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Beyond the First Draft–Clarity

Monday, August 6, 2007

Now that you have everything pulled together and you’re in the mindset to begin revisions—stop! There are a few things you need to clarify before you actually begin the revision process.

1. What publisher(s) are you targeting? As you already know, each publishing house has specific guidelines for submissions—and one of the most important is word count. If your manuscript is a contemporary romance, for example, you should know whether you’re targeting HeartSong Presents (40–45,000 words), Steeple Hill/Love Inspired (60–65,000 words), or Barbour (80–100,000 words). (Word counts are just estimated guesses—check the publishers’ websites for actual standards.) You should also know what they’re looking for story-wise; for example, one of these lines (HeartSong, I think) requires the story end with a wedding and that the hero and heroine be active members of a church. Hopefully, you researched this information before you started writing—but it never hurts to look it all up again before you start revising, because publishing houses are notorious for changing/tweaking their guidelines often.

2. What is your story about? If you’ve ever been to a writing conference, you know you have to clarify this. This is a main topic of conversation around the table at meals, in the halls between workshops, and sitting in the coffee shop late at night. It doesn’t matter if the question comes from another author or from an editor or agent—you need to be able to spit out the main premise of your story with clarity. There are several different pieces to this step—important not only for conference pitches, but for clarifying your story and figuring out even more revisions that need to be made.

    a. You need to be able to explain the gist of your story in twenty seconds or less. This is also known as your one-sentence pitch. Start by figuring out what your main theme and conflict are. You may discover you come up with several sentences that you like. Memorize them all—because that way, you can use whichever one seems most appropriate to the person you’re talking to at the time. (Example: “Falling in love with a client could cost wedding planner Anne Hawthorne her business; learning the true identity of the groom could cost her heart.”)

    b. After you’ve got your one-sentence, then you need a one-paragraph summary. What is the main plot of the story? The major conflict? Explain it in four or five sentences. This is your chance to experiment with writing back cover copy. (Example: “In July 1814, Bonaparte has abdicated and the war with France has ended. Julia Witherington swore she would never fall in love—especially with the man who stole her father’s affections. Royal Navy Captain William Ransome believes women are just a distraction. When Julia is forced to forge an arrangement to marry William Ransome, she must set aside her prejudice and learn what love and honor really mean.”)

    c. Expand your one-paragraph summary to a one-page (single-spaced) summary. This is your chance to tell your story in about 500–800 words. Focus on your main character(s), the main theme (one or two), the inciting incident, the conflict it causes, the climax, and the resolution. This is about the length of the pitch you want to prepare for a 15 minute appointment with an editor or agent. Make a bulleted list of five to eight other important story elements not included in this summary to take with you, just in case the editor asks for more details.

    d. Write or revise the dreaded synopsis. Again, knowing which house you’re targeting will be important in this step: different houses have different requirements for length/type of synopsis. HeartSong Presents, for example, requires a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. Some houses want outlines, not synopses. Some will have a designated length. Typically, if no length is specified, you’re usually going to want to have one synopsis page per 10,000 manuscript words—so a 60,000 word novel would become a 6 page synopsis, a 120,000 word novel would be 12 synopsis pages. (Yes, okay, mine came out to 23 pages. I’m still working on this issue.) If you are a SOTP writer and have trouble with the synopsis process, one of the best things to do is to break your manuscript down into scenes. I did this with scene cards that I did in PowerPoint: one slide for each POV scene with a one- to two-sentence summary of what happens in that scene. This was quite a revelatory experience for me, because it showed me which scenes could be cut because nothing important happens in them.

How many revisions did you discover you need to make during this process? Did you write them all down? Good. But you’re not finished with your pre-work yet.

3. What changes did you make during the writing process? Even if you’re a Reviser, you’ve probably made changes as you wrote without realizing it. Did you make notes as to what changed? Which storylines you’ve killed/added? Which characters need to be introduced earlier/have gone away? What clues you need to plant early on? Scenes that need to be from a different POV? Pull all of your notes together in one document/file/notebook and review all of them—supplementing them with other ideas you think of during this process.

4. What did you actually write? The final, and most important, step you need to take before beginning the revision process is to (a) print out a hard copy of your manuscript (clean, not the versions your critique partners sent back to you), (b) get your legal pad or spiral notebook—whatever you’ve already started making notes in (but if your notes are all typed, don’t worry about printing them out), and (c) set aside as large of a chunk of time as you can to commit to sitting down and just reading your manuscript from beginning to end. What should you be reading for? Check out this post on critiquing for a list of questions to ask/things to look for as you read. Check also for repetitive words, typos, grammar issues, etc. Read the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural. Write down everything you come across that needs to be fixed, tweaked, improved, cut, changed (and be sure to mark the changes on the manuscript itself, too).

What are some other steps you go through to get ready to start revising?

  1. Tuesday, August 7, 2007 10:55 am

    You are so right about the importance of targeting a particular publisher. When I first sent things out, I used the shotgun approach. Everybody got everything! Now I’m narrowing my focus and getting better results.


  2. Tuesday, August 7, 2007 4:18 pm

    Do you recommend keeping a separate copy of the manuscript, original, and one for each set of revisions?



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