Friday, July 25, 2008

Anne Barton's Manuscript Makeover

Manuscript Makeovers
by Anne Barton
Don’t you just love TV shows featuring makeovers? I do. Give me a sloppy, pathetic “before” with the promise of a shiny, polished “after” and I’m hooked.

Today in Seekerville, we’re performing makeovers… of manuscripts. But, before you grab your makeup bag, allow me to share the humbling circumstances that led to my own makeover.

I began writing my first novel in the summer of 2006 and finished it in the fall. Just in time to enter it in the Golden Heart®. I know what you’re thinking: “She entered her raw, unpolished, un-critiqued manuscript in one of the toughest contests around?!” What can I say? I was young (*cough*) and naïve. I hadn’t found my way to Seekerville yet.
When I got my scores in the mail it was like seeing an 8x10, close up, unflattering photo of myself. Ouch. The project I had devoted so much time to and poured my heart into was… below average.

I loved writing romance too much to stop, but I thought … maybe I just don’t have what it takes. Maybe I should write for fun and give up my dream of becoming a published author.

What got me back on track was a really wonderful rejection letter. There was no getting around the fact it was a rejection, BUT the editor was exceedingly kind. (For that I am eternally grateful.) She gave me a laundry list of areas I needed to work on, BUT encouraged me to submit my next manuscript. I couldn’t give up!

And now – finally – I’m getting to the point of this post. That manuscript had issues. Major issues, like point of view slips, weak conflict, and back story dumps. But underneath all the red ink was writing that was… well, it wasn’t too bad.

My writing was suffering from a lot of little – and big – problems that hid its good qualities. I needed to tighten up a few areas (hey, don’t we all?) and let my hair down for certain scenes. I had to nip and *gulp* cut. My writing required polish, personality.
I shelved that first manuscript, but took two of its secondary characters (with whom I had really bonded) and made them the hero and heroine of my next story. They were complete opposites: she was a reclusive, almost-on-the-shelf heiress who had been stood up at her own engagement ball and had sworn off men. He was London’s most notorious rake and best friend to the man who had jilted her. I had so much fun pushing them together, pulling them apart, and watching them grow.

Having learned my lesson (by now I was a regular lurker at Seekerville and oh-so-much wiser!) I entered my new manuscript in a small, chapter contest to get feedback. When I got an e-mail from the contest coordinator a few months later, I figured it was bad news. To my complete and utter shock, however, MIDNIGHT PROMISES had finaled.

I entered the Golden Heart again in the fall of 2007, but this time I had a more realistic view of the odds. I thought of my entry as a lottery ticket. I put it in my back pocket, forgot about it, and kept on writing. And then the day came for RWA to notify finalists.

My phone rang. I still can’t believe it some days, but MIDNIGHT PROMISES is a Golden Heart finalist.

I’m not in any way qualified to give advice, but I’ll humbly offer some anyway. Don’t let bad contest scores discourage you. Don’t give up. The differences between entries with low or mediocre scores and those with high scores are often subtle. You can give your writing a makeover. And it won’t be as painful as you think.
I once heard a fitness trainer say, “There’s no such thing as ‘maintaining.’ You’re either getting better, or you’re getting worse.” I think that’s true of writing, too. We’ve always got to look for ways to dig deeper and add dimension to our writing. Having said that, I especially love the quick and easy fixes that have a big impact (think red lipstick and sunglasses on the way out the door).

So… I’m going to share a few of my favorite mini-fixes, and I hope you’ll be willing to share some of yours too.

1. Get rid of “that.” Go through your manuscript and pluck out the word “that” wherever you can. Your writing will flow more smoothly and just sound better. For example, change “I thought that I would find you here,” to “I thought I would find you here.” This also happens to be a pet peeve of some judges, so eliminating unnecessary “that’s” makes for a nice little face-lift.

2. Break up long narrative passages with dialogue. Wearing all black is fine, but it works better if you brighten up the outfit with some colorful, well-chosen accessories, right? Add some “pop” to your long, descriptive passages by interspersing dialogue that shows rather than tells. This will move your scene along and keep the reader engaged with your characters.

3. Cut backstory. We all have to go under the knife sometimes. Take a hard look at those early chapters and remove all the background information you can without detracting from the action or the plot. I’ve cut chapters I loved because they weren’t the right starting point for the story. It can be painful, but you’ll feel so much lighter afterwards!

It’s easy for us writers to get down on ourselves and our writing. A disappointing contest score or rejection letter feels worse than a bad hair day, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have what it takes. (Case in point, did you catch the double negative in that last sentence? Yikes!) Your writing, your voice, just needs a chance to shine. Nurture it, pamper it, send it to the spa… and get ready for your close-up!

I want to hear from you in Seekerville!
· What tips do you have for making over manuscripts (or anything else for that matter)?
· Do you have makeover story to inspire us?
· What kind of hair day are you having right now? J
Anne Barton is attending RWA Nationals (her first writing conference ever) in San Francisco in a few days. If you see her, please say hi because she fully expects to be overwhelmed and would love to see a familiar, friendly face. She’s truly grateful to the Seekers for having her here today and for helping her survive on Unpubbed Island. Visit her at or


  1. Anne! How nice to see another Islander here, visiting and hobnobbing with the published and established among us! Welcome, kid...

    And what a great post about tightening (pimping) your manuscript. Great ideas there, and a lesson that holds true, pubbed or unpubbed.

    So, Anne, San Francisco, huh? Oh my gracious sakes to heaven, how much fun that will be!!!!! I'm not jealous, I'm not jealous, I'm not jealous....

    Slightly envious, perhaps, but not quite to outright take-'er-out jealousy, LOL!

    In honor of the San Francisco trip, let's play a little haute cuisine here. We'll start with a creamy coconut custard because mango season has passed on the Island but coconuts have a long shelf life.

    That's if we had shelves. Oh, for a carpenter among us. Wait. We've got the best carpenter going, but we could use one sporting a Black and Decker drill and a Stanley hammer.

    Anyway, back to food:

    From North Beach in SF, we've got a full coffee service from Caffe Trieste, whose coffee makes Starbucks look like the new kid on the block...

    Then how about a selection of foccaccia from Liguria's Bakery. This bread is fresh, pillow-soft and to-die-for chewy. Try the raisin-studded variety, it's a great breakfast treat.

    And Truffles (home-made, hand-made) from XOX Truffles, totally non-Italian, a blend of chocolate, cream and cognac that melts in your mouth while you listen to the wisdom of agents and editors who've gathered in SF to meet and greet you.

    I'm hungry just thinking about it.
    For knowledge, contacts and truffles, LOL!


  2. What a wonderful post, Anne! I agree with everything you said.

    Major congratulations on being a finalist in the Golden Heart! That's a huge accomplishment!

    You asked for more tips on making over a manuscript. I have 2: Resist the urge to use creative dialogue tags, and vary your sentence structure. If every sentence has the same subject-verb-object format, it turns into a lullaby.

    You asked what kind of hair day we're having. Hmm. I'm in Florida, I have naturally wavy/curly hair, and it's hot and humid. Need I say more?

  3. Hi Anne! Welcome to Seekerville! And thanks for your clever, right-on post!

    I love and use cosmetics. Properly applied they can transform Plain Jane into Cinderella. My makeovers require more than a tube of lipstick or a mascara wand. I'm forced to hit the gym and build my external conflict muscle so I can keep my hero and heroine at odds the entire book. That’s not easy for me, but the benefits are worth every sore muscle. :-)

    Hope to see you in San Francisco, Anna.

    Ruthy, would you toast that raisin studded bread?


  4. LOL Ruthy! Thanks for the warm welcome and the great spread. I love the wealth of knowledge here in Seekerville, but the food is a major draw too. The foccaccia bread doesn't have carbs, does it? Yum.

    Don't worry, I'm keeping my eyes open for any hunky, castaway carpenters who might drift up to the island on a raft. Pretty soon we'll have shelves, a gazebo, and heaven knows what else. :)

    I'm sorry I won't get to meet you in SF, but hopefully one of these days. Thanks, Ruthy!

  5. Hi Debby! Thanks for adding a couple of great tips to the makeup bag. Your second tip esp, varying sentence structure, is hard for me handle on my first draft. But once the story's on the paper, it's easier for me to see and fix.

    Hugs on the hair day. I can't do hot and humid either. We were at the beach last week and I had to wear a *gulp* baseball cap the whole time. :)

    Thanks for your comment, Debby!

  6. Wow, Janet, the gym?! I was hoping it wouldn't come to that, but external conflict is pretty important. I'll get on my workout clothes, but only if you promise we can stop for a smoothie or something after.

    See you SF, Janet! :)

  7. I missed the hair day question in my quest for good food.

    Food? Hair? Food? Hair?

    Food wins, hands down.

    But hair, ah... Thick, crazy frizzy, curly (as noted by the hike in orders for frizzed hair voo doo dolls every time I judge a contest, big sigh emitted here...) but we're not too muggy here today, so the frizz may just hang in the normal range until later this weekend.

    Ruthy (gladly toasting foccaccia for our visitors and Seekers alike.)

  8. Thanks, Anne! Brainstorming, oops, I mean working out with a friend eases the pain. A smoothie after sounds good! I'm buying unless you're wearing those tight bicycle thingies and make me feel like a dork in my baggy sweats. ;-)


  9. Hi, Anne! I've been revising a manuscript (my life's work, I think) for ages--cutting, pasting, adding and deleting characters, combining characters, rearranging scenes and chapters etc.

    It's really different from the original. The manuscript is much better, I hope,but the new version blends with the old and I get confused.

    My solution: a fresh read by another writer who can pick up on inconsistancies which I can't find. I'm oh so grateful to writer friends who volunteer to help with the final polishing. Now if I could only find someone to clean and polish my house!

  10. I just read some advice from James Scott Bell that I found pretty interesting. He said go back and cut the whole first chapter.

    I think (I hope) I've learned how to NOT write a first chapter that needs to be cut but it's pretty profound advice really, to see if we're not starting the story in the wrong place. To see if we're NOT in the middle of the action.

    He said if you need to weave in the details (and back story) to the later chapters, but chances are you can cut the whole thing and not even miss it and not need to change a word.

  11. Janet, no spandex here! I've got baggy sweats AND an old T-shirt that covers everything between my neck to my knees. I'm saving all the glam for my ms. ;)

    Hi Cara! LOL about the housework. Personally, I'm a candidate for one of those home improvement shows where they come in with a dumpster and clean out all the extra junk.

    I know what you mean about getting mixed up between the pre- and post-revision stories. It's kinda like when you spruce up the kitchen with new curtains, then realize you really should update the floor, and the cabinets, and the counter... But you're right - a fresh pair of eyes can really help. Best of luck with your story - I know it'll shine!

    BTW, if you can't tell, I'm, um, a big fan of HGTV. :)

  12. Hi Mary! I think starting the story in the right place comes with experience, and I hope to master it some day. :) Even though I usually have to cut a chapter (or two!) at the beginning of my story I feel like it's productive to write those chapters. It helps me get to know my characters and develop their distinct voices before I plunge them into the action.

    Those first few pages are so important, aren't they? Whether your ms is in a contest or on an editor's desk, someone is making a split-second judgement about your story, so it's gotta be tight.

    Ugh, maybe I better do some more crunches. :) Thanks, Mary!

  13. Anne,

    This is a fabulous post. Love the makeover slant!

    Best of luck in the GH and huge congrats!

    Thanks for blessing us with your presence in Seekerville.



  14. Call me old fashion, but I love those novels that have backstory. Example would be Jane Eyre, beginning with Jane as a mistreated, misunderstood, and unloved orphan in her aunt's household. She is sent off to a cold and dismal girls school to live out an unpromising life.

    If Bronte had written this novel beginning with Jane accepting an offer as a governess, and cut out the opening chapters, think how much we would have missed out on.
    Her style is indeed masterful and we can learn so much from authors whose novels have remained bestsellers for decades.

    I say we need to make room again, alongside what is acceptable now, for novels of this kind of literary level.

  15. J. Bell's advice was exactly that, Ann. Write them then cut.

  16. so are you going to SF?
    There'll be a few Seekers there.

  17. Great post, Anne. Your tips on tightening a ms are right on. Like you, I made some glaring newbie mistakes. Some kind and generous contest judges and workshop leaders taught me so much, for which I'm deeply grateful.

    I loved hearing about the editor who took the time to write you a helpful rejection letter. What a gift.

    You then did what a serious writer must do. You heeded the wise counsel and incorporated what you'd learned into your second story. And look what happened? A GH final!

    And my hair? I'll get back to you on that--after my shower.

    See you in SFO. It's not long now.

  18. Anne,
    Great post, and I loved learning more about your writing path! Very cool.

    Are you serious about cutting out the "that's" from my writing? Cuz I really, really don't want to.

    I'm to the point where I LOVE to get the knife out and cut backstory and narration, but 'that'?? I don't think I can do it.


    Thanks for the great post, and see ya in SF!


  19. Hi Cheryl! Thanks for the congrats. The biggest perk of finaling has been "meeting" (mostly on-line) my fellow finalists. It's like an instant network of friendship and support, much like you have here with the Seekers. I love the combination of info and camaraderie you have here.

    Inspire, your point is well-taken! And I wouldn't call you old-fashioned, more like "classic" which as we all know, never goes out of style. :) Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Yep, Mary, I'll be in SF. You too?

    Keli! My fellow Pixie, thanks for flitting over. (Keli's a double finalist in the Inspirational category this year!)

    Like you, Keli, I've learned a lot from contest judges. I'm amazed at the thoughtful, constructive help writers take the time to give us. Maybe I never had Ruthy because I've never needed a voodoo doll. ;)

    And yeah, that rejection letter was really nice. I actually thought about sending the editor a thank you note for the rejection letter, but then decided that would just be too weird!

    Hope your hair turns out better than mine. I'm resorting to a ponytail today. :(

  20. Yay, another Pixie is here! Kris is also a double-finalist, but in the Historical category...and she recently SOLD! Woo-hoo!

    Kris, I'm so glad THAT you came by and I know THAT you can get rid of a few that's if you put your mind to it. Be brave, be strong. ;)

  21. Girls, I love the ongoing effects of your makeovers! I'm sensing tighter curls, softer waves, diminishing wrinkles in favor of deeper laugh lines...

    And I know there are paragraphs galore, cringing at the sight of authors at the keyboard. Take this, you bad 'that'! And that, you dratted 'a bit'... And how about this, you stinkin' adjective!

    And if someone could just explain to me how to navigate everything upward an inch or two, I'd be ever so grateful. I've tried super glue. Painful recovery process. Oh, wait. Sorry. Talking skin as opposed to words.... Bad Ruthy

    Hey, I headed to the Dry River area for lunch fare because Chinatown seemed passe...

    I stopped by the Preston Vineyards and brought back a sampling of Lou's deliciously fruity wine and his home-baked sourdough bread. Until today, I've never been a huge fan of sourdough ANYTHING but this bread was enough to change my mind. And Dry Creek Peach and Produce carries multiple varieties of white-fleshed peaches so I grabbed an assortment for our afternoon light lunch.

    Get it? A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou... Plus or minus a few peaches.


    The Tearoom will provide a late day set up, complete with scones and fresh butter and jam, very British for a San Francisco port eatery!

    And GH finalists, you guys rock. I hope your trip is everything it possibly could be and that your contacts with editors and agents go well.

    Think strong, personable, and saleable. (Did you know that this word is acceptable with or without the 'e'?)

    That's you, in a nutshell.


  22. Ruthy,

    Thanks for reminding me it's all in how you look at things...

    wrinkles = bad
    laugh lines = good

    Oooh, the Tearoom! I'm a Regency gal, so this is right up my alley.

    Not that I'm turning my nose up at the wine. ;)

  23. Hi Anne,

    Great post. Looking forward to seeing you next week...and maybe some of you Seekers???


  24. Great post, Anne! I'm a sucker for a good makeover premise too. :-)

    Thanks for sharing your journey along with tips for improving any manuscript. Can't wait to see you in SF next week!


  25. Hi Kit and Kay! Wow, thanks for the Pixie show of support!

    Kit, it sounds like there will definitely be some Seeker sightings in SF next week! We'll have to be on the lookout. ;)

    In addition to the great food, Ruthy offered us some wonderful advice for Nationals: think strong, personable, and saleable. We can do that, can't we girls?

    Looking forward to seeing you both!

  26. Tea and scones sound like a step up from corn dogs and deep-fried candy bars. (County fair this week.)

    The idea of a make-over really makes sense to me and sounds a lot more fun than revising -- thanks for the tips!

  27. Great post, Anne! Congrats on finaling in the Golden Heart. That's huge!

    Oh, Kris, I'm so happy to hear that (oops) you sold! To Kensington, right? Congratulations! Does that (oops) mean you will be disqualified from the Romance Through the Ages contest? Not that (oops) it matters to me or anything! ;-)

    Quick fixes are eliminating all unnecessary words, especially in dialogue. Usually you can cut out any "Yes" or "No" answers, "Oh" and "Well." I used to be really bad at starting all dialogue with one of those four words. Totally unnecessary. Not earth-shattering but that's all I can think of at the moment. It's so late in the afternoon. My brain shuts down around three.

  28. Hi, Ann! Hope you've had fun at the county fair. Did you enter any competitions, or just enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds?

    Best of luck with your writing. If you happen to check back in, I'd love to know what genre you write.

    Thanks, Anne

  29. Hi, Melanie! It's good to see you, and thanks for the congrats. I know you've enjoyed lots of success on the contest circuit too, so congrats to you as well! :)

    Cutting those intro words from dialogue is a great tip. I like it because it falls into the category of quick and easy, but it can make a big difference.

    Something else I have to watch is overusing my character's names in dialogue. People just don't say each other's names that often in real life:

    "Rhys, I didn't see you at the ball."
    "I stepped onto the terrace, Phoebe."


    I know what you mean about shutting down in the afternoon, esp. Fridays! My husband just brought back a pizza for dinner cause I'm too tired to cook. :)

  30. LOL, what a great post.

    Hair day:

    Just got a cut and ENCHANCEMENT two weeks ago. Bought an ionic hair dryer and wow what a difference. Also bought some CHI Hair System Shampoo and Conditioner, also ionic.

    I no longer can write a msc without a refresher course in internal and external conflict. Specifically Michel Haugue and Christopher Vogler's DVD set The Writer's Two Journeys.


    P.S. Any leftovers around???

  31. And to all the GH finalists...good luck next week!!! We're rooting for our Seekerville pals!!

  32. Thanks, Anne!

    That's another thing I need check for, using my heroine's name too often. It's all over the place, when I should really use more "she" and "her".

  33. Hi, Tina! I saw some CHI products at the salon the other day and the bottles looked very hip. I like that in a hair product, along with a nice smell. :)

    I haven't seen The Writer's Two Journeys but I'm going to add it to my Christmas list. I wish they had it on Netflix, but no such luck. Thanks for the recommendation, I can't wait to check it out.

    There are a few slices of leftover Ledo's pizza and some Diet Coke in the fridge. Put your feet up, I got it!

  34. Welcome, Anne! Thanks so much for your great post!

    And congrats on your GH final!! I'll be at National helping cheer you and the others on!! I'll be sure to find you and meet you. :)


  35. Yay, Kris!! Congrats on the sale. Woohoo!!!


  36. Tina, I had blonde ENHANCEMENT today, too. ;) Although, I guess yours wasn't blonde. :) And I use Blonde Glam shampoo and conditioner. Love the stuff.

    And love the Hauge-Vogler DVD's also!

    In my most recent makeover (mailed off Monday), I found that I had a few small scenes (or scenelets??) that I could cut. I'm bad about wanting everything so linear that I hate to skip an afternoon or a meal. :) So I can sometimes cut those little half-page scenelets to make the writing better (and to shorten the word count).

    Missy :)

  37. Hi Anne,

    Great advice. What I had a problem with the one time I entered a contest is one judge said POV was terrible and another said it could use "a little polishing."

    Well, such contradictory advice was hard to take LOL.

    My problem was, I didn't really understand what 'they' meant about POV.

    However with the editors I've been blessed to have @ The Wild Rose Press and Enspiren Press, I've gotten better and better with avoiding slips and/or cleaning them up.

    Thanks for the advice!

  38. Enhancements?


    Blonde Gam?

    Oh, man, any other Suave users out there? .97 at Wal-Mart.

    And L'Oreal Excellence? I thought that was so upscale of me, LOL!!!!

    I'm such a hick.


    I think I buy better shampoo for the dogs than I do for me.

    I KNOW I buy better shampoo for the dogs. And they have great hair, BTW.



  39. Missy, it's been so much fun hanging out here. Thanks to all you Seekers for having me, and I can't wait to meet you in SF. :)

    Pam, glad to hear you're liking the WRP and Enspirin. One of my fellow finalists has multiple books coming out with WRP and is thrilled with the support she's received. Thanks for stopping in, and wishing you lots of continued success!

    Ruthy - LOL! In my next life, I'd like to be one of your dogs. ;)

  40. Thanks for the kind congrats, Melanie!

    And I admire you & your brain making it all that way to 3pm. Mine cuts out a little earlier--whenever my 4 y.o. hits his five hundredth question of the day. i.e. about 10am. :-)

    The problem with 'that's' for me is THAT I love them.

    To me, the preceding sentence just sounds more natural with a 'that' in there.

    Better than 'The problem for me is I love them."

    Yet, I know you are right, Anne and Melanie. Sigh.

    Maybe if I get some really good-smelling shampoo, nobody will notice the THAT's in my writing. :-)
    Oh, wait. That will only work if I'm standing right next to them.

    Over-use of h/h names aren't too much of a problem for me, although I must say, Anne, I know *exactly* why Rhys went out on that balcony, and he ought to be ashamed!


  41. Three quick introductory thoughts: First, congrats on 1) perserverance and 2) the success that comes only from perserverance. Second, as far as a hair day, I still have some, so it's a good hair day for me. I also congratulate my hair for perserverance.

    Then, a quick technical thought: Just as "that" is an excellent snip-snip candidate, keep an eye out for "who" and its haughty sibling "whom," as well. You can both trim and avoid pretentious phrasings this way. I don't know how many times I've wanted to shout at such awkward passages as "a guy whom I know" when "a guy I know" is far more appropriate, and shorter, to boot.

    Finally, the most important part of this post. You wrote: "It’s easy for us writers to get down on ourselves and our writing. A disappointing contest score or rejection letter feels worse than a bad hair day, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have what it takes. (Case in point, did you catch the double negative in that last sentence? Yikes!)" Actually, though there are two negatives in "it doesn't mean we don't have what it takes," but it is not a double negative, but instead a perfectly standard and acceptable locution. No Yikes! necessary--and see how easy it is to get down on yourself and your writing when you don't have to?

  42. Bill, LOL about your "perserverant" hair! That definitely qualifies as a good hair day. :)

    I like the addition to our bag of tricks. Fair warning to "who" and "whom:" you are officially on my radar now. Since I get confused about which to use when, I'm happy to zap either one if I can.

    And *thank you* for pointing out that my sentence with two negatives is actually OK.

    I retract the "Yikes!" ;)

    Thanks for dropping by, Bill.