Friday, December 14, 2012

A Writer's Revision Checklist--How to Make Sure You've Covered All the Bases before You Send Out Your Manuscript

This month, my novel-in-progress reached a new level:  final revision. 

Woo-hoo, this is cause for celebration.  When a book hits final revision, it has moved beyond an ongoing one-way conversation in the writer's head.  By now, the book is talking back--big time.

Only a few steps remain before it's ready to send off to agent/editor/publisher.  And these final steps are key:  If they go well, the "whole" becomes much bigger than the sum of its islands, or parts.

Most writers feel a sense of urgency at final revision.  As the book comes into its own, you can see the good objectively.  You've been asking yourself, Is it publishable? for a while.  Now you can answer with a hopeful YES!



And this urgency is the danger zone in final revision.  We are understandably impatient:  It's been a long haul.  Get it done, already! 

Shortcuts look tempting.  Skip a few steps, get it out the door into other hands.  Contact that agent, editor, publisher--now!  Capture their attention--before your courage flies away or the publishing window closes.

As a professional editor for over twenty years, my job was to put the brakes on--calm the over-eager writer, and remind them what's at stake.  What do you stand to lose, if you rush through these final steps? 

Well, for one, most agents and editors only give a new writer one look.  Final revision catches those glaring problems that brand you as an amateur.  Editors and first readers are trained to spot these and have an easy excuse to reject a manuscript. 

So, take the time to make it right.  When you feel this urgency--as I am now--remember that this is the most important time to not rush. 

Make your checklist and check it twice.  Take a few extra days to go through the manuscript and make sure it sings.

Making a List, Checking It Twice
Years ago, when I began publishing books, editors had a checklist they used to help writers through final revision.  Writers were expected to know their topic and produce a decent manuscript.  Editors made that manuscript clean.

Then most editors exited the publishing world.  They took their checklists with them.  Now writers have to create their own (or hire a freelance editor to do this work for them). 

Publishers are so busy watching the bottom line, there aren't the same systems in place now.  If you doubt this, think of the last book you read and the number of typos in it. 

Many new writers believe this is their agent's job.  In today's super competitive market, agents don't bother with manuscripts unless they're clean.  They don't want to babysit a new writer, unless they have great interest in that writer's book.  Don't risk this. 

Make your list, and when you get to final revision, check it twice.

What Needs Attention at Final Revision  Jay Gilbertson is the author of a wonderful series of novels about Madeline Island (see www.jaygilbertson.com to check them out).  He just had his book launch for the latest title, Full Moon over Madeline Island. 

At a recent workshop, when I mentioned my Writer's Revision Checklist, Jay got very interested.  After class, he wrote me:  "You mentioned that you have a checklist of things you look for during your final draft. Might you consider sharing that? I looked through your writing book and couldn't find such an animal and I think it would be so helpful to make sure I have all the elements you teach about dealt with in some fashion."

Once your book structure is solid and you've done as much as you can (maybe working step-by-step through the revision chapters in Your Book Starts Here), this checklist can help you tie up lots of loose ends.

Some of these will be no-brainers.  Others may be unusual. 

Checklist #1--Continuity Check

This first checklist requires lists of location, players, and objects.  Make the lists, then scan quickly through each chapter to check that item of the list.  Important:  don't get sidetracked into other edits while doing this, or you'll lose your place.

1.  Verify physical details about each major location:  List the locations in your book and check consistency on details such as number of rooms in a house, placement of doors, and anything else that might have shifted unexpectedly as you wrote.

2.  List main characters' names (including narrator) and write down their physical descriptions.  Check each chapter to make sure everything is consistent.  (My elderly mother once read a novel where the main character's name changed from Emily to Amanda mid-story.  Obviously the writer didn't do this step.)

3.  List major objects, such as cars, favorite possessions, and anything else the reader will keep track of.  Scan to make sure these are consistent throughout.  (I once inadvertantly changed a red Fiat to a blue Honda halfway through my book--and luckily I caught it at revision.)

4.  Verify place names.  Make sure these are spelled correctly (if real places) and referred to consistently throughout the book.

5.  Check for unconscious repetition of similar scenes.  My last novel had five breakfast scenes, all with blueberry pancakes.  Easy to vary that, once I noticed it. 

Checklist #2--Table of Contents against Chapter Titles, Subheads, Exercise Titles, and Page Numbers

1.  If you've titled your chapters, go through them and compare to the table of contents--you'd be surprised how often these are not matching.

2.  If you've used subheads (section titles) and these are listed in the table of contents, check them.

3.  In nonfiction books, authors use exercise boxes, titled sidebars, and other pull-outs--verify these if listed in either a table of contents or appendix.

4.  Finally, make sure everything listed in the table of contents corresponds to its correct page number there. 

Checklist #3--Beginning and Ending of Each Chapter and the Book as a Whole

1.  Read the last sentence or two of each chapter.  Then read the beginning sentence or two of the next chapter.  Add an image or other repeating note to link them.  (This was taught to me by one of my instructors in the MFA program--and it made my first novel a page turner, according to many readers, after it was published.  A very simple step but essential.)

2.  If the point of view (who is narrating) changes between chapters, check the first paragraph of each new chapter to add identifiers (so we can tell who is speaking).

3.  Look at the opening two pages and the final two pages.  Do they echo each other in some way--via similar image, location, who is present, topic?  If possible, strengthen this "echo."

Checklist #4--Sentence and Paragraph Lengths1. Print each chapter and lay it out on a bed or the floor, so all the pages line up and are visible.  Squint at the pages until they become a visual blur.  Look for blocks of text without any white space.  Then look for blocks that are too similar in length, whether short or long.  Break all of these up more.  They will feel visually monotonous to the reader, even if they are full of action.  (Thanks to novelist Alex Chee for this tip.)

2.  In key chapters (in all chapters, if you have energy for it), do the same with your sentence lengths.  Break them up, vary them.  Avoid sleepy rhythms.

Checklist #5--Final Spell and Grammar Check

1.  Run spell check (and grammar check, if you use that) one final time after you've made all the above corrections.

2.  Read the manuscript aloud to yourself one last time, to catch anything spell check and grammar check doesn't.  Use a yellow highlighter to mark places that still sound awkward. 

3.  Check the homonyms that often get misused:  they're, their, and there; your and you're; to, too, and two.  If you're not sure which is correct, get help.

4.  Check all dialogue--make sure opening and closing quote marks are in place.  Make sure quote marks are outside the punctuation at the end of sentences.  (Correct:  "wow," she said.  Incorrect:  "wow", she said.)

After you fix everything you find, I recommend one more pass through the checklists.  I'm always surprised at how editing (even just one more time!) can place the manuscript at ground zero again. 

I hope these tips help! 

Print this blog for when you're happily at final revision, and add to the checklists as you learn more.  They will save you embarrassment and hopefully keep you from rejection as you begin to submit and publish your book.