Building and Editing Your Book

Every manuscript begins with inspiration. But it’s a shifty, tempestuous thing, prone to short, violent fits and followed by long, terrible droughts. That when inspiration comes it is generally a messy regurgitation of all the weird, odd, unique little epiphanies you’ve subconsciously gathered—to be a little visceral—is par for the course. And when they all start to gurgle up at once you just have to find the nearest toilet bowl and hunch over until it’s all out and done.

Was that a little too gross of a metaphor?

What I mean is that after your first draft, what sits there on the page is oftentimes a jumbled heap of good ideas surrounded by loads of bad writing. You cannot write a perfect first draft. Ever. Just doesn’t happen. And the last thing you want to do is send your first attempt to an agent or a publisher. We’re simply too busy to sift through the muck and wait for your good ideas uncover themselves. We don’t have the time or the patience (as much as we wish we did) to constantly go mining for diamonds in the rough.

What you’ve got is about five pages. Five. The first five pages (and this is double-spaced, size twelve, Times New Roman or Courier, one inch margin, tabbed indent pages) are what it takes for the person reading your manuscript to decide if it’s worth pursuing at all. You might be lucky and get ten pages, or you might be unlucky and get two. But it’s best to assume that if you don’t hook us in at five pages, then your manuscript isn’t where it needs to be.

But be not afraid, for I’m not here to scare you off. I’m here to help you shape your jumbled heap (from the first five pages to the last) into something pretty. And all in five deceptively simple (but really not-so-terrifyingly massive) steps:

ONE: You’ve worked day and night and your eyes are red and you’ve forgotten what sunlight feels like and there’s more coffee than blood running through your veins. You typed the last word of your magnum opus three minutes ago and it’s done. And for a little while, you don’t want to touch it. Watch a movie. Go out with friends. Breathe in the night air. Take a jog. Do whatever you need to do to spend—at minimum—a week away from it (and I’d personally suggest a month). It’ll make you more clear-sighted when you start your revisions.

TWO: Outlining. You may have created a breakdown or outline for your manuscript before you started writing (especially helpful for nonfiction manuscripts, or fiction with multiple plotlines or non-linear storytelling). But if you don’t have one yet, now is the time (if you do, it’s the time to change it to match your manuscript). It will make your revisions much easier if you can break everything down. Divide your manuscript however you like—by chapter, by character, by idea—whatever works. Just make sure you cover the entire thing in detail.

THREE: Revising can be as monumental of a task as you make it. On the other hand, it can be, if not easy, at least manageable. Create a plan of action. Read through each piece of your breakdown or outline individually, looking for three elements (best to do one at a time):

  1. Proofreading errors: punctuation, spelling, grammar
  2. Developmental errors: characterization, description, background elements, conflicts or lack thereof, ideas without substance
  3. Structural errors: lack of continuity or flow, plot problems or questions, lack of conclusions or open ends

Revise the individual pieces, fit said pieces back together, and read it again as a whole. Then repeat.

FOUR: Write these four things for your book: a synopsis, a one-liner, a one-minute pitch, and a query letter.

  1. Synopsis: a summary of your book. You can have multiple ones of variable lengths, but try to have a one-page summary of your book’s beginning, middle, end. It doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed, but it should have the major plot elements and thematic ideas, and of course, your main protagonist and antagonist.
  2. One-liner: also known as the hook, or the tagline, or the concept, this is the sentence than encapsulates your entire story. If it helps, imagine your book as having a movie poster, and putting this sentence on the poster.
  3. One-minute pitch: a minute’s worth of talking about your book. A paragraph of synopsis, your one-liner, and any other interesting tidbits (books it is similar to, if it has a twist ending, etc). You want to have this pre-prepared, because you never know when you’ll have a short opportunity to pitch your book to someone who has potential interest in it.
  4. Query letter: this is the letter you send to potential agents or publishers. It gives the basic information about the book, any relevant information about you as an author, and asks if who you are querying would be interested in the manuscript. These vary depending on the agent or publisher, so check out their websites for guidelines.

Once you have these things, compare them to your manuscript. Do they match? That is, do these descriptions of your manuscript actually match what you’ve written? If you want your manuscript to better reflect your materials, then it’s time to revise. Again.

FIVE: Revise. (Again.) The amount of revisions to your manuscript varies between authors. But know that it is an ongoing process, even when your manuscript has been accepted. (Give editors credit, because they revise for a living!). It is important to be open to changes. This can be a great time to give the manuscript to trusted people: friends, a writer’s group, any fresh set of eyes that can offer insight that is not lathered by niceness or compliments. You want the truth, you have to be harsh and blunt and realistic. That’s why you revise so many times. You slowly but surely shape all the bits and pieces and ideas into a tangible, readable book.

After these steps (and possible repeats of these steps), you still won’t have perfection. But what you will have is a manuscript with a fighting chance at being read all the way through, that shows structure and insight, that can be explained easily and has a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. And that can (fingers crossed) eventually be published.