The Finishing Touches

photo by Pauline Mak
photo by Pauline Mak

As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches on a major revision of my novel-in-progress. The next step is to send it to my agent, who will decide whether or not the manuscript is Ready with a capital R.

One of the hardest things as a writer, no matter whether you’re just about to start the querying stage or writing your umpteenth book under contract, is knowing when the book is done. It’s easy to rush these things. We’re so exhausted at the end of any draft that it’s tempting to just say Take it, it’s done, it’s the best I can do.

But is it?

There are nearly countless things you can do on a “final” read. Frankly, I considered making this a list of 50. But in the end, the answer is different for everybody. It’s absolutely essential, for example, to check for anachronisms in historical fiction — but obviously that’s irrelevant if your novel is set in the present day.

So if you’re going through your manuscript “one last time”, make it three last times, and take a look at these final touches that can make or break a book.

Follow your key thread all the way through. It might be the relationship between two characters if your book is a love story; it could be the progress of your main character from weak and uncertain to powerful and strong. It could be the series of clues that outs the murderer in a mystery. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, chances are you’ve added and deleted some scenes along the way, maybe changed the order around — does everything still make sense? Read only for what’s on the page in this draft, not all those other drafts before.

Check for your biggest weakness. Is it grammar and spelling? An overreliance on adverbs? Half-page run-on sentences spliced together with comma after comma? Hunt it, find it, fix it. Personally, when I write fast I write long, so I need one final pass through the manuscript to find and get rid of redundant sentences and clunky wording. If the character’s in a barn and she touches the wall, I don’t need to say “I touched the wall of the barn.” What other wall could she be touching? “I touched the wall” does the job. Ditto “There was a thunderstorm outside.” Where else would it be? Inside? Come on.

Strengthen your voice. Voice is one of the most important and intangible things we need to deal with as writers. By this point in the manuscript you should know what your characters sound like and what your narrative voice sounds like, so read every single scene with that in mind. Vocabulary. Tense. Sentence length. Use of contractions. The way you use sound and scent and sight. You’ve made a series of choices to develop the voice in your book — now make sure that you’ve made those choices consistently throughout.

There are obviously a lot of other things you can check for in a final scrub of your work. Logistical things, for example — are those two towns that you say are three hours apart really three hours apart? If a character from Chapter One is going to be important in Chapter Ten, did you at least mention her once or twice in between so the reader doesn’t forget she exists?

What “final touches” do you like to put on your work before you can let it go?

 

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About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.

Comments

  1. says

    Yes, we all have our special blind spot. Mine is tense. I have people in and out of time situations…in the same sentence. Happily, I have a live-in editor who bludgeons me into proper compliance. I am grateful. Left to my own devices, I would send out a mish-mash and be on to the next. But, I have this nun with a ruler ready to crack my knuckles. Thank you, Sister Barbara.

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  2. says

    Stephen King says to let a novel sit cold for about six weeks after you’ve finished it, and at that point go back to it. I “washed through” my novel a few times. In fact, every time I thought it was absolutely perfect (hee hee), I’d end up with a newer, slightly improved version. Every time I do so, I am glad I do it – because I want the novel to reach its zenith. So I’ve had to catch myself when I say “I’m FINALLY done!” Because that’s never a guarantee. It’s not a defeat, either.

    This last time was a matter of going through and tightening the language – and I was absolutely astonished at the volume of unnecessary sentences and verbiage. A second, third, fourth, fifth look is always better than not looking at all and making absolutely sure.

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    • Ronda Roaring says

      Jillian, I agree with you (and Stephen King) completely. I always let my works sit for a while. I try to come back to them when I can give them a fresh look.

      I like your reference to a “zenith.” We need to tinker with a work just to the point where it’s its best, because any more tinkering will not make it better.

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  3. says

    I like to send my draft to beta-readers. Because as much as we’d like to think we can catch everything on our own, we develop blind spots about our work and especially for our characters. Beta-readers can help to illuminate what isn’t working–yet.

    Great post, Jael. Thanks!

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    • says

      Oh, absolutely! Betas are also a completely necessary step. I have blind spots the size of houses on certain things. There is no substitute for someone else’s good eyes.

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  4. says

    My garden is a mess. Seems like there is always weeds around and grass growing where it should not be and not where it could be. Everyone else says it looks beautiful, except other writers. Are we overestimating our readers? Yes Stephen King said he waits six weeks before he does a second pass, but that is the only one he does. That and a final polish. Imwish I could do that, I weed away. Then find all the mistakes in the third editions of bestsellers (didn’t any of the three million readers notice that Carrie’s father died before she was born and then her mother says lester in the book that he stopped her from killing Carrie as an infant when she caught her levitating toys in hr crib? I did! And that’s a pretty big mistake too) that is why I love this post and can’t finish my book.

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  5. Linda Pennell says

    Jael,
    Great points! Your post reminds me of how grateful I am to my critique partners and of how important they are in keeping me honest and focused with my writing. We take on the whole enchilada for one another – line edits, plot points, readability, etc. – and the more I write, the more I realize how lucky we are to have found one another. Many writers develop writing ticks, become word blind, or fall into some other form of writing trap. Good crit partners can make a world of difference with the quality of one’s product. I know mine certainly have!

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  6. says

    Multiple pass-throughs, beta readers, all important; what’s equally important is to stop. Our stories are never “finished” until they are pried from our hands by the publicaton, and half the reason I indie-published my first novel was so I could stop “touching it up” and move onto the next one.

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  7. says

    Great post!
    I’m in the middle of the first revision of at first draft, so I still feel like I’m playing with putty. It’s so much fun, adding conversations and developing characters just to see if it works! Seeing the list of finishing touches, though, is inspiring. Can’t wait till I’m there!

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  8. Denise Willson says

    Here’s a great tip to add to the discussion: focus on one detail for every round of editing.
    Round one, pay attention to time line. Round two, follow your protag through dialogue and thought. Round three, listen to secondary characters only. Round four, focus on scenery, setting, atmosphere. Round five, tension. Round six concentrate on spelling and grammar, tightening sentence structure.
    Of course, what points you focus on and what order you go in is entirely up to you, but you might want to start with your weaknesses.
    Yes, this means there are several rounds of editing and the process is slow, but oh, the results!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  9. says

    I rely on readers, too, but the buck stops here. I’m always amazed at how much I spot on a subsequent read that I didn’t notice before. My weak spots? Overuse of certain words (if you know what yours are, it’s easy to search, and the number might surprise you), not-so-fresh gestures, unnecessary dialogue tags . . . Thanks, Jael, for this reminder!

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  10. says

    As I am posting my book serial style, this is insanely helpful to me. I have to remember to do these things.. But I also have to NOT do these things too much.. If I start half way through initial writing then I eviscerate my own work and none of it sees the light of day ;p

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  11. says

    Aww yes, revisions. I’m on about the fifth or sixth pass of my novel and there’s always more that pops out on the next pass.

    This last edit looked at point of view. I was editing out distance words/phrases such as wondered, thought, realized…

    Thanks for these added tips.

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  12. says

    A wise writer advised that you’re done when you’re not making it better, only different. I tend to edit as I go, but things still sneak in there. I have valued critique partners who can spot plot holes and inconsistencies, but I’m a rambler, so tightening is on my ‘must do’ list before I send the manuscript off. In my last book, I had events that spanned generations, and as I wrote, I just put people in there and said, “his great-grandfather’ but before I turned it in, I had to go back and make sure the chronology actually worked–that I didn’t have someone giving birth at age 10, or someone serving in the wrong war. Or being in the same high school class as someone fifteen years older or younger.

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  13. says

    Great insights, Jael. I do something similar, editing at several levels, and I keep a checklist to make sure I edit EACH chapter at ALL those levels.

    I find the “project management” aspect of writing a novel to be the most difficult part, so I really like the methods you’ve suggested, and will add them to my mix. Thanks!

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  14. says

    I have a ridiculously hard time letting a piece go. If I could, I’d somehow be a published author without anyone actually having to read my words.

    But I digress. When I think I’m done with a piece, I let it sit for a few days, up to a week. Sometimes longer, but not six weeks, like Stephen King says. (I’m sure he’s working on so many things in the meantime that six weeks seems like six hours for him.) Then I look for my biggest writing gaffes: long sentences and redundancy. And unnecessary words, like “that.” Then I let it sit for about a week and I do it all again. Then I read it out loud and fix all the clunkers, of which there are often many. Then I go back one last time and get rid of anything extraneous. For example:

    Then I look for my biggest [writing] gaffes: long sentences and redundancy. And unnecessary words, like “that.” Then I let it sit for [about] a week and I do it [all] again. Then I read it [out] {a}loud and fix [all] the clunkers[, of which there are often many].

    See? That’s a lot of extra fluff. Then, after all that, I read it out loud on the phone to my ever-suffering favorite reader, and I also send the piece out to my beta-readers. By the time I’ve looked at their responses, and fixed whatever’s left, it’s been about a month. Then I go through a few days of anxiety, super-psych myself up, and research markets and send it out. In total, it’s been 6-8 weeks since I finished the piece. Hopefully I’ve finished something else by then and round and round we go.

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  15. says

    Excellent post with great advice. We comb through ours more than six, seven times and funny enough can still find things we missed the first five or six. Enjoyed this very much and will be sharing it with our friends. Best of luck!

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  16. Ronda Roaring says

    Jael, I agree with you on must points except for the anachronisms. My WIP takes place in 1st century Pompeii. Yes, I am writing the entire book without using the words “yes” and “no” because they didn’t exist in old Latin, but to ask me to write the entire story without anachronisms would make it unreadable.

    You need to realize that in high schools these days, many of the students never read Shakespeare, but they will all tell you’ve they’ve read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliette. That’s because they’ve read “modernized” versions of the plays that are almost unrecognizable from the originals. They are full of anachronisms. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. It gets the kids to learn the stories and, if, at some later date, they want to read the originals, they can.

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  17. says

    I like to totally rewite my novels before I let them go. It helps me to embrace the phrase- I’m not ready yet. I believe I have huged this notion long enough. My new 3 year resoluton is to finish one of my novels and gracefully kick it out of the house, so a professional can tell me it’s almost ready.

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  18. says

    Great tips! I’m looking forward to your next book. I loved The Kitchen Daughter.

    I write long, too. I use lots of clauses. It’s a comma catastrophe. So that’s what I’m working on in my revisions now.

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  19. says

    Good points Jael,

    I have written two books (both yet to be published) and still find that there is more to be done in editing. I have revise and reread my work several times and I know I will be revising them again before I think to send them to an agent or publisher. The difficult elements for me is grammar in terms of excessive punctuation and redundancy and run on sentences. I like how you mention if its thundering outside, there is no need to include outside, because the reader knows it can’t really thunder inside. In other words, don’t state the obvious. I will keep that in mind as I revise my work again.

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