.P. Bowers said...

Excellent post with lots of great ideas. You've crystallized a few things I've been trying to figure out express to myself.

Jennifer Lee Young said...

This is a wonderful post Peggy. Thank you for going over it all and sharing so much.

JeffO said...

Great post, Peggy, some really great advice there.

I'm not 'done' yet, but I 'knew' my MS was ready for other people to read it when I really couldn't make changes anymore. I was due to send it on to a reader but I kept trying to fiddle. "I'm not sure about this part, let me work on that," I'd say, but when I tried to make a change, I came up with a complete blank. After about a week of this, I said, "The heck with it, let someone else read it."

I knew, on some level, it wasn't *done* done, but it was as far as I could take it without getting feedback.

Jaime Morrow said...

This is an excellent post and I'm printing off for future reference! Thanks for sharing all of this useful info :-)

Leigh Covington said...

Amazing Peggy. A truly wonderful post. Another one to be bookmarked, actually! I love this stuff, and I've seen a lot of people jump the gun. I hope so much that I will be patient and polish mine to an extreme before querying. Thanks for all your wonderful advice. You ROCK!

Sarah Pearson said...

This definitely needs to be bookmarked. Although I'm not nearly ready to worry about whether I'm 'done' yet, this seems to be a very common worry for a lot of writers. I know that I'll be one of them :-)

Delia said...

Great post with many excellent suggestions! The only one I would add is to read your work aloud. Yes, the whole thing. You'd be amazed what jumps out at you.

Amanda Olivieri said...

This is wonderful! I just bookmarked this post. I'm still at the beginning of my draft, but this will be SO helpful for when I'm revising. Thanks for the great advice! :)

Jo said...

This is all wonderful advice, thank you! :)

Jay Noel said...

Excellent post. I'm finishing up my third pass, and that's BEFORE I even send it to my publisher's editor. So I'll be at least through four drafts.

Another good tip: do a word search for any "ly" words. You can't totally get rid of adverbs, but it's at least a red flag. See if you're just being lazy. But one or two adverbs per chapter isn't a bad thing.

The best editing tip EVER: don't try to be too fancy and use substitutions for "said." Using crafty synonyms just create stumbling blocks for readers and scream "AMATEUR!"

Iain said...

Wow!! What a very comprehensive post. It’s odd how I think I know something on editing, and then I read the same thing approached from a different angle and a it makes a little light bulb goes ‘ping’. It turns out that it’s a 100w bulb, and not a 40w bulb after all. I just had the dimmer switch turned down. – Thank you!

You have such a great way with words. Have you ever thought of writing a book? ;o)

Jessie Humphries said...

All I can say is that you're a genius-like enyclopedia of knowledge! Thanks heavens I got you as my CP...

Hope Roberson said...

Great advice! I'm adding this post to my editing links and using your list as my writing homework for today. Thank you :)

Mara Rae said...

As one of the people who was looking forward to this post, thank you!! You always have such great words of wisdom. I'm at the point where people are starting to contradict each other in their feedback. That either means I'm done, or I have too many darn readers :P Fortunately, my most recent reader loved my book, and since I'm not related to her, and I'm not paying her to tell me what I want to hear, I feel like I can trust her opinion. :)

Sara B. Larson said...

Great advice! And I totally overuse "just" too. ALL the time. ;)

Maggie said...

It's so hard when you know it's done but you just keep tweaking little things and then thinking, oh boy, I better go through it again. That's when my husband starts to get the evil eye :)

Carrie Butler said...

Perfect timing, Pegasus! I'm at that point where I've read my MS eighteen thousand times for minor tweaks, and I could probably do it again.

...And again. Ugh!

One of these days, I'm going to have to bite the bullet. ;)

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Great advice, Peggy. And I'm a "just" girl as well. :P And those dang -ing's! Grr....

Cherie Reich said...

Awesome post, Peggy! For me, the hardest part of revisions/editing is sitting down and doing them. Once I'm there, it's good, but opening that document and getting to work sometimes takes more time than I wish.

Janet Johnson said...

I'm going to have to try that changing the font thing.

And great advice on all of this . . . maybe just one last revision now . . .

The Golden Eagle said...

Excellent post! There is so much useful information here. :)

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post! I'm revising right now. I'm not a fan of revising, but I know it needs to be done.

Ruth Josse said...

This is gold! Thanks so much. :)

ladonna watkins said...

Great post.

Hannah Hounshell said...

For me the hardest part is axing the scenes that I love, but just don't fit in the book like they should. The new stuff I end up replacing them with always feels a little raw for a while. :/

And on that note, I better go get back to work. Thanks for the pep talk. It was just what I needed as I slog through another round of editing. :D

Peggy Eddleman said...

Leigh Ann-- TWO revisions? Are you kidding me? I did ELEVEN on my last before I felt it was ready enough. You're amazing.

Paul-- I think I could tinker forever, too! I think I have a bigger problem knowing when to stop, not stopping too soon. ;) Sounds like we have the same issue.

Cristina-- Aww! I'm glad you liked it!

S.P.-- Thanks! And yay!

Jennifer-- Thank you! And you're welcome!

Jeff-- I think that's the exact perfect time to send it onto a CP. When you've done everything you can, and the only thing you're doing to make changes is tinkering. Then comes the suggestions, and the chance to make it even better! Gosh I love CPs and revisions. They makes everything so much better.

Jaime-- Oh! Thank you! And you're welcome. :)

Leigh-- Aww! You're so nice! You won't mind if I give you a huge hug when we meet later this week, will you?

Sarah-- I think it is a really common thing to wonder when you're done. I know it's been that way for me!

Delia-- Oh, my gosh, yes. Read it out loud. It's amazing how much that helps! ESPECIALLY with dialogue.

Amanda-- Thank you! And you're welcome. Best of luck when you get to that part!

Jo-- Thank you!

Jay-- What?! You mean I'm not supposed to write "It was a really, really, enormously huge bear with truly, amazingly sharp teeth and hugely long claws," she responded excitedly.? ;)

But I had totally forgot to mention the "said" thing! See? This could have been an enormous post! There are just so many things to think of, its hard to remember to include all of them. But I may do a post on this sometime. It's an excellent point to bring up.

Iain-- Ahh, Iain. You just made me smile so much. Thank you.

Jessie-- You're so good at making me sound so much better than I am! Thanks for being cool like that. :)

Hope-- Awesome! Thank YOU.

Mara-- Aww! You're welcome! I'm glad it was helpful! When you get conflicting critiques, that just means you can pick the ones you like best, right? :) Really, though, the thoughts from your recent reader sound like you are there! And I swear, I will get to the pages you sent me soon.

Sara-- ALL THE TIME for me, too. I *just* really like the word. :D

Maggie-- Hahaha! Um, no... I don't know that feeling AT ALL. ;)

Carrie-- Bite it! BITE IT! Bullets are tasty. ;) No, really. Bite it.

Chantele-- JUST girls unite! It's just really hard to draft without using such a perfect word. :) Seriously though, it just HAS to be there during drafting. I'd be all off kilter if I didn't use it. So it serves a purpose! Later, not so much, but drafting? Definitely.

Cherie-- I know what you mean! Sometimes just convincing yourself to START is the hardest. Then once you start: heaven.

Janet-- I love changing the font! It's amazing how different everything looks. And best of luck on that ONE LAST TIME. :D

The Golden Eagle-- Awww! Thank you!

Christine-- I'm a HUGE fan of revising. That's where all the magic happens! I hope you eventually become a fan, too. :) Best of luck with your revisions!

Ruth-- Oh, thank you!

Ladonna-- Thank you!

Hannah-- Oh my gosh. THE hardest! So very hard. I know just what you mean. And best of luck slogging! ;) I hope this round is fabulous!

Kelley said...

Oh my gosh those 'that's' crawl all on up in my first draft :) But you're right. Leave those pet words there. Just write.

Then the second, third, eighth, twentieth time you go through you can polish it up.

Thanks so much for this summary Peggy!

Angela Cothran said...

Peggy--this is all kinds of awesomeness. I like to do specific edit in each pass. One edit for passive voice, one for filters, and on and on. Now I'm doing one to cut words. I'm totally digging it. I can't believe how much stuff I have in there that I don't need :)

Imogen said...

My biggest problem when revising is that I get overwhelmed by the sheer mass of stuff needing to be done. Plus I always find that there are some major plot things needing to be changed, or that I don't actually like the story any more. So I either dump the story, or rewrite it completely. One day I'll conquer this stuff. This time round I'm trying OUTLINING! Shock horror from a confessed pantser.

E.D. said...

Perfect!! You are right on - especially the last two (so hard to tell the difference). Also the “I don’t know how they’re going to take this part" and "the reads like a published book" are great piece of advice. Very tough to reach that point of done (but I think I am almost there too - finally).

Jade Hart said...

Wow Peggy. I've already saved this in a file ready to edit my new MS. I've got three days to go ( as long as I can keep up the 5,000 words a day ) and then I'm jumping in. I suffer from everything you've mentioned so to have it all laid out so simply made me have a 'ah ha!!' moment.
You're the best :)

cherie said...

Yay! This is exactly what I need right now. I'm in the process of editing and exchanging ms with a beta reader, and my brain needs some refreshing. Thanks, Peggy! I'm bookmarking this for sure. <3

bethchristopher.com said...

Fantastic tips. I'm a tinkerer for sure. One of my writing instructors said that she was asked to do a reading on a particular section of her memoir. Even though it had been published a few years earlier, she revised the section she was about to read!

I guess there are always improvements to be made, and your last point really spoke to me.

Thanks!

Nancy Thompson said...

Great advice! I've had a hard time removing those filters. It's just too easy with first person POV.

I've never thought about changing the font. I do find it easier to catch mistakes when reading a PDF rather than a Word doc.

I think more than anything, your instincts will tell you when you're really, really ready. I've made all those rookie mistakes, but at least I've learned from them and now, I'm really, really ready!! Thanks Peggy!! This is one awesome post!!

David P. King said...

As always, an excellent post. Just in time for my rewriting of something you know quite a bit about already. :)

Christa Desir said...

Ack---this is so much easier said than done. I am one of those, can't it be done already when it's only 35k kind of people. My friend Christine has been revising for 4 years. The middle of the two of us is probably right. I think it also depends a lot on the story you are trying to tell.
But yes, from an editorial side, I appreciate when people have spell-checked and removed the passive voice in their MSs so very much.

Sophia Chang said...

Really great post Peggy - they resonate so much for me from experience (always the toughest yet most thorough teacher).

Alicia@ eco friendly homemaking said...

I agree this is a wonderful post! So many great tips. When I was a teenager I so wanted to be a writer and actually started a book. Sure wish I could have known these tips then as I might have finished that book!!

Connie B. Dowell said...

Great advice. Still doing some rewrites right now, but on the next draft, I'll really use these tips.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Kelley-- Yes! It's definitely the second, third, eighth, twentieth times you need to think about those things. :)

Angela-- Thanks! And I do the same thing, but I HATE the cut words pass. I always try to fit too much plot into MG, so I'm ALWAYS over on word count. Even when I try for brevity, there's just too many scenes I can't cut and still have everything make sense! Cutting words is my bane. Especially when I can think of a million places to add them. :)

Imogen-- I know what you mean! By the time I'm done with a draft, I have a list a mile long of things that need to change. It's a little daunting!

E.D.-- Yay for being almost there! Best of luck on getting it the rest of the way, then taking it from there.

Jade-- Awww! That makes me so happy! And congrats on being so close to the end! I hope you get it done by your goal date. Then have a blast doing revisions!

Cherie-- Yay for being just what you need right now! It makes me all kinds of happy. Best of luck with edits!

Beth-- I totally think I could tinker forever, too!

Nancy-- I agree- filters are SO EASY in first person! And yes. Your gut knows things. :) Congrats on being really, really ready!

David-- Aww! Thanks! And best of luck on rewrites! I know quite a bit about it enough to know it's going to rock!

Christa-- It totally depends on the story you're trying to tell! Some books really focus on characters, and those probably take less rounds, because the characters are all that really matter. Books that have another world or that are really plot heavy probably have a ton more.

Sophia-- Thanks! And yes. There is nothing quite like the teacher called experience!

Alicia-- Thank you! Maybe someday you should pull that book out again. You might find you really want to finish!

Connie-- Best of luck with the rewrites! And then you'll get to dive into the beauty that is revising. :)

Charlie Holmberg said...

Great post! Thanks so much.

Kitty said...

This is SUCH a great post, Peggy! Thank you for the wonderful advice. I'm bookmarking this one!

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Great post, Peggy! So helpful. And the end pretty much says it all... :)

tfwalsh said...

Great tips... agree with all of them...