So you attempted Speedbo? Well done!
But now you’ve got a manuscript or part of a manuscript, and wondering what do to next.
If you’re like me, panic, then procrastinate. Then I need quiet. And caffeine. And chocolate.
I’m from New Zealand, so I’ve brought my favourite Kiwi chocolate biscuits—Mint Treats. A Mint Treat is a plain round biscuit (cookie) with mint crème on top, and covered in dark chocolate. In my unbiased view, New Zealand makes some of the best chocolate in the world.
Once you’ve got those essentials, it’s time to grab a red pen (real or virtual), find your quiet writing space, and get to work.
It’s tempting to start with the ‘easy’ stuff—polishing our spelling and punctuation, the changes that make our manuscripts look better. But that’s not the best place. Think of your manuscript as a lump of coal. It has the potential to be a diamond, but polishing coal is only going to give us shiny coal, not a diamond.
To get a diamond, we need to put our manuscripts under pressure. We need to make sure every chapter, every scene, every word, carries weight. We need to examine our manuscripts, and eliminate the flaws. We need to cut, to get a manuscript that’s the right size and shape. Finally, we can polish and produce a book which shines.
Let’s get to it.
Putting on the Pressure
Our first step is what editors call developmental editing: putting the pressure on our plot and characters to make sure we’ve got a novel with the potential to shine:
- We need to make sure we’ve got a solid plot and structure, with constant tension and problems in the right places to capture and maintain our reader’s interest.
- We need an interesting character with a clear goal, and ongoing internal and external conflict which makes it difficult for them to achieve that goal.
First, we need a plot—an overall story arc that takes our characters (and our readers) on a journey and answers a story question. As humans, we’re resistant to change. But novels are almost always about change—internal, external or both. Does your story have this big-picture plot?
Next comes structure, which applies at two levels of a manuscript. First, our overall novel needs a structure:
- Act One introduces the protagonist, antagonist and other major characters, presents the time and setting, and includes a change that pushes the main character into the story (often called the inciting incident). Act One usually ends with an event that changes the character’s plans.
- Act Two develops the conflict, and deepens character relationships. The main character faces a turning point somewhere near the middle which forces them to change from reactive to proactive. Act Two finishes with a major crisis or discovery.
- Act Three includes the black moment where the main character thinks all hope is lost, and the climax, where the main character is victorious (or defeated. Personally, I prefer victorious). It ties up loose ends, except for those that will be covered in a sequel.
It’s tempting to include lots of backstory in Act One, to explain why our characters are acting as they do, but that’s a bad idea. Too much backstory can mean our plot drags. And that's not good!
Some writers don’t like the idea of working to a defined structure. They say it feels formulaic. Yet formulas (formulae?) work. Think back to your Oreo cookie or my Mint Treat. It’s made to a formula, and I’ll be disappointed if my cookie is missing the mint filling. We don’t want to disappoint our readers.
As well as an overall novel structure, each scene has a structure. There needs to be a character with a goal, and facing some conflict they must overcome to move the story forward. At the end, there is some disaster which prevents the character reaching their goal.
You’ll then either have a short transition to the next scene, or a longer (but still short) sequel, in which the viewpoint character has an emotional reaction to the scene which results in them thinking and forming a new goal.
This decision and goal plunges them into the next scene and the next, each following a pattern of goal-conflict-disaster-reaction which ensures we don’t disappoint or (worse) bore our readers.
Many writers (including me) find conflict difficult to write. But no one wants to read a nice novel with nice characters who only ever have nice things happen to them. Not even me.
Readers read for conflict and tension, and as authors, we need to make sure there is conflict in every chapter, every scene, every page. As part of her EDITS system, Margie Lawson suggests printing out your manuscript, and using an orange highlighter pen to go down the right-hand-side of the page, highlighting every line that has some conflict or tension.
A page without any orange highlighter needs revising to increase the conflict. This could be external conflict—a disagreement with another character, or an external event such as a train crash. Or it could be internal conflict, where the character wants to do something they know they shouldn’t do (e.g. not eat another Mint Treat). This internal conflict might come back to the character’s overall story goal.
Which comes first, plot or character?
Writing instructors such as James Scott Bell are convinced you need a clear three-act structure with a pivotal event at the midpoint which forces the character to change. Others such as Jeff Gherke teach that character drives plot, and you need developed characters with clear goals and motivations to drive the plot forward.
I think you need both, although the balance may depend on genre. If I’m reading women’s fiction, I’m subconsciously looking for a story that’s driven by compelling characters. If I’m reading suspense, I might not notice the characterisation if I’m being carried along by a fast-paced plot.
The big challenge with character is that every character is unique, just as every person is unique. There is no three-part formula to creating the perfect character. We don't even want our characters to be perfect—we want them to be real and relatable and authentic. This could mean a character facing a challenge they don’t want to face. It could mean a character with a secret.
The Next Stages
Examining the Diamond
A diamond expert examines their rough stone to discover the flaws that need to be cut away. The most common flaws I’ve found in manuscripts from unpublished writers are inconsistent point of view, and telling where we should be showing.
Cutting the Diamond
The first stage of cutting a diamond is eliminating the waste. Most first drafts have a lot of waste—repetition, weasel words, unnecessary dialogue tags, and general wordiness. This needs to be trimmed before the final stage: polishing. Sandra Leesmith and Rachelle Rea Cobb talked about this last week here at the Seekers.
Finally, we need to check our spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the overall flow of our writing.
And then we’re done--for now, at least. Which means it’s time for another Mint Slice!
Writers, what’s your blind spot when it comes to making your manuscript shine? And what’s your favourite writing or editing resource? (Apart from Seekerville!)
Readers, how does insufficient editing affect your enjoyment of a book? What would make you put a book down?
For More Information
It’s impossible to cover everything in one not-so-short blog post, so I’ve put together a free pdf download which covers examining, cutting and polishing our diamond. Visit www.christianediting.co.nz/Seekerville to claim your copy and a free bonus.
Iola Goulton is a reader, reviewer, freelance fiction editor and aspiring Christian romance author. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree in marketing and is a member of the Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network, Romance Writers of New Zealand, and American Christian Fiction Writers. She won the 2016 ACFW Genesis Award for her novella, Play On, Jordan, and is currently working on the rest of the series.
Today Iola is generously giving away an e-copy of fellow Kiwi, Kara Isaac's RITA finaling book Close to You, to one commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.