Okay, you’ve gone to the mat with your manuscript for months or years, and you’ve finally won the match with yourself. Your book gleams like a Rolls Royce. You’re throbbing with desire to submit it.
Heads up: STOP, it needs more work. Because words on a screen are harder to proofread than words on a page, because human beings are imperfect, because no manuscript any editor has ever seen is letter-perfect—for all those reasons and many more, yours needs a final sprucing up.
Writing books (and mag articles and movies) for half a century has taught me to take five last steps before submitting a manuscript:
- Read the entire manuscript again and beef up the verbs. The man didn’t “move” (one of the laziest words in the English language), he “glided,” or “strutted,” or “shuffled,” or “hustled.” The man and woman didn’t “argue,” they “clubbed each other with ugly names” or “slashed each other with knife-blade accusations.” Etc. You won’t find a page that can’t use a more graphic verb.
- Cut as many adverbs as you can. But don’t just cut them. Wrap the adverb’s meaning into a more active verb. Where you wrote, “The car moved slowly up the driveway,” change it to “The car inched up the driveway.” Where you wrote “She laughed loudly,” write “She hooted.” And so on. Combine your adverb and verb into a more vivid verb.
- Read the entire manuscript aloud to yourself. This is the most powerful of these suggestions. It’s an amazing experience. You’ll see places where the language is mundane but yearns to sing, or where it meanders along when it should deliver a short, hard punch. You’ll notice, especially, dialogue that is wordy—something like “I’m not going to put up with this” when “Screw you” would have done better. Or dialogue that is explanatory when you wanted an emotional flare-up. You’ll also notice words that have been left out, or typed twice, or repeated too close together. You’ll spot awkward phrases and pronoun confusion. Read any manuscript out loud and flaws will be obvious.
- Transform narration into scene with dialogue. Read with a sharp eye for passages you’ve summarized instead making them into scenes. Easy example: You wrote, “Leaving, she told him she’d be back in an hour.” Instead let the reader see and hear—“One hand on the doorknob and the other about to slosh her coffee on herself, she called out, ‘Sweetheart, I’ll be back in an hour.’”
- Last, spell-check the manuscript. Yes, damn well do it. Sure, spell-check is nuts. Its ideas about grammar are stiff and old-fashioned. It doesn’t understand the use of words like “myself” and “yourself” and even confuses “its” and “it’s” (!). But it does two things well. It catches repetitions (when you’ve typed “sky” twice instead of once) and it can SPELL (it knows “accommodate” has a double m). No matter how many crazy ideas Spell-check spews out, spotting the spelling errors and repeated words is worth it.
Five readings—and NOW you can hunt down that million-dollar advance.