HARRY BINGHAM is the author of six novels and four works of non-fiction. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop, which is the UK’s leading consultancy for first time writers. He handles loads of book manuscript assessments every year and – while every book and every author is different – he tells Sell Your Story UK the same old issues keep coming round. So here’s his guide to self-editing your work: effectively a checklist for a quick do-it-yourself manuscript assessment.
Manuscript assessment: the top ten lessons
- Check your concept is sound. We often receive books that are unpublishable because they’re poorly conceived from the start. A literary novel where nothing much happens for 120,000 words. A thriller that isn’t very thrilling. A children’s book which is basically one long lecture on the dangers of electro-magnetic radiation. These things are unsaleable in principle. It’s not a question of editing these manuscripts; you need to discard them.
- Check your writing style is strong. A good prose style isn’t a question of punctuation and grammar (although those things do matter a lot). It’s about making sure that every sentence is economical, fresh, and precise. Avoid using 12 words where 9 would do and don’t relapse into cliché or formula. Say what you mean with precision – something that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
- Ensure your plot keeps moving. When you assess your plot, it’s worth writing down the plot movement in every chapter. If you find that there is a single chapter (or long scene) where the plot doesn’t move forward in some key respect, that chapter isn’t pulling its weight and it needs to go.
- Stay in the dramatic present. One of the cliches of manuscript assessment is ‘show, not tell’. That means, you basically need to dramatise your book as much as possible. The reader needs to feel as though they’re watching characters on a stage acting out the scene. The reader does NOT want to feel that they’re standing outside in the foyer where some bored security guard is telling them what would be happening on stage right now … if they could see it. So stay dramatic, stay present.
- Find the essence of your characters. Some characters will be very individual, very eccentric. Others will be ordinary people in remarkable situations. Either way, your character needs to hum with life – they need to feel like themselves and nobody else. That means finding distinctive little details that suit that person and define them. The secret of good character is all in the detail.
- Don’t mess up your points of view. This is too complex an issue for one small bullet point – but manuscript assessors often find that a writer has ruined their entire manuscript by stuffing it with so many different ‘point of view’ characters it’s hard for a reader to get their bearings. Basically, if your book is told just from the point of view of your hero/heroine, you’re doing fine. If you have 2-3 points of view, and those characters are all important to the book, you’re probably doing fine. If you have more than 3 points of view, then you need to be very careful of what you’re doing – in fact, you might want to check in with a pro assessor sooner rather than later.
- Be a perfectionist. Good writers are perfectionist writers. I know one author who edits her book about 40 times before going to her publisher. That’s not crazy. That’s professional.
- Go for it. If you’re writing a thriller, make it thrill. If you’re writing a weepie, make sure your reader will have tears in her eyes. If you’re writing a comedy, make it laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re writing a literary manuscript, make sure it really does have dazzling class. A lot of manuscript failures arise because writers haven’t really gone for the jugular – and you need to do so.
- Start learning about literary agents. You’ll need a literary agent (in the UK if you’re British or Irish, in the US if you’re North American). The more you can learn about how they are, what they want and how to approach them, the better. We’ve got loads of info on our website, and we run the largest writers’ conference in the UK where you can meet dozens of literary agents.
- Get help! Finally, very few writers have what it takes to succeed without any help. Pro authors get help from their agents and editors. If you haven’t yet got that far, an external manuscript assessment from The Writers’ Workshop may be exactly what you need to get your manuscript over that hard-to-reach finishing line. It costs a few hundred pounds (depending on the length of your manuscript) but can be worth a fortune.
Author Harry Bingham runs The Writers’ Workshop, a consultancy for first time writers. Contact Harry for specialist help and guidance with your book here: Writer’s Workshop.
BY HARRY BINGHAM