When I do the first pass of a manuscript, I tend to highlight the things that pull me out of the narrative. When you’re getting your story ready for editing, or submitting to a publisher, these are the five things that might be worth looking for (in no particular order).
1. Pet words/repetition. Don’t fret. Everybody has them. I would recommend doing a word search and some of the most oft-used words are:
2. Show –v- Tell. Some will say that telling is an absolute no-no. But there are no absolutes when it comes to writing and rules are there to be bent or broken…if you know what you’re doing. Here’s an example where show might work better than tell.
Telling: Mary had a bad day.
Show: Mary slumped onto the couch and rubbed her toe which still throbbed from when she’d walked into the lamp post. She cringed at the memory of limping across Trafalgar Square carrying her broken shoe. The sudden downpour hadn’t succeeded in washing the pigeon poo from her hair.
Okay, so I’ve may have over-egged the proverbial pudding a little, but the second example shows exactly how bad Mary’s bad day was and was a lot more fun to write—based on the mortifying moment I walked into a lamp post in Pimlico while on a field trip.
3. Description. It’s my favourite bit when it comes to writing. And, heavens, it’s so easy to get carried away. My first serious attempt at writing a novel started with a three-page description of the kitchen in an Edwardian house, what the cook was doing, the smells, the sights, the sounds, etc. All well and good, but guaranteed to bring the narrative flow to a grinding halt. It’s so tempting to paint a really detailed picture for the reader, when in most cases, it’s best to suggest, provide hints and let readers have the fun of filling in the rest. There’s also a temptation, say, when describing a room, of listing the things in it, rather than giving the scene a little life.
Try to avoid shopping lists, keep it lively and interesting.
Flat: The room was cluttered. The Professor’s desk was piled high with papers and books. The window hadn’t been cleaned in forever.
A bit more spark: Grudging daylight tumbled through the grimy window and fell across a desk piled high with haphazard stacks of books and papers. Crumpled sweet wrappers and empty biscuit boxes fought for space with dirty mugs and crumb-covered plates. Fred negotiated an obstacle course of chairs, half-empty boxes and discarded files to reach the Professor’s desk.
4. Have you started in the right place? You want to grab the reader’s attention and pull them right into the story. Think about starting as close to the inciting incident as possible, but not right smack in the middle. So, maybe your story revolves around what happens to your main character after a tornado destroys their home. It might not be such a great idea to jump right in to your MC huddling in a corner of their basement while the tornado roars overhead. And it would be a little deflating to start with the aftermath, with the MC staring forlornly at the wreckage of their home. You want to build up some tension, get the reader wondering what is about to happen. So maybe start with your MC coming home from work, noticing that the sky has gone a funny green colour. Then the heavy, humid silence is broken by the wail of the warning siren. The reader will immediately be in that same place, feeling the dread as the storm approaches.
5. Etymology. If you’re writing a historical novel, you should make sure that you don’t let 21st century phrases/words slip into the 19th century. Luckily, there are plenty of online resources to help you out there. And the online Merriam Webster dictionary often includes the origins of a word or phrase to make your life easier.