Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Is It "Ready" Yet?

By David Sharp

With fond memories of another turkey day gone by, it occurs to me that there should be a meat thermometer for books. Writing books is not unlike roasting poultry. It can look like it's done on the outside, but if you send it off to an agent before it's ready, you could get worms! Something like that, anyway.

What if there were some nifty device you could stab into your manuscript that would tell you whether or not you need to keep cooking it for a while? Sadly, there isn't. But here are some items I've added to my own checklist:

Word Count
Don't give your readers salmonella.
If you do, they won't be back for seconds. 

Agents won't want to champion manuscripts they don't feel they can sell. 90,000 words is the typical target for a novel-length work. Even if you feel your 120,000 word opus is an exception, agents and editors may reject it if they look at the size of it before they read it! It may be wise to save your mammoth texts for later in your career. Stephen King published Carrie long before he published The Stand.


Is the pacing right? There are a few basic structures for a story e.g. "The 3 Act Structure" or "The Hero's Journey." It's worthwhile to figure out which structure fits your story best and where the plot points land in the text. As reported by the article How to Plot with the Three Act Structure, your first act should be about 25% of the text, your second act should be 50%, and your third act should be the final 25%. Pacing is a reason manuscripts get rejected, so make sure yours is on track.

Yes. I'll be happy to tell you
what I really think. 
Beta Readers

Be choosy with your beta-readers. You want people who aren't afraid to tell you what they really think. And your mom doesn't count. It's also good to have an odd number in case you need a tie-breaker. People are polite, and they don't want to hurt your feelings. Let them know that they're doing more harm than good if they allow you to send it off before it's ready. If they're having a hard time finishing it, that already tells you there's work to be done.

No Third Person Omniscient

This is a tip I never heard, until I heard it from a prospective agent. Apparently, U.S. publishers are not fond of omniscient third person narrators, though they will accept third person limited. This was a full revamp for my story. But maybe you can avoid that hurdle from the start.

The Read Aloud Test
George. Your writer friend is
talking to himself again. 

Be your own audiobook. You'll find a lot more awkward spots with your ears than with your eyes. Whenever you can't speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, there may be some wrinkles to iron out. If you have some insane friend who is willing to read it to you, all the better!


Make sure you've got thematic elements woven all through your manuscript. This is what makes a good story a stand-out story, so don't skip this step. It's that re-emerging element from your story that readers apply to their own lives.

It takes a lot of these...
Character Arcs

Any three-dimensional character should experience some form of growth. What is it, and how do you display it? Sometimes, I like to read a story only following a single character's story thread. I skip chapters that don't involve that character and get a real sense of how that smaller story develops within the larger framework. If you use Scrivener, this is especially easy to do.

Spelling and Grammar make this!

Any of us would dress our manuscript in a suit over ripped jeans and a t-shirt before sending it off to the professional world. That said, I think it's too easy to focus on this one when we should be thinking about deeper story elements. After all, if you have to completely rewrite large chunks of text, you're only going to have to polish the spelling and grammar all over again. So address those other things first.

No First Drafts

If it's your first draft, it's not ready. This may seem too obvious for inclusion, but as another National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, agents and publishers will be receiving massive influxes of draft one manuscripts. Don't get lost in a sea of mediocrity. Take some time to polish up that story first, and make it the best story it can be. Besides, the editing and rewriting process is a whole new adventure with lots of potential for personal growth. Don't miss out!

I know what it's like to salivate over wanting to see your book in print. But after you've spent as much time and effort as you already have in preparation, isn't it all the more worthwhile to finish well? Even if you want to self-publish, it's worth the time and effort to make sure it's "done." And the savory aromas of well-cooked prose will increase as it nears completion, drawing your readers to the feast.

And hey! You didn't even have to jam a meat thermometer through it!
Mmm! That was a good book.
Have you written another?

For more tips, check out:

How Do You Know When Your Manuscript is Ready?

Don't Submit Your Manuscript Until You've Read This Post

10 Tests to Prove Your Manuscript Is Ready for Submission


Laura Mahal said...

David Sharp, your blog posts are golden brown each and every time. Never flaky or overly sweet. I think your writing thermometer is built-in and pop-up-perfect.

Thanks for the outstanding information. Darn toot, I just sent off my NaNoWriMo draft to an agent. Thankfully, my beta readers have been busy, "taste testing" and providing a full culinary report. I had to put that turkey back into the oven, figuratively speaking, but now the thermometer is right at 162 degrees. Almost there.

Happy writing, everyone!

David Sharp said...

Thanks Laura. And congratulations on your own recent successes!

I must agree that "taste testers" are so very helpful. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with putting it back in the oven. I find that even when I don't think any more revising could add to it, I'll still like the new version better. I've read quotes from many successful authors that they still don't feel "done" with a book even after it's already hit the best-seller list. But I'm sure an argument could be made against 'overcooking' as well.

Congratulations again and good luck!

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