Before You Submit

James Scott Bell

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest has a sidebar from YA editor Anica Morse Rissi, wherein she gives nine things you can do to elevate your manuscript before submission.

The list is right on, not only for getting a manuscript ready to submit to agents or editors, but also if you’re considering self-publishing. So I’m going to give you the tips with my own commentary on them.

1. Revise, revise, revise.

As the author of a whole book on the revision process, I’m not going to quibble with this one. You can, however, become “revision obsessed” and spend way too long on a project. In my book I give a process for getting over that, but you can just as well come up with one of your own, so long as you eventually send your work out. Not too soon, but not too late, either.

2. Start with conflict and tension.

This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Some of our highest traffic here at TKZ has come from posts on what to do — and what not to do — on first pages, as well as the numerous first page critiques we’ve done. Search those out in the archives. Now, conflict or tension does not have to be “big.” It can really be any sort of disturbance to the Lead’s ordinary world.

3. Don’t start with backstory.

An obvious corollary to #2. Backstory is best when it is delayed, although little sprinkles can be added to the first pages for depth. Just make the action primary up front.

4. Give the readers something to wonder about.

Mystery, unanswered questions, portents, threats. All good at the beginning and, indeed, throughout—so long as you are prepared to give satisfactory answers (unless you write for Lost, of course, then you can just keep on raising questions).

5. Avoid explaining too much, too soon.

A corollary to #4. My rule for the opening is act first, explain later. Readers do not need to know everything you do about the setting and characters at the start. They will wait a long time if there’s something dynamic and disturbing going on at the beginning.

6. Make sure your story has plot arc and emotional arc.

This is another way of saying that you need to give us the stakes inside the character, as well as outside. One way to do this is via internal conflict, which is the battle between two strong but opposing desires in the character. In High Noon, the town marshal must battle his desire to do his duty as a lawman versus his desire to keep his new Quaker bride (the producers raise the stakes nicely by having the Quaker bride look exactly like Grace Kelly).

7. Read your dialogue out loud.

This is a great practice. You hear it differently than you read it. An alternative (my own preference) is to have Word read it back to me in speech mode. Either way, you’ll catch things to change every time.

8. Use adjectives, adverbs and dialogue tags sparingly.

As far as adverbs, do a search for LY words and kill as many of those pests as you can. For dialogue tags, use said and asked as your defaults, and only when needed to figure out who’s speaking. Resist the urge to use things like he growled or he expostulated.

9. Make sure your details matter.

All details, and I mean every one in your manuscript, should do “double duty.” Not just describe, but describe in a way that sets the tone you desire. Details can characterize, foreshadow and carry motifs. In other words, don’t waste them.

To these fine suggestions, I would also add the following (from my chapter on “The Polish”)—go over each chapter and see how much you can cut from the beginning and the end. You’ll be amazed at how much faster your chapters grab, and how you’ll be left with a feeling of momentum after each scene.

So what other things do you do before you submit?

NOTE: I’ll be conducting a series of webinars for Writer’s Digest this month. The first is on novel structure. Would love to have you drop in!

22 thoughts on “Before You Submit

  1. It goes along with #4, but I try to make sure that I have a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter except the last one. I don’t think it’s fair to the reader to expect that the reader will read the book without putting it down, but I want it to be easy for the reader to pick it up again.

  2. And, too, a “cliffhanger” can be many things. I call these “Read on Prompts.” Knowing various ways to do this will give your text a nice variety.

  3. “But I love adverbs!” I sputtered growlingly.

    I agree 1000% (also avoid hyperbole). When I do crits in my group and online forums, my number one suggestion is to remove the klutzy dialogue tags. It is also the number one suggestion that is resisted by the writers.

    My all time favorite was a line from a SF novel I chapter-critted. One of the characters was a sentient horse-being (I know, just roll with me here).

    “I doubt you understand the seriousness of the situation,” Cabrillo nickered menacingly.

    Great post and great reminders.


  4. Thanks to advice like this I’ve been adjusting some of my own work, now trying again on the submission field & hoping something changes out there too.

  5. Great stuff, Jim. I recommend linking to this post either as solid advice or a refresher course.

    In addition to reading my manuscript aloud, I have my wife read it to me. that way, I can spend my time focused on the sound of the words, the flow of the sentence, and story playing out in my head as told by someone else. It’s especially helpful with dialog when you hear it coming from a different voice than your own. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I’d love to hear more about “read on prompts”! If not here on your blog, then maybe at the Early Bird at ACFW!

    My daughter just finished “Try Darkness” and loved it. She especially mentioned how much she enjoyed the dialogue. She said she’s going out to buy “Try Fear” next.

  7. Thanks for the kind word, Joe.

    Teri, thank you for the nice report of a new reader. Cheers my heart. I do have a section about scene ending prompts in Revision & Self-Editing. The way I learned this was by reading can’t-put-down novels and asking after every chapter, What makes me turn the page?

  8. Good stuff.
    Relatively new to the game and
    in the midst of revision. The input is helpful.


  9. Great list! I would love to drop in on the webinars…but will have to see how the old connectivity goes while we are out In the wilds of the national parks of the west.

  10. Tom, welcome to this great craft of ours. Glad you’re on revisions. You learn the most when you finish a novel and then set about working on it.

    Clare, if you can sign up any bears while you’re there, I’d appreciate it.

  11. Thanks for the welcome.

    As commentary on the effectiveness of the blog your comment cautioning against hyper-revision syndrome has prompted me to track down your book.
    Chalk up one sale to ‘Kill Zone’.

    Enjoy the exchange and informative content.

  12. Great list, Jim. One more thing I would do is cut the number of characters in the opening to a bare, bare minimum, AND make sure that each one has a real stake in the action. No throwaways.

  13. Tom, thanks for the trust. Keep writing.

    Mike, great points. We want readers bonding with characters up front. Too many of them (and not enough trouble) is a dilution.

  14. I just came over from Sarahjayne’s blog. Great list. I recently joined a critique group where they tried to make me put in backstory in the beginning, which is against conventional wisdom.

  15. Good stuff here, but White on Black is sooooo hard to read. I go to another site and my eyes have flashing after-images!

  16. I need to look up “emotional arc” thought I think I understand “plot arc.” Very good advice and I’m signing up for yuour blog.

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