How do you know when your novel is finished and ready to ship off to agent-land? Planning for this big move has similarities to selling a house or apartment you’ve lovingly furnished and decorated and made your own over the years. You’ve spent time and energy in the DOWNSIZE/TRANSFORM stage (major revision). But you still need to REPAIR (fix/tweak), PAINT (copy edit), and CLEAN/POLISH (proofread).
DOWNSIZE/TRANSFORM (major revision). Let’s review what you’ve done so far. As a homeowner, you tore your outdated kitchen down to the studs and built it back up into a masterpiece of beauty and functionality. You’ve reluctantly chucked your dust-coated and dog-eared stuffed animal collection. As a novelist, let’s assume that you, too, have completed this challenging and time-consuming phase. Your draft numbers are somewhere in the double digits, and that doesn’t count all the minor versions in between. But it’s looking good now. You have a clear signature that serves as the spine of your story rather than the endlessly curling blocked colon it was before. You have reduced your six points of view to just one. Uncle Joe sounds distinctly different from five-year-old Sue. Your main plot and subplots hang together, leading to a satisfying, well-earned conclusion not involving sunsets. The triplets have been replaced by one character, who now feels more authentic and complex. The hot sex scene you slaved over has been axed along with 15 other scenes based on your sorry life but not germane to your story. You have lopped off the first 30 pages, thus winging the reader into the heart of the matter. Your first five pages are like polished stone.
REPAIR (fix/tweak). The kitchen looks fabulous, doesn’t it? But the bathroom tile needs new grout, and not everyone wants to twizzle the front door key just so until the door unlocks. Inevitably, as you (or someone else) walk through your sparser, yet spiffier version of your novel home, you will see things that need fixing, especially given all the other changes you’ve made. Here are six kinds of repairs, both big and small, I’ve recently identified in my own advanced draft of my novel, with the help of my comp lit major and writer husband.
- CONTINUITY. We all know this one from the movies. The red lampshade that has mysteriously turned blue in the same scene. Continuity issues often occur because we have we cut, added, or changed material, including when a story is set. Name changes are the easiest to fix, with a global replace, although if the name has a stem in common with another word, beware. Your character “Rand,” who has since become Bill might show up “Billomly” in your story. Some continuity issues are less important than others although might still niggle the observant reader. Red-haired Tiffany has mysteriously become a blond in chapter 8. More crucially, a reference to dead brother Robert, who was out, then in, then out again, appears in chapter 10. Near the end of the story, Jake mentions Dee Dee’s early vow of celibacy, but all references to that vow have been axed. Reinsert somewhere. Tackling continuity requires a good memory and may be best accomplished when a read-through can occur over a short time span.
- CONSISTENCY. Consistency is related to continuity but applies to characters’ actions, thought, and dialogue. Is a character’s language believable given the personality, background and the growth arc you have portrayed for her? Does June suddenly become formal and long-winded when she normally speaks in slang and short sentences? Does Alison, now that we have made clear her internal desire to be liked, find a more refined way of telling her antagonist to go fuck himself?
- CLARITY. You may know what you are trying to say, but will your reader? Physically place your character in a setting. Is she in the kitchen or on the stairs when she hits the stranger with a bat? Describe the layout of a room/space if a lot of action takes place in that space. Reiterate, if necessary, references to actions/dialogue that occur much earlier in the story. Explain atypical characteristics of characters or situations, such as a big age discrepancy between two siblings. Add some internal thoughts when characters say or do something that doesn’t fit with expectations of how that person might behave.
- TRANSITIONS. Are transitions between actions/dialogue too abrupt and thus jarring or unclear, For example, is Andrew’s lack of reaction to Tiffany’s proclamation that she is going to get an abortion consistent with his character, or would he at least stop buttering his toast for a second, before changing the subject? Or are some transitions too slow? Do we need to watch Jack wait on the train platform, listen to the bagpipe player and give him some change, see the train pull into the station, hang onto the strap as the train lurches, and arrive at his destination? Maybe we do, or maybe we just put him in media res with some brief reaction to his journey, if relevant.
- SPARKLE Substitute the specific for the vague. (The big dog becomes the black Labrador.) Show don’t tell emotions. (“She felt annoyed” becomes “She stamped her foot.”) But watch jaws clenching and hearts pounding. Use strong verbs. End sentences and paragraphs with power. Be original. An agent once told me that she liked pages 2-20 but wouldn’t have read past page one if she hadn’t been required to (a paid consultation) because it lacked the sparkle of the other pages. Oops…
- VERBOSITY. Even in later edits you may be able to cut out pieces of a scene or summarize to keep the pace moving along. Paragraphs can be reduced to fewer sentences by eliminating thoughts that say essentially the same thing or describe feelings that you clearly conveyed through dialogue or actions. I cut my word count down by at least couple of thousand words with these kinds of edits alone.
PAINTING (copy editing). Nothing like plastering over the nicks and applying a fresh coat of paint to brighten up a place. In writing, the copy edit stage is where you clean up your language and grammar faux pas (too many adverbs or adjectives, filler words, clichés, repetitious words and phrases; overuse of passive voice; inadequate use of contractions; too many, not enough dialogue tags, etc.) Refer to recent Dead Darlings’ “Friday Feast” posts for references to this kind of revision: Carol McGill’s “Self-Editing” http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/ouch-editing-is-painful/ and “Self-Editing Redux” http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/self-editing-redux-spot-checking/; Nephele Tempest’s “Polish Your Prose: An Editorial Cheat Sheet” http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2015/01/15/polish-your-prose-an-editorial-cheat-sheet/.)
CLEANING/POLISHING (proofreading). The cat pee smell in the corner of the living room? The dust on the dining room chandelier? A careful proofread (preferably by someone else with both skills and objectivity) after you’ve made all the above changes may make the difference between being taken seriously or not as a writer. No typos, missing words, misplaced commas and quotation marks.
Voila! With the right staging (your query letter), you are ready for your open house. You hope that your masterpiece will land an agent who will cherish it as much as you have (while asking you to make a few more repairs, please) and find the perfect new owner (the publisher), who will, no doubt, negotiate for another set of changes.
Home, sweet home.