You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. What’s next? At some point you’ll need to show your manuscript to a beta reader or two. Seeking an outside opinion is an invaluable and inescapable step in your writing process. Before you send your novel off for critical eyes and minds to parse through though, I’d recommend passing over it with a red pen.
By putting your best foot forward, you’ll feel more confident. But you’ll also be correcting some of your story’s superficial problems before someone else critiques it, which means your beta readers will concentrate on the deeper issues. What you gain from a critique depends upon what you invest.
That said, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life chiseling your manuscript into its absolute best shape before sharing it. So, here are five flaws you can quickly fix before your book hits the critique circuit. (Also, keep an eye out for typos as you go.)
1. Too Many One-Sentence Paragraphs
Problem: First drafts often look like this:
Character does an action. Then something unexpected happens.
What does it mean?
What can it mean?
Isolating a major plot point or character thought is a legitimate way to add emphasis, and it brings a novel’s pacing to life. The trouble is that many authors (like me) overuse this technique in their first drafts, which dulls its effect until it becomes annoying.
Solution: When you see a solitary sentence, try the following three experiments to determine if the separation is necessary:
- Connect the sentence to the end of the previous paragraph and reread it. Does it work as one paragraph?
- Read the page aloud. Do you naturally add a pause for the isolated sentence? Does it sound right?
- Name the emotion you hope to create. If you can’t pinpoint it, the sentence probably doesn’t deserve its own line.
2. Sentences that Are the Same Length
Problem: This is pretty self-explanatory. If all your sentences are identical in length, they become tedious and even difficult to read.
Solution: Add variety. When I was still a happy little homeschooled pup, I took a writing course that I did not like (IEW, anyone?), but it taught me some good strategies and even made me laugh once or twice. The instructor (who reminded me of Steve Irwin) said we needed to use VSSs in our assignments. VSS stood for a “Very Short Sentence” containing two or three words. VSSs change up the pacing of your story and help your brain reset and refocus.
NOTE: The best way to catch this and the next error is to read your manuscript aloud.
3. Sentences that Start with the Same Word
Problem: Character names and personal pronouns are commonly repeated sentence starters. “Wesley… Wesley… Then, Wesley…” is monotonous to read.
Solution: Personally, I find that these sentences don’t usually need tweaked—just separated from each other. I’m bad at description. When I open four sentences in a row with my hero’s name, I probably haven’t paused long enough to describe his thoughts, the setting, or other characters. Splitting up matching sentence beginnings will not only resolve the immediate issue, it will also enable you to spread description throughout your scene instead of throwing in a chunk at once.
4. Recurring Character Actions
Problem: Character actions can be challenging because a body has a limited assortment of movements. Sometimes an author latches onto a particular mannerism and uses it in excess. My characters roll their eyes (on almost every page), and I have a friend whose characters are universally fascinated with blinking. Defaulting to a certain action is normal, but as you revise, you need to minimize the repetition.
Solution: Ask yourself these questions every time your character does the thing:
- What emotion is the character experiencing? Is his response realistic?
- Does the action fit the situation? Walk through the scene, voice the dialogue aloud, and analyze the character’s thoughts before answering this.
- Could another action communicate the same idea? You can find some great cheat sheets online that map common gestures to common emotions. Many gestures are nervous habits, some of which I don’t have and thus don’t think about. The cheat sheets help me give the character a personality different from mine.
5. Scanty Description
Problem: Description is hard. Characters and plot twists and emotional connections drag us into a story, and as first-time writers, we want to dive into the exciting stuff. The result is a host of novels that lack a story world and happen in a fog. Without any details, readers will picture clichéd scenes in their heads to fill in the missing setting, and that makes your book forgettable.
Solution: In the first paragraph of each new scene, include at least one unexpected or striking detail—an ironing board in the hallway, a printer singing in the office, or an old soda stain in the shotgun seat of the hero’s new ride. Providing a quick, specific detail won’t erase the need for complete descriptions in your book, but it will give readers’ imaginations an interesting building block to play with.
Tips for Your Read-Through
When you comb through your manuscript to do these quick edits, here are a few final suggestions:
- Print out your book. Your eyes are probably tired of the screen, and holding your words on tangible paper is special. Plus, Facebook isn’t a click away and you might actually accomplish something.
- Read the text aloud. (If you’re lucky, have someone else read it to you.) Hearing your words will help you process them differently than when you wrote them, and you’ll detect pacing issues, repeated phrases, and typos you wouldn’t have noticed without audio support.
- Have fun. You wrote a book. That’s super cool.
That’s it. Time to tear through your beloved manuscript and then kick it out into the real world!
“Well, I’m back.” The emotion those words spark in Lord of the Rings fans across the world perfectly describes how Brandon feels on a daily basis when he finishes writing and starts working on homework. (Yes, writing comes first.) His fictional worlds, where the suns never set and Rutel is Servant-Lord of the Sky, leave him wanting more…but unfortunately life is still a thing. When Brandon can’t hang out in Faërie, he fills his time with normal mortal things like homework, work, friends, (oxford commas) and family. He enjoys backyard football (or any sport), board games, English country dancing, and reading. He doesn’t particularly enjoy (but still spends time) driving, doing math, and waiting for YouTube ads to end.
Brandon enjoys writing-related-but-still-not-actually-writing activities including critiquing, outlining, and updating his blog, The Woodland Quill. Some of his favorite books (there are too many to list) are The 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, Look and Live by Matt Papa (warning: nonfiction), and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. (Due to his Lord of the Rings reference at the beginning of this blurb, he’s not going to bring that pinnacle of literary genius up again, although he probably should and sort of just did.)
Brandon lives on the Nebraska plains, where the people don’t actually live in teepees but do plant as much corn as the stereotypes suggest. His wonderful family keeps him somewhat grounded in reality, his friends keep his extroverted personality from imploding while he’s writing, and his ice cream keeps him…happy.
Poor ice cream.