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Avoid Rejection: Five Ways to Polish Your Manuscript

One: Let It Sit

Like a vintage port, your writing can improve with maturity. Sounds odd and hardly proactive, but leaving your completed manuscript to sit for a while can help you see flaws in it later. While the ink is still drying, you are too involved with the characters and situations to look at every word objectively. Despite the urge to submit your masterpiece to a publisher, or publish it yourself, give it time to settle.

As an author, don’t rush anything about your writing, unless perhaps completing the first draft. Once completed step away and think about other things. The next work in progress, or cover designs or even a map, anything but the manuscript. Trust me, when you pick it up in a few weeks, or months you will see it in a new light. This is when you can begin to polish your work and make it shine.

Two: Check It For Plot, Continuity, and Flow

Reading through your dusty manuscript, look at it from the perspective of the reader as much as possible. Try to forget you are the author and see where there is too much information, or too little. Do your characters behave true to form throughout the novel? Do relationships remain believable? Does plot thicken and drama build? Are there moments of introspection, action and resolution? Does the plot move forward smoothly? Does every word, conversation and scene tie back to the plot? Check that your theme and underlying premise remains topical.

Three: Action and Reaction

When editing your manuscript for publication ensure you have always followed the Action before Reaction rule. Look at each sentence and scene, checking that an action motivates the POV character BEFORE they react. His/her reaction should then follow with initial feelings first. The hit of adrenaline or fear will prompt reflex reactions. Flinching, fighting, fleeing, and anger, come before the character thinks rationally. Then we have deliberate actions taken. Planned actions or speech such as a plea for help or a threat, follow the first feelings and reflex reactions. For example:

Motivation: The dragon dropped to the ground in front of our hero.

Feeling: Fear coursed through our hero’s veins.

Reflex: He grasped his sword, rasping steel free from leather before he dragged air into his lungs.

Deliberate Action: Fleeing didn’t rate a mention. Standing his ground our hero glared into the beast’s dark eyes. “Now or never. Meet your nemesis.”

For more information on this subject, check out Randy Ingermanson’s “Writing the Perfect Scene”.

Once confident all actions have motivations, and scenes have hoped for outcome, conflict and problem, followed by response, problem and choice. Each scene should push the plot forward in at least five ways. These can incorporate the concepts used for modeling any well-structured scene. They include conflict, crisis, calamity, consequence, change, conclusion,

Watch that each of these ideas are met in some way to ensure you don’t have excess words that deviate from the plot. In a rich, riveting manuscript each sentence, paragraph, and scene is vital to the story.

Four: Cull Words To Avoid

Excess words are superfluous to good writing. Any author you meet will have a list of words they try to avoid. Reasons vary, and so will the length of the list. The list tends to get longer as you learn more about writing. I have listed some here. There are reasons to go with them that we can discuss more deeply later if you are interested. Please share your favorite ‘bad’ words if I have left any out.

Avoid: ‘To be’ and variations of the verb (has been, should have been). Passive voice can weaken any fantasy tale. Give your readers more. Let them see and hear what is going on and become a part of the scene by using the five senses.

Weak: He was angry.

Strong: He clenched his fists and ground his teeth.

Stronger: Anger tightened every muscle, pumped adrenaline through each vein.

Avoid: Had, That, Up, Down, Really, Almost, Just, So, Went, Actually, As, Suddenly, Beautiful and Handsome. These words are used without thought, but often do little to improve a sentence. When a fantasy author is polishing their manuscript, they should go through and remove any case where these words are unnecessary.

‘Had’ places the action in the past. That is often unnecessary. To bring immediacy to their writing fantasy authors will strive to keep action and interest in the present.

Weak: He had done his best.

Strong: He did his best.

Weak: He had to find the answer in the scroll.

Strong: He must find the answer in the scroll.

Avoid: Adverbs those pesky words ending in ‘ly’ that don’t strengthen the verb. Find a stronger verb. For example:

Walked slowly … strolled

Ran quickly … sprinted

Yelled loudly … shouted

Avoid: Thought, Felt, Wondered, Pondered, Sensed, and Hoped. When writing in character driven POV, these words intrude on the reader. Try and eliminate the need for them.

Weak: He felt the cold rain against his skin.

Strong: Cold rain chilled his skin.

Weak: She thought the beast looked exhausted.

Strong: The beast looked exhausted.

Stronger: Exhausted, the beast’s head hung, flanks heaved, eyes looked dull and listless.

Avoid: Excess words. Words that add nothing to your story. Go through the manuscript and look for extraneous words. These are words that fail to add meaning or clarity to your work. In the example above, we have ‘yelled loudly’. ‘Loudly’ is unnecessary here, not because it is an adverb, but because ‘yelled’ by itself infers a loud shout. Consider, explosive eruption, frightening nightmare, draconian dragon, illuminating light, raging wrath, fearless courage, aching hurt…You get the idea.

Weak: He sprinted at top speed.

Strong: He sprinted.

Weak: She knelt on bended knees.

Strong: She knelt.

Weak: Riding on feisty horses, they rode into the sunset.

Strong: On feisty horses, they rode into the sunset.

These are obvious, but keep the idea in mind when you look at your work.

Avoid: Overusing pronouns. He, she, and it, overused can cause confusion. If the sentence doesn’t work, rewrite. Confusion can lose your flow and continuity in one flawed sentence. Try to keep pronouns and their subject clear and precise. The danger of uncertain reference can affect the use of ‘it’ and ‘they’.

Only a few of the knights owned warhorses. They needed to find mounts.

‘They’ seems to refer to the knights who already had horses, or the warhorses themselves, rather than the knights who did not own warhorses.

Uncertain reference can also affect ‘he’ and ‘she’.

“He told him he must help him saddle the horse.”

Here the reader has no idea who is saying what to whom. Avoiding the pronouns can clarify the situation but leads to a stilted style of writing and is probably better to rewrite the sentence.’

“Connor told Dean that Dean must help Connor saddle the horse.”

Better, but rewriting the sentence will make it less clunky.

“Connor needed to saddle his horse. He told Dean to help him.”

Or…

“Connor needed to saddle his horse. He told Dean to help”

Or…

“Connor needed to saddle his horse, so he asked Dean for help.”

Or you could use dialogue.

Connor turned toward Dean. “Help me saddle the horse.”

For the sake of clarity, the fantasy writer should place a proper noun before its personal pronoun.

Five: The Senses

Painting the image includes incorporating information from the five senses. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch/texture, and emotion all help add authenticity to the fantasy setting. Including these pieces of information need not involve a huge info dump. The fantasy author should develop the skill of introducing snippets of information in narrative or dialogue without blocks of descriptions.

Sight: Remember to address the reader’s visual imagery: What can they see?

Smell: Their olfactory perception (smell): taste, smell and air quality.

Sound: Audio response: noise, background noise, voices, music, wind, rain, waves etc.

Touch: Textures, from clothing to cobblestones, every extra piece of info adds to the world you are creating.

Emotions: The most important information the reader needs is to know how each character is feeling or reaction to the situation. The POV character can ascertain emotion through body language and tone of voice, facial expression and gestures. One interesting thing to remember is that we take only 10% of our impressions from the words we hear. The rest of our impressions are from those other factors, like body language and tone of voice. These are the writer’s allies and vital to expressing a character’s emotion.

Hope you find something useful here. These are ideas for the initial polishing of your manuscript. The more often you polish the better the shine. Keep note of new ideas on how to improve your work. Take note of critique comments and ask questions if in doubt. Often discussion can clarify a problem before it becomes a habit.

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16 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Fantastic Article! I will be printing this out and taping it to the office wall! 😀

  2. Wendy says:

    Very useful article, Rosalie.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. It is invaluable.

  3. Thanks Overlord and Wendy,
    Glad you found it useful. I know the list of words to avoid could have been longer.
    Already I would like to add:

    something…. doesn’t give any real information. Something made her turn. The slightest breeze, a sound, the hint of perfume, the sound of a door closing, her sixth sense…ANYTHING that adds to the atmosphere and story… is better than ‘something’, in almost every situation.

    went…. ditto.. any verb can be stronger than went… He went to the door.. He walked, crawled, hobbled… etc.

    got… gotten…. unless in dialogue watch for this pesky form of the verb. The only advisable use of it is ‘get’. Personally if I was tempted to use ‘got’ I would rewrite my sentence.

    There are others. What do you look for?

  4. Khaldun says:

    Thanks for the great article! You ask the question, “Does every word, conversation and scene tie back to the plot?” I’d have to say every word, conversation, or scene should advance either plot, setting, or character, and it would be better if it was all three. Too much of an imbalance in any area makes the plot bog down, so try to keep things balanced. I think that makes sense. =)

  5. Khaldun,
    Good point. You are so right. It should ADVANCE the plot, setting of character!
    Well said.

    Also, I must note in the ‘five senses’, it has been pointed out to me that TASTE should have more focus. Wendy Laharnar, author of the Unhewn Stone, suggests that Taste (sweet/sour/bitter/salty/savoury/acid) is one of the hardest for her to use. The five senses she names are
    Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, Taste.
    Which leaves Emotion as the Sixth sense. I think that sounds great. As long as we remember to engage them all as we write…

  6. Wendy says:

    Thanks for quoting me Rosalie,
    You have such a generous spirit? May I just add: We have the senses and emotions. The sixth sense is extra sensory perception or a hunch. But that’s a whole different topic.

  7. Sandra says:

    Great article Rosalie.

    You make sound points. As does Khaldun. As casual as it can seem, each word has a purpose, and it should be advancment of something important. ie plot, character, setting

    Well done.
    Sandra

  8. Thanks Sandra, this article seems to be growing with each comment and it was long enough to begin with. I guess that reflects the learning process.
    We keep discovering more about what makes our writing shine.
    Wendy, Sixth sense v emotion… Thanks for your guidance!!

  9. Komal Verma says:

    Wow, awesome article, full of gem like advice.

    I am printing this out and using it to help hack and polish away at my gargantuan MS.

    Many thanks!

  10. Komal Verma says:

    Also, does anyone else get excited about the editing process? Revisiting your work to make it even better and solid is so much fun 😀

  11. Wendy says:

    Komal,
    Oh Yeah! I love the editing process, especially in the 3rd draft when the story and script are ‘tidy’. You know when all the clutter is disposed of and you are ready to dust and enrich. I’m on a 2nd draft now, using the information in Rosalie’s post. Coming back to the story after a long time , it is easy to see the lack of continuity and flow. I’m in the slow process of correcting this now, but until I do, I can’t settle to the fun part of finding stronger verbs and adding more of the senses. “Painting the image’ as Rosalie calls it. What a lovely phrase; a fitting description for the editing process, isn’t it?

  12. Komal, I love the editing process a little too much, I think. I cannot count the times I have re written and tweaked my manuscripts. Next week I begin work on editing ready for September release and I am sure I will be looking beyond the editor’s suggestions for ways to improve my work. I have learnt lots since submitting the ms.
    So hard to STOP editing. Love learning, love polishing. Does that mean I am developing a case of obsessive compulsive disorder, or does it just make for better writing?? *bites fingernails*

  13. Wendy, Thanks for your comments too. I have always thought of writing as painting with words. I suppose that comes from being a portrait artist for thirty odd years.
    Whether a pen or a brush, knowing when to stop and appreciate the shine is the hard part!!

  14. […] article will address the task of applying polish to our manuscript. VN:F [1.9.16_1159]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (12 votes cast)Avoid Rejection – Editors' Pet […]

  15. Lauren Cude says:

    Excellent article — I’m in the editing process of my first novel and applying these suggestions is making the writing much stronger. Thank you!

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