Should you submit before your manuscript is finished?

Below is a question that was posted on my previous-albeit boring entry…

The last aspect I am scratching my head over regards timing. I am anxious to start the wheels turning on the evaluation process of my manuscript’s worthiness for publication. At the same time, I still have about half of the manuscript to edit and revise. Taking into consideration that there will be an evaluation period before any additional chapters are requested, would you think it advisable to send off the submissions packet even though editing and revisions of the later chapters of the manuscript are not complete?

The answer to this question is a double-edged sword.

Most editors and houses would automatically say “do not submit until you have a final, polished manuscript ready to send out at the drop of a hat…” Well, yes, in an ideal world. Just like in an ideal world a writer would send off their manuscript to a few houses and in three months get a positive response back.

In a realistic world, neither of those really happen–at least that often. Wait, I take that back. There are many writers out there that will polish their manuscript for months on end, then send it off to multiple (though in some cases, one) publishers and sit on their hands waiting for the mail to come. Then there are those that polish their manuscript and send it off, and sometime in the six months they are waiting for a response from a big house they pull out the red pen, change a few things in the middle and end, maybe kill off a minor character, and change a love scene–all without the publisher knowing the difference.

So, where does the double edge come in?

One side:
It’s understandable for someone to edit their manuscript the best they think they can and send it off, knowing that they will do more edits, rewrites, and tightening up while waiting for a response. Sometimes the response time for a large house can be anywhere from three months to nearly a year, and most people want to at least get the process started. Like filling out a check while waiting in line at the store…instead of waiting for your turn to write out the entire thing, you’re trying to get a bit of a jump start so all you have to do is fill in the amount. It’s the same for a book. A writer wants to send it out and polish the grammar while waiting for their book to even hit the editor’s desk. It’s completely understandable.

Side two:
It’s annoying as hell, and is an immediate turn off for an editor when we request to see the rest of the manuscript, and either the plot has changed significantly from the earlier-submitted synopsis (the synopsis, by the way, that we LIKED and caught our attention), or the author makes excuses about mailing in their manuscript and saying they need a few weeks to get to it (…this is 2008, it’s not like you need to chop down your own freaking tree to make the paper to print your manuscript. Go to Kinko’s and have it done in a little over an hour). Few weeks = “I’m either in the middle of editing, or I never finished my manuscript so I’m going to whip something out for you to send in.” Thus, few weeks = REJECTED.

So, the answer?

It’s really up to you.

If you’re just talking tightening up the text to make it an even shinier polish, then there’s nothing wrong with sending in the manuscript and tweaking it a bit later. This way, you’re comfortable enough with your manuscript that if an editor were to come back two weeks later asking for the entire thing, you can just stop what you’re doing and have it in the mail (or email) by the next day or so.

Though if you’re talking a lot of basic editing (in the above mentioned question, half the manuscript), you’re talking about a lot more necessary changes and time. Time is the big thing here–you want to be able to just stop and send off the manuscript if asked. If you don’t think you’d be able to do that, then I would suggest NOT submitting until you are. Otherwise, that glimmer of hope you got from an editor’s “request full” may wither up pretty quickly when that editor’s temper is stirred.

A good timeline: less than three weeks. I would say as a general rule that you could be pretty safe submitting a manuscript that needs just minor editing if you believe that you can successfully complete the edits in less than three weeks. Of course, this may be less if it is a small press and their response times range from 1-4 weeks; as they might read and respond within two. But for larger houses, or presses that have more than a six week response lag, then you should be fine.

Though of course, mind you, that you must at least have the first three chapters (the ones you are submitting) completely and perfectly editing before sending them off. You DO NOT want to edit those again after an editor has already seen and liked them–because then it’s obvious that you went back and edited, and made changes, which brings up a lot of red flags.

And, please, just as clarification I want to reiterate that I’m talking about minor edits here. You should not even consider sending off a manuscript until you are done and satisfied with your writing–satisfied that an editor would like it AS IS (or, at least hope they’ll like it). The last-minute changes after submitting should only be done for those perfectionists out there, who, left alone with an endless supply of caffeine and New York style bagels (with strawberry cream cheese, mmmmm…) would stay at their desk for years and still not be completely and utterly satisfied with each word choice and placement.

So again, it is a personal choice, and a choice that has many variables depending on the response times of the markets and the amount of editing needing to be done. But, in the end, it is a choice that each person will have to make and ultimately, live with the results should they not have their edits done on time if their manuscript is requested. It’s a chance.

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Editing your manuscript – more tips

Proofreading

Proofreading should be done after you’ve completed the manuscript. When you’re writing, you want to just get your story down on paper. Let the words flow as they come to you, worry about editing later.

When you do get to the editing stage, don’t get upset or worried if sentences, paragraphs, or even scenes are deleted or moved about. This is common, and nothing to worry about. Really, you should worry if you proofread and change almost nothing. I don’t know of any writer – myself included – who can write a perfect manuscript the first time through. Even if you edit as you write, you need to go back and recheck everything. Thrice.

To check for spelling

A simple way of checking for spelling errors in short fiction – short shorts, short stories, and novelettes – is reading your manuscript backwards, one word at a time. This stops your brain from “skimming” over content, filling in the blanks or transposing of syllables. It’s easy to see a word and recognize the first few and last letters and have your brain interpret the word as it should be, not as it is. For example:

If you can raed this then yuo can undrestnad what I’m takling abuot.

I wouldn’t recommend reading novel-length pieces backward. It can be very confusing and would take far too long. Instead, just make sure to read each sentence slowly and check for errors as you go.

Words, their usage, and their necessity

If you’re not sure of a word, look it up. Do not just stick it in, because if you’re second guessing – there’s a big chance it’s wrong.

Make sure you have the correct usage of each word, such as “there” and “their,” “steal” and “steel.”

Adverbs can be your friend if used right, but if you mess up they can screw you. There is a difference between something being “quick” and “quickly,” as there is a difference between “slow” and “slowly.” Make sure you check your verbs, adverbs, and adjectives and that you’ve used them correctly and in the right tense.

It’s ok if your characters’ dialogue is not correct – as long as you are consistent throughout the book. If not, it will just look like you’d messed up.

Consistency

Makes notes/tables of all name spellings of places, characters (particularly surnames) and any alien/magical beings. It’s easy for a name to “shift” from one spelling to another over the course of a novel, especially names with multiple spellings such as Tristen (Tristan) or Brittany (Brittnee).

Language and dialect are other items to be especially careful of. If you’re giving your character an accent, or a certain dialect, make sure the character talks the same throughout the book. If you change the way they say “your” to “yer,” be careful to not let a “your” or “you’re” slip in.

If you plan to use an “earth” dialect, or one that is currently in use today such as Pidgin, Creole, or what have you, do your research. There’s nothing like reading a book and having an author try to pass of some changed spellings or sentence wording as a dialect – it’s upsetting. Especially for the people that actually do speak with that specific dialect.

So how do you keep from making these mistakes?

Well, no matter how careful you are or edit several times, mistakes are bound to happen. You wrote the book, and while you try your best to go through carefully and edit, your “mind’s eye” will sometimes skim over words and sentences because you remember what it is you wrote – therefore missing possible mistakes.

Below are a few other ways of catching errors in a manuscript:

Read out loud. When you’re forced to say the words on the page your brain is forced to slow down and concentrate on what is really there. Also, by reading out loud you may find things like awkward sentences and choppy.

Get someone else to read it. They’re a fresh pair of eyes, with no bias towards the story (at least you should find someone with no bias to read it). They should be able to tell you if there are major plot problems, whether they believed the characters, and well, really if the book was good or not.

Hire someone to edit. Not everyone can do this – and not everyone should. If you have a great story to tell, but your writing skills are lacking, you may want to hire an editor to help you out. A hired editor/proofreader can help you tune up your story, and get it into shape before submitting. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hiring an editor for everyone; they can be expensive, and if it’s just proofreading for spelling errors it could be a lot of money spent on something you could just take an extra week or two doing.

Join an online writer’s group. I really believe that online writers groups, such as Writing.com, Firstwriter.com, and thenextbigwriter.com can prove to be invaluable. Writing.com is free to join and use, though I’m not sure of the up-to-date policies on the other two (if anyone knows, please comment and let me know!). Writing groups can allow you to post some of your work, and get critiques and opinions from other readers/writers. Writing.com employs a rating/review system, where reviewers can leave a 1-5 star rating as well as a review, and you can choose to make it public or private on your portfolio. Sites like these help build communication and presentation skills, and allows interaction with other writers.

Plot: Questions to ask yourself before submitting

Rejection is never fun. I know, I’ve been there. With the thousands of manuscripts out in the mail and the hundreds more sitting piled on an editor’s desk, your submission must stand out immediately above the gargantuan slush-pile in order to be considered. While a fine-tuned query letter is just the first step to catching an editor’s attention, your story must be able to keep it.

Yet, how do you make your story stand out? Well, that’s not an easy question, and there’s no definite answer. Originality, voice, tone, unique characters and richly detailed cultures and settings are just a few items that top the list. These are also things that many writers focus on. Yet the other big item that surprising many people forget to sit back and analyze is the biggest element of all: Plot.

So, you’ve written your story, your characters are well-rounded, your protagonist is wounded and the climax rises higher than Mt. Everest. But does it work? Below are a few questions to ask yourself at the first stage of editing, before doing the detailed line by line critique. If at any time you get a “no” or a negative answer to any of the questions, you need to stop and really think about what’s going on, and how you can fix it:

1. Is your story good? Be honest. Are you satisfied what you wrote? Wait, cancel that, are you excited about what you wrote? Can you see others liking it?

2. Is your opening line/paragraph compelling? Does it draw you in, make you want to continue on, willing to go through the next 300 pages to find out what happens at the end? A large percentage of readers read the first few paragraphs in a book before buying, and if you don’t catch their interest immediately they’ll move on.

3. Does anything actually happen? Are there events that propel the story forward, forcing the characters to act? Rather than just decide to go down the block for a stroll, is the character forced to run to the nearest payphone in order to…you get the point.

4. Does the dialogue work, and is it believable? Do you have it evenly mixed throughout the story, so that you don’t have ten pages of conversation in the middle of a battle scene?

5. Do your subplots contribute to the overall storyline? Or do they just divert the reader away from the main plot long enough to add in a few chapters of text in order to make the book a bit thicker? If subplots are not directly influential or relevant to the main story, they need to be taken out.

6. Do the characters react appropriately/realistically to the situations presented? In other words, do they act naturally for their characteristics, and do they respond to each obstacle as readers would expect? You wouldn’t make the only guy in the group that’s afraid of the dark dash valiantly into the cave in order to save the kitten – or at least without some hesitation and the introduction of other events that leaves no other alternative…

7. Is the climax built up enough? Do you have enough events leading to the climax that the reader is aware they are actually getting somewhere, and are excited about it? Does your climatic ending create emotion?

8. Is your plot an archetype – that is, an overly done storyline that is seen in many other works of art and fiction: ie. The Cinderella story; beautiful girl is suppressed by overzealous parents/stepmother and is helped out by a friend/fair godmother who in turn transforms the princess/geek into the girl of the prince/popular kid in school’s dreams? Avoid archetypes as much as possible. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but try.

While of course this is not a guarantee that your manuscript will be accepted, it will definitely help save your plot and yourself from the scrutinizing eye of a trained editor or reader.

Get out and touch things…

Just last night I was sitting on the couch, reading a few printed-off manuscripts with a glass of rum and coke when my five month old Miniature Schnauzer ran around the kitchen corner and leapt onto my lap. Luckily I didn’t spill my drink, and managed to juggle the glass, my papers, and the dog long enough to push him off and settle back against the overstuffed cushions.

I took a sip, paused, and glanced down at him. Big brown eyes below droopy ears stared back at me. I sighed and set my glass down on a coaster, fixed my stack of papers into a neat, even-edged pile, then reached down to pick it up. I sighed and lay back, absently rubbing the lines of his breed’s standard haircut, realizing he needed another trim. I sat there for nearly five minutes, marveling at the texture of his over-grown coat, his happy panting the only sound that broke the living room’s silence.

It was then my head rocked back as I was smacked in the face with the realization…that I couldn’t remember what he felt like.

I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d actually touched my dog. When I’m reading, or writing, my natural reaction tends to be “Leo (Leopold, yes, that’s his name) down!” Now, I don’t mean that I never pet him. I do, all the time. But I mean really touch him. Feeling the density of his coat, the hard scar tissue on the end of his tail stump, how long and soft his ears had grown. It actually brought a smile to my face as I sat there with my growing puppy on my lap, and I ended up sitting there for the rest of the night before I headed off to bed with puppy in tow.

As an editor, I spend so much time at my desk in front of my computer that I sometimes don’t take the time to take pleasure in the simpler things in life. I know, it sounds so cliche that it makes my teeth hurt. Regardless, I realized last night that it is true.

As a writer, one is supposed to be able to detail a universe, a world, a country, a field, a tree. Detailing it so that readers can “see” whatever it is you’re describing as if they were there. Writers do this to draw their reader in, to make the world “come alive,” and to really “set the scene.”

As an editor, I’ve found there is a problem in this. Not that the writers are trying to describe things – no, not that at all – it’s just that writers don’t describe enough! Of course not all writers will fall into this category, but for the sake of my post, lets focus on the inexperienced or fledgling writer. Most new writers do a wonderful job describing the multicolored robes of the king’s magician, the sun glinting off the trooper’s polished helmet, or the length of the monster’s “razor sharp teeth.” But then they stop, and move on. Let me be honest – it’s not enough.

To truely immerse a reader into your story, you need to describe not only sight, but all of the five senses. You remember learning about them way back in grade school, don’t you? Sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. While most writers have both the sight and hearing senses down, few regularly use touch, and even fewer writers ever use the sense of smell and taste.

Why? I’m not quite sure. The world around you (or your characters for that matter) is alive, constantly moving and changing from second to second. To fully create and successfully describe a new world in which a reader has never been, you need to describe everything about it. Below are a few questions I’ve received from authors after my commenting on their lack of “sense”:

Q. How am I supposed to incorporate smell into my novel if all the characters are doing is traveling? (Fantasy genre)
A. Well, when they stop to rest in the shade, simply let them breathe. Things to smell: pine trees, sap, a dead animal carcass, one of the guys fart.

Q. I never show my characters eating. How do you expect me to incorporate taste?
A. …Remember that carcass I mentioned earlier? You’ve all smelt something so terrible that not only do you smell it, but it crawls into your mouth and clings to the back of your throat? That’s one way. Another is if you do have eating scenes, describe the food. The spices, the sweetness, whether it’s sour.

Q. I describe touch a lot in my book. But you still said it wasn’t enough.
A. It’s not. Saying that the metal was hot, or that the brook was “cool against her legs” is not enough. By describing touch I mean going beyond the obvious boiling water = hot! example. When she kisses him, is his face smooth or rough with a two-day stubble of beard? When he stepped into his armor, was the wool padding soft or did it scratch against his skin? Was the moon rock bitingly cold, or did they need rubber-handled tongs to pick it up?

Go outside. Take off your shoes. Step in a mud puddle and splash around. Run your fingers against the rough bark of the ancient oak tree out back. Kiss your dog on his wet nose. Stick a piece of grass in your mouth and lay on your back to stare at the passing clouds.

Go on. Get out and touch things…