Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wordy Wednesday - Reflections from the Editor's Desk: A Submission Checklist

If you can write a book, that is a great achievement. You should be proud; you've done what few can do.

All the hard work that goes into getting your prose to hold together cannot be overlooked. Perhaps you have gone through several drafts; there's only so much editing you can do before deciding it's ready to go on to a publisher. Just how much editing, though? Where do you draw the line?

Here's a quick checklist to get you started:

1) Can you boil your book down to a compelling two-three page story that is just as captivating as the book? If you can't, then take some time and try to do this. Not only will it give you what you need for a synopsis that will intrigue the acquisitions editor, but you will be able to appreciate your book's structure (or lack thereof). Some writers like to plot and outline ahead of time, in which case this step might be easy for you, whereas others like to go into the first draft blindfolded, then iron out the wrinkles in subsequent drafts. If this is you, then that doesn't mean you don't still need to, at some point, break your book down into an outline. After all, you can't iron out the wrinkles from a very big blanket if you don't know how to properly spread it out.

2) Do you know your characters' motives? Even though you might have chosen one POV character in a given scene, your story is (most likely) about more than that character alone. Just because you don't tell it through these other characters' eyes doesn't mean you don't have to know what they're thinking and what drives their actions. Many weak manuscripts contain this error - the world seems to revolve around the POV characters, turning the otherwise complex people they interact with into objects. If you take the time to jot down what some characters other than the main POV characters are thinking or doing outside of your main story, this will help you spot many places where they might be doing things that make no sense or have no impact on the story.

3) You can apply the same thing with settings. Do you know the background of each scene? Have you made sure you know this but have told the readers only what is relevant? Many stories are cluttered with too much detail, often a result of writers making sure they don't miss out on important facts about the backdrop to their tale. You can clear away these cobwebs by writing those extra facts down somewhere else, then removing them from the story in parts where they don't belong.

4) Have you dealt with all the things that make you cringe? You know, those parts that you know aren't strong, but you just can't seem to get them to work? That can be anything from weak sentences, to poor word choices, rushed action, rushed dialogue, confusing plot developments, lagging scenes (i.e. the dreaded filler chapter), etc. If they make you cringe, they will make your prospective editor cringe as well. Submitting a manuscript for publication is a professional venture - no different than submitting a business proposal or a job resume. Would you submit a weak cover letter? Would you present a proposal to clients with a hastily-put-together slideshow? No! This is your pride and joy, something you've worked hard on - take it that extra mile, work out all those bugs patiently, and deliver sunshine in an envelope (or inbox).

5) Do you have reader feedback? Usually, writers find a few beta readers to give them feedback on their story. A good time to do this is once you have your draft flowing properly (but not necessarily ready for submission). You might still have some of the bugs from 4) to iron out, but want to be sure you're not second guessing yourself. Beta readers are great for that. Be careful, though: beta readers are not there to tell you what you should put in your book. Instead, think of them like reconnaissance. As the writer, you're doing the groundwork; those readers will give you different aerial views you don't get when you're bogged down by the act of writing. Pick your beta readers well: diverse, willing to give timely, constructive feedback, and be sure you distinguish work-shopping from beta reading - the former is done between writers, and is often slower, more involved, the latter is done quickly, by a reader who will read your manuscript like a book and give you reader comments ("I really liked this," "you disappointed me here," "I couldn't understand this passage," "your character, James, seems so upset here, but I don't know why, I'm intrigued...").

6) After 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are done, have you taken the time to go through the whole thing and search for any little typos or places where you can strengthen the prose? Would you be happy if the manuscript you send out went to print as it is?

If your answer is no, then it's not ready.

If your answer is yes, though, then this DOES NOT mean your manuscript is ready to go to print as is. What is DOES mean is that you are presenting your writing craft at its strongest, with the hopes of entering into a publishing contract where you will work with an editor to make it even stronger, a product that reflects the publisher's standards. When an editor has to spend time correcting you on things that are your job, as the writer, to have in place, that means the final product is less likely to be as good possible. An acquisition editor has this in mind when he or she is reviewing your manuscript, whether you are a first time author or a multi-published author; at Champagne Books, our goal is to present fiction at its finest, so as you can imagine we are not going to accept manuscripts we don't feel will reflect these standards by the end of the production process.

An editor is elated to receive a manuscript from a writer who has put all the right work into presenting his or her story with pride. So, for those of you who have written a book, who want to be published, be patient, do all that hard work. There's nothing more rewarding, for editor and author alike, than turning a manuscript that shines with potential into a book.

Happy writing!

Graeme Brown
Junior Editor


  1. Check lists are a great help. But I can't agree more; the role of the editor is critical. They can turn an almost good book into a great book. The trick is finding a publisher with great editors. CBG excels at this, thank goodness. I haven't had one yet that hasn't helped in some way. So, a big thank you to all of you. You know who you are.

  2. So, true, Graeme. I think there's often confusion as to an editor's role. Our job is to help authors make their story shine but we can't, and shouldn't, do the work for them. If we do, then it becomes more our book than the authors and that's not a good thing. A lot of editors will work hard with the author if they need a little bit of craft tweaking but we just don't have time to be your critique partner as much as we might like to do that. My best piece of advice to keep you published is to continue to learn craft. Don't ever think that once you are published, you no longer need to know how to write your story or that your editor will do it for you--there's just no way we can and still get all books and other authors published.

  3. This is a great list, Graeme. And yes, as an editor, I love getting a story that is well-developed and well-written. I love to see the author's pride shine through in the story. It's exciting. I feel strongly that no one should consider their book ready for publication until it's been edited (and not by the author). It doesn't matter how many times you look at your own story. It still needs fresh, trained eyes.