Elizabeth Garner is our in-house fiction reader and also works with Unbound writers on the story-development of their manuscripts across a range of genres. She is a published author, and has 17 years of experience as an editor of both screenplays and novels. Here are her “top tips” for how to prepare your manuscript for submission.
1. Know Your Writing Style
Every writer has innate strengths and weaknesses – even the most experienced.
You might have a keen ear for dialogue but struggle with description.
You might have a natural ability for creating vibrant characters, but have to work hard to develop a plot.
This is all perfectly normal.
Be honest with yourself.
Evaluate what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Once you know this, you can take confidence in what you are good at and work at the elements that need practice.
2. Editing Your Work
A first draft is just that: a draft.
It’s still a huge achievement to get an idea out of your head and onto the page. Many people don’t get that far – the world is full of the great unwritten.
So, congratulate yourself on having got the words down, but be prepared to work on them.
Once you have finished, take some time away from the manuscript. You will be too close to it to judge it impartially.
Think about the kind of story you have written: the genre, the central character; the plot.
If there are books that you know and love that cover similar ground then this is the time to revisit them.
Don’t think about comparing the quality of your work to these books, that way madness lies.
You can’t expect your first draft to be as polished as a published novel that has been worked on by professional editors and doubtless gone through multiple drafts to get to this stage.
However, you can pick up a few tricks of the trade along the way.
Make notes about elements of the published novel that work for you – and elements that don’t.
Think about how you might apply these ideas to your own writing.
Every writer is different.
You may feel ready to revisit your first draft after a couple of weeks, or it may be a couple of months – either is fine.
Again, it’s a matter of being honest with yourself.
There is no point in forcing yourself to rewrite when you aren’t ready.
Equally, procrastination is a killer…If you find that you have spent a week rearranging your bookshelves into alphabetical order, it’s time to get back to the manuscript.
When you return to the manuscript try to block out a couple of days to read it straight through.
This may seem like stating the obvious but do print up a hard copy rather than read off a screen and make notes on the text as you go.
Don’t stop to make corrections and edit as you read, just mark them up – otherwise you will get stuck in an endless cycle of rewriting your first 3 chapters.
You will almost certainly find that your corrections address 3 distinct elements of writing:
1. Character & plot
Try to separate these elements out into 3 separate “passes” on the manuscript.
I strongly advise that you address them in this order.
There’s really no point in fine-tuning your style before you have worked out who your character is and why they are doing what they do – and the time frame in which they do it.
Don’t rush this process.
A slow and steady rewrite at this stage will save you a lot of time further down the line.
3. Avoiding Common Problems
Writing a good novel is not just about having a great idea and finding your own unique way of expressing it.
Writing is a craft, and like any craft it requires attention to the practical detail.
The two most common technical issues that I encounter as an editor are inconsistency and excess.
Inconsistency – check and correct any discrepancies in spelling, grammar, details, chronological order, character names etc.
If you find that you are struggling to keep track of all of this, go through the manuscript again, and make a note of the practical facts of the story.
Then create a timeline and short synopsis for each chapter so you know exactly where you are.
Excess – “Kill your darlings”
It’s a harsh reality of the writer’s lot: sometimes the pieces of prose that you like the most can be a little self-indulgent.
Again, it’s a matter of being honest with yourself.
If you have written a 1,000 word description of the main character’s own navel, you probably need to cut it back to 100 words…or even put the entire thing in the bin.
As a general rule, it’s the overuse of adjective and adverbs you need to watch out for.
You probably have a specific word or phrase that you overuse – most writers do. Keep an eye out for that.
4. Approaching Agents or Publishers
You only have one opportunity to impress, so make it count.
Professional readers are always looking out for the next great writer, but they are also inundated with submissions.
They are looking for something that leaps off the page but conversely, due to pressure of time and weight of material, they are also looking for reasons to stop reading that precious manuscript which has taken you so long to write.
Don’t give them an easy get-out.
Proof read your work.
Spelling or grammar mistakes will immediately cause anyone to turn it down, regardless of what they think of your writing.
If you feel that you are too close to get the manuscript to spot these (and that happens to the best of us) then get a friend to proof read.
Make sure that your submissions letter is professional and succinct.
You’d be amazed how many submission letters I read where the writer either apologises for their work or tells me that it’s going to be the next Booker prize winner!
Stick to the facts: give some basic description about yourself, a short description of the novel and some basic information about why you are approaching this specific publisher or agent.
The best way to work on your writing is simply to write.
Reading about writing, thinking about writing, even reading blog posts on a website are all helpful – but nothing compared to the act of sitting down at your desk and developing a regular writing practice.
Half an hour or 100 words a day is better than an insane weekend of all night writing every month – and believe me, I have tried both!
If you want to write, you need to make it part of your everyday routine – and like anything, the more you build up habitual behaviour, the easier it gets to maintain that discipline.
Most importantly, try to enjoy the process.
Writing a book takes a long time. There’s no point in doing it if you feel like it’s become a chore and a drain on your very soul – if nothing else, this will come across on the page and every tortured word you write.
Writing is hard work, but it also brings its own rewards that are nothing to do with hitting the bestsellers lists.
For me, there is nothing else like the pleasure I get when the words are flowing well or a character suddenly develops a life of their own and the story goes off in a direction that I never imagined.
You will have similar moments: enjoy them for their own sake.
Enjoy the process of discovering your own voice and style – and have fun.