Since I direct a college writing program and also travel across the country instructing at writers conferences, I encounter a lot of people who have finished writing a novel but are having no success at selling it to a publisher. After a dozen or more rejections, they’ll turn to a person like me—aka a “book doctor”—and ask, “So, what’s wrong with my book?” Often, the answer is simple. These people have not learned that “all writing is rewriting.” They’ve written a novel, but, as yet, they have not rewritten a novel.
If this is your situation, let me offer some guidance in how to turn back to your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to shine professionally.
- Get Outside Perspectives – You know what the book is supposed to say, but in order to determine if it actually is saying it, you need outside readers. Find someone in your writers’ group to read it and give you specific feedback regarding narrative drive, character development, setting, dialogue, and theme. Likewise, consider hiring a high school or college English teacher to copyedit the pages, checking grammar, syntax, punctuation, format, spelling, and transitions. This will reveal tangible aspects of the book that can be improved upon.
- Evaluate from Macro to Micro Elements – Read your entire book, but chart it as you go along. How quickly does the lead hook the reader? Does the subplot become evident no later than chapter three? Where are the arcs of conflict, the surprises, the clever plot twists? Is the ultimate climactic scene dramatic enough? Does the denouement tie up all loose ends, answer all questions, and imply what the next phase of the characters’ lives will be? By putting the whole book in your head (macro) while critiquing the individual elements (micro), you’ll be inserting correct pieces that will eventually reveal the finished puzzle.
- Examine the Pattern and Flow of the Story – Just because something is perfect in regard to writing mechanics doesn’t mean it is interesting. Consider key structural elements. Is the novel well-paced, motivating the reader to keep turning pages, or are there scenes that drag, passages of dialogue that are cluttered, and set-ups that have too much description and backstory? Are the flashbacks just thrown in at random like narrative sludge, or do they seem a natural foundation for the overall story structure? Is there a consistency in the length of chapters, or are they a hodgepodge of plotting whims? These are all specific areas that publishers will judge harshly, so work to make them smooth.
- Scrutinize the Individual Words – If you lean heavily on –ly adverbs to assist your verbs (talked quickly, sang merrily), remove them and insert stronger verbs that can stand alone (trilled, barked, rapped, prattled). Similarly, if you have a tendency to use too many –ing verbs (“She was hurrying to get to work”), replace them with stronger verbs (“She raced to her job”). Weed out dull, indistinct verbs, too. Instead of saying, “She was outside the principal’s office,” say, “She paraded . . . She paced . . . She strode . . . She stood . . . She fumed outside the principal’s office.” Add verbal energy.
- Show, Don’t Tell – It’s been drilled into you since childhood that actions speak louder than words. In fiction, this is especially true. For example, don’t have a high-school girl tell her arch rival, “You’re not supposed to smoke in the bathroom. If you light up, I’m going to tell the teachers.” Instead, write, “As Jennifer opened her purse and took out a cigarette and a lighter, Tina reached for the fire alarm.”
Here, what could have been a cliché, has now become a page-turning face-off confrontation. That’s what you want. Don’t lull the reader to sleep with a rehash of what happened, put him or her into the scene ready to witness the unfolding events.
I always compliment people who have shown the discipline it actually takes to write a novel. Most people have an idea for a story but not the professionalism to put it in writing. However, once that first draft has been purged from the mind, it becomes time to go back and fine-tune it.
There is no shame in not producing a masterpiece on the first go-through. The shame is in letting it lose the beauty contest because you wouldn’t give it the needed facelift.
Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D., is Chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University. His latest book, #54, is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers), which was represented by MacGregor Literary. Dr. Hensley is a monthly columnist in Christian Communicator and an annual judge for the Christy Awards, the Christian Book Awards, The Christian Writers Guild First Novel Contest, and The Evangelical Press Association Awards.