Wednesday, 19 October 2011

How to Doctor Your Own Book

Tell Me a Story

"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector."
- Ernest Hemingway -
The Book Doctor
Most first time writers fail to understand that writing the first draft of a novel is but one small step on the long road to becoming published. Most think that getting those precious words down is all that is needed. They are wrong, they must now become a Book Doctor …..

To complete a novel is an astonishing achievement in its own right, most people never get to do it, but more is required before submitting it to an agent. Invariably, most novels need a huge dollop of revision before they are up to publication standard.

Artists, dancers, and actors tweak their work until it is perfect. Why then, do new writers baulk at improving their work?

The Book Doctor and Amateurs
Publishers, agents, and literary critics differentiate between amateur and professional writers quite easily.
  • The amateur is sensitive about their work and fiercely defends any part of it. ~ A professional considers criticism part and parcel of the game.
  • Amateurs take adverse comments as a private slight. ~ Professionals understand there is nothing personal about it, they realise that publishers have their own house-style and, they must conform to those requirements.
  1. As a book doctor you must check that the first chapter holds the reader’s attention - does it need a more intriguing start?
  2. As a book doctor you must check that you are happy with your characterisation. Do your characters come across as living, breathing people who act in rational and consistent ways, or are they cardboard cut-outs?
  3. As a book doctor you must check that your dialogue is spot on. Remember not to let characters make speeches or preach to readers. Also, don’t forget that dialogue must SEEM as if it’s natural and lifelike, which is NOT the same as recording ‘normal‘ speech. Everyday conversation is too jumpy and incoherent to make sense when written down.
  4. As a book doctor you must check that you have a strong story line which runs unambiguously throughout the book.
  5. As a book doctor you must check that you have you preserved a good pace throughout - a pace that varies yet never flags.
  6. As a book doctor you must check that the conflict and tension in your novel is sufficiently strong. Is it plausible? Remember that conflict doesn’t mean that your main characters are squabbling all the way through the story. Some of the best tension comes from inner conflict.
  7. As a book doctor you must check that the theme of your story runs unequivocally yet not laboriously throughout the book.
  8. As a book doctor you must check that you have balanced bright with sinister, delight with grief. Remember that there is frequently a silver lining to clouds. Don’t lose sight of the fact that most readers are looking for entertainment.
  9. As a book doctor you must check that your ending is rational and satisfying to your reader. Have you tied up all loose ends?
  10. Finally, as a book doctor you must check that your writing style flows smoothly. Style is everything.

The Book Doctor And The Second Draft.
When you’ve finally decided which revisions you need to make, go ahead and write the second draft. Be brave about it. Don’t hang on to favourite passages simply because you think they’re well written. If they don’t move the story forward in some way, they should be deleted. There is no room for hangers-on. Every word should count.

So that’s it. Your book is surely ready for submission now… Wait - there is still more to do…
The Final Task For The Book Doctor.
The final task for a book doctor is to go through the manuscript line by line - starting with the last page and working back towards the beginning - this may sound strange, but it is to avoid the trap of falling in love with your own words…

This time you are searching for technical errors - correcting grammar, removing purple prose, eliminating the over-use of adjectives and adverbs, checking for long sentences, inspecting for repetitions of favourite words and phrases, etc.

The Book Doctor and Critique.
An external, analytical eye becomes invaluable at this stage - and an understanding that any criticism will not be aimed at you as a person, but at improving your novel. However, you should resist the temptation to let unqualified people read it. The opinions of friends and family are almost worthless - unless of course, they are professional publishers, or agents.

Invite the comments of your local writers’ circle by all means, but unless members are published writers their comments might be coloured by personal likes and dislikes - and maybe a certain amount of resentment. You might receive a more balanced viewpoint by using an online writers’ circle instead.

For a truly impartial judgment, you must pay for a professional critique. If you can’t afford a professional critique for the whole of the manuscript, consider a report on a synopsis and the first three chapters. This should provide an important guideline and help with further revisions.

The Book Doctor and the Final Draft
When you’re happy that you’ve removed all obvious errors and weaknesses, you’re ready to type out the final copy - the one you’re prepared to submit to your agent or publisher.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s the editor’s job to iron out wrinkles. Agents and publishers want your manuscript to be as perfect as possible - if it isn’t, they’ll dump it and pick up the next one.

Be wise - be a Book Doctor.

2 comments:

Harry Dewulf said...

I think much of this was, sadly, good advice until recently. It was indeed necessary to satisfy the vicissitudes of a paternalistic and authoritarian publishing industry, by conforming, conforming and conforming again to their arbitrary standards. Yes agents, publishers and distributers know from experience what readers expect, but this is at least in part because they do their level best to ensure that readers only expect what they are told they can have.
Today, independant publishing means that not only can an author be a whole lot more unconventional, but he can also be the owner of his own work in a much purer way - he doesn't have to conform to a publisher's view, and the only measure of whether the writer is right or wrong is whether he can find some readers.
This freedom is freedom, yes, to remain in obscurity but remain true to your story. This freedom is also freedom to explore, to evolve, to discover what readers will bear. My personal experience with regard, for instance, to punctuation style, is that readers will adapt to any consistent usage regardless of its conformity to style "standards". Extend this logic to all areas of written storytelling and you have the potential for a major revolution in written storytelling. One that has been a frustratingly long time in coming.

Ileandra Young said...

This is, in my opinion, the hardest part of being a writer. I've regularly fallen into the trap of falling too much in love with something I've written, or being sensitive about it the point that I'd happily murderise someone with a 'bad' word to say about it.
Its one of the ways I've grown as a writer this year; and a post like this helps me understand just how crucial the rewriting, editing and 'doctoring' part can be.

Thanks for a great post. :)