You’ve finished your draft manuscript, now what?
Today’s guest post comes from Melanie Cecka-Nolan, editor of the New York Times
Bestselling Illuminae series by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Melanie has been with
Penguin Random House since August 2012 and is currently Associate Publishing
Director of Alfred A Knopf Books For Young Readers.
To read part 1 of her Manuscript Editing Jumpstart recommendations, click here.
Skip the beginning.
It’s easy to read/reread/revise your first chapter. Many of the manuscripts I review
have dynamite first chapters…and fall apart somewhere in the middle. So stop
polishing the parts that you’ve already polished and instead, read your manuscript
from the ¾ mark to the end. Then, start a few chapters in and read to the ¾ mark.
Mix it up—read every other chapter; read only the odd-numbered chapters. Yes,
you’re playing mental games with yourself, but by breaking up the “start from the
beginning” mentality, you might be surprised at how the rough spots jump out at
you. And chances are, you’ll also have a sense of where to jump in and get to work.
Another beginning and end trick I encourage authors to consider: look carefully at
the first and last chapter. Do they both feel like they’re part of the same story? Has
the final chapter delivered on the promise of the first chapter?
Do you know what your story is about?
Anytime a writer describes their book by saying something like “well, it’s about this
girl who’s new to her high school, and one day her mom forgets to leave her lunch
money and then she misses the bus and has to walk. And then she meets this elderly
man who’s walking his dog and he…” I’m tempted to stop listening. You want
someone to be able to latch onto your premise immediately, and not have to hear a
blow-by- blow plot summary. It’s the difference between saying: “This is a pepperoni
pizza,” and saying, “This is a round piece of dough that gets flattened out, and then
you spread tomato sauce over it and then scatter shredded mozzarella and some
slices of pepperoni…” See the difference? That’s why when I describe a new book to
my colleagues, I often use an “elevator pitch.” Basically, I try to sum up the premise in the time it would take me to ride one or two floors in an elevator. If you find
yourself struggling to come up with a succinct elevator pitch, it could mean your
story needs focus. Perhaps there are two many plots strands, or characters. I
sometimes recommend that an author envision the movie poster for their book.
What kind of tagline would be on the poster? Another trick is to compare a story to
two well-known entities. For instance, I worked on a book that was pitched as
“Battlestar Galactica meets Ten Things I Hate About You.” I knew nothing specific about the characters or plot, but by planting those two movies in my head, I guessed
that the book was 1) set in space, probably on a space ship; 2) it dealt with a dating
relationship; and 3) it probably had a humorous angle. (PS, I bought and published
Prepare for the long haul.
Even the best writers tend to benefit from at least one round of revision. Often, the
authors I work with have done a few rounds before I see their manuscript…and
chances are good that I will ask them to revisit parts of their book yet again. So it’s
important to cultivate patience—revision takes time. Each new pair of eyes that
looks at your work may have something different to bring to the conversation. If you
have a trusted writer’s group, try workshopping a section and see if their responses
zero in on anything you’ve been secretly unsure of. If your story is worth reading,
it’s worth taking the time to make it the best possible story you can make it. And
that may take several readers and several rounds of revisions. Revision is never a
Give yourself little rewards.
I used to edit on paper—meaning, I’d print a manuscript and jot down questions or
comments in the margins. And often, I just liked to share a happy reaction. I’d put
little smiley faces next to sentences that I really loved, or wrote out my thoughts
(holy cow, I never saw that coming!!!; I LOVE that your character just put that guy in his place—what a jerk!) These days, it’s faster (and nicer to the environment) to do
edits electronically. But I still try to convey emotional reactions when I add
comments. (emoticon smileys for everyone 🙂 !) It lets a writer know when they’ve
nailed the point they were trying to make—and who doesn’t benefit from a little
positive reinforcement? So in addition to thinking about all the things you want to
improve or fix, remember to note the things that are working really, really well, too.
Give yourself a few smileys along the way!
You may find out more about the unique editorial process for Gemina, a more visually
complex book than traditional fiction, in Melanie’s guest post on The Perch, here.
You may read more about Aimee & Jay’s top reasons for writing with a partner in their guest post for the daily fig, here.