The path to publishing your novel: a step-by-step guide to the publication process for first-time authors
Step 2: Preparing your submission
Okay. So. You’ve written your novel.
The world of publishing can seem like a confusing, forbidden landscape to emerging authors. It’s filled with bewildering terminology and an overwhelming set of rules that you’re just expected to know, on pain of instant rejection.
But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Over the next few months, I’m going to go through some of the key steps involved in navigating the publishing process and discuss how you can give yourself the best chance of success. In the previous post, we looked at the pros and cons of traditional publishing and self-publishing, and whether or not you need an agent.
Now it’s time to get your submission ready to send out into the world.
From first draft to final
Completing the first draft of your novel is a massive achievement. You should absolutely celebrate wildly. One widely quoted statistic (that I’m honestly not sure anyone could possibly know for sure) is that 97% of novels are never completed. (One more plausible interpretation of this figure I’ve found is that 100% of novels are never completed, but 3% are “successfully abandoned.”) So, by completing your first draft, you’re already among the elite.
But a first draft is only the beginning. Even professional writers with decades of experience don’t create a publishable draft on their first go. The polish comes in the drafts that follow.
A first draft is only the beginning. The polish comes in the drafts that follow.
There’s no one way to revise and edit your draft. I’d go so far as to say that there are as many different editing methods as there are writers, but for simplicity’s sake I’m going to break the process down into four main sections. These are:
Disrupting the author/text relationship
This is a key step that too many writers miss, but it’s absolutely critical. When you’ve just completed your first draft, you’re entirely too close to the story to be objective. You know what is going to happen and every character’s motivation in every scene, and it’s fresh in your head. So you’re much more likely to see what you know rather than what’s actually there.
You need distance from your MS before you can edit it effectively. And there are plenty of ways to achieve this.
You need distance from your MS before you can edit it effectively.
The simplest (and my preferred method) is to simply leave it alone for an extended period of time. I suggest a minimum of three months. Put it away somewhere and don’t be tempted to peek. This is the ideal time to get started on your second novel, by the way (as long as it’s not a sequel).
By the time the three months are up, you’ll have forgotten the fine detail, and if something doesn’t seem to follow, or is unsupported by narrative evidence, or breaks an in-universe rule, you’re much more likely to spot it. Absence creates distance. But if you don’t want to wait – or you don’t have time – you have other options.
Multi-award winning author Lucy Caldwell swears by printing out and retyping her first-draft manuscripts in full. This is a very effective way of introducing distance, as it reconfigures the relationship between writer and text: from creator to transcriber. It obliges the writer to deal differently with their words.
Other authors I’ve worked with find that changing the font on the page, or the colour of the font, is disruptive enough to the text to work for them. Still others use text-to-voice technology to listen to their words rather than reading them.
There’s no right or wrong way to introduce distance at this stage; you’ll find the method that works best for you with a little bit of trial and error. The only way to get this part wrong is to leave it out altogether.
The macro edit
You don’t need to cover all of the elements of the macro edit separately; I don’t. I know plenty of authors who do, but I personally prefer to do multiple all-purpose macro edits rather than break them down into discrete activities, but that’s just me. You’re looking at multiple edits regardless, though.
The macro edit looks at the big-picture story elements. These will include:
It’s important to get this edit complete before you start looking at fine detail items (tone, mood and so on) or housekeeping items (punctuation, grammar, formatting, etc) for the simple reason that a macro edit has the capacity to introduce enormous changes to your MS, and, if that’s the case, you’ll have to do your fine detail and housekeeping due diligence again anyway.
You want to make sure that the stakes are available to the reader as early as possible
Plot involves, quite simply, checking out that the story is compelling, believable (for a given value of “believable” – SFF, for example, will have a different benchmark for suspension of disbelief than, say, familial drama), coherent, logical (for a given value of “logical”), and possible according to the rules of your narrative universe.
You want to make sure that the stakes are available to the reader as early as possible, and that the narrative conflict – whatever that might look like – is sufficiently engaging to warrant a reader’s attention. Again, what this looks like will vary by genre, but always keep the reader in mind as you consider your plot holistically.
You’ll also want to keep a hard eye out for plot holes or situations that are unfeasible according to the rules of your world. A plot hole isn’t necessarily the end of the world (CF: Vertigo, 1958 – rightly considered one of the finest films ever made. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, however, if you take a step back and look at it properly), but if it derails your narrative, now’s the time to find it and work out what to do next.
Narrative structure is where you’ll check in on your story beats and make sure they’re falling in roughly the right place. A healthy narrative structure looks like this:
It’s very common for first drafts to have too much in Act 1 (that 25% is a hard limit), and it’s usually an easy fix, but it does need to be fixed. As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Start as close to the end as possible.” Readers have limited patience for stories that take a long time to get moving.
If you find your percentages are out of whack at this stage, don’t despair. It’s almost certainly down to either a padded Act 1 or an underwritten Act 3. Both of those are straightforward enough to resolve.
Excess information in Act 1 has usually found its way into the body of the story itself and lifts out of the first act without too much effort.
A minimalist Act 3 usually hasn’t tied up all the narrative loose ends: remember, the end of the book should be the beginning of the rest of your character’s life, so you need to give the reader enough information to infer what that will look like. While it’s technically possible for the climax to occur just pages before the end of the novel, it’s more common to see it appear in the penultimate chapter.
Structural issues are – no beating around the bush – a pain in the proverbial. If you encounter them during your macro edit… breathe. Walk away from the manuscript. You can fix whatever the issue is, but you need a little bit of space to clear your head. And go easy on yourself: it happens to the best of us.
Readers have limited patience for stories that take a long time to get moving
Pacing is an opportunity to get brutal with your draft. Very often, a first draft is absolutely jam-packed with a load of words that the final draft doesn’t need. The first draft needs those words, because the author needs to figure out the story – and this is true even of meticulously planned novels too – but they’re surplus to requirements once the story has been figured out.
The problem is… there’s often some really great stuff in those words. You’re particularly charmed by a certain turn of phrase. A piece of backstory brings a character into sharp focus and you’re worried the reader won’t be able to uncover the character’s inner self unless you spell it out directly. And so you end up leaving them where they are.
I’m guilty of this, and it haunts me to this day. Here’s what a reviewer had to say about the first publication of Edge of Heaven:
The opening quotation is from the novel itself. The single line below is the reviewer’s (astute) observation. When the novel was picked up by its current publisher, you’d best believe I’d edited that bit out — and lots more besides.
Excess words suck the life out of a novel. Even the beautifully written ones. They’re not the only threat to your pacing, but I’d suggest they’re one of the most insidious.
Character development is an opportunity to check in on your main character’s narrative arc, double check you can articulate how it plays out throughout the novel, and make sure that they’re actions are motivated by more than just the demands of the plot. If you have an antagonist, you should really check in on them too.
It’s also a chance to apply Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test, as put forward at the 2013 Emerald City Comic Con. Here’s how she describes it:
Julian Gough’s fantastic essay, How to Edit Your Own Lousy Writing, broadens the scope of the Sexy Lamp Test:
Both sound slightly tongue-in-cheek; both are incredibly powerful exercises for your macro edit.
The micro edit
Once you’ve got the big-picture stuff out of the way, it’s time to fine-tune your writing. A micro edit can absolutely cover literary elements such as mood, tone, theme, and so on, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to stick to housekeeping items. Because these might just be the easiest way to blow your chances of getting off the slush pile, and it really doesn’t have to be that way.
Your submission isn’t ready to leave your inbox until you’ve checked and double checked the following:
Unless the submission instructions say very clearly that the word count range is a guideline rather than a strict maximum, anything that doesn’t fall in line is getting rejected.
Word count sounds obvious, but I’ve seen writers caught out by it. An absolutely stellar short story on the shortlist of a competition I was reading for had to be disqualified at the final hurdle because it was over the limit.
Unless the submission instructions say very clearly that the word count range is a guideline rather than a strict maximum, anything that doesn’t fall in line is getting rejected. Remember that your submission is one of hundreds or even thousands that the agent or publisher will receive that week. They’re looking for easy ways to reduce their reading list.
With that said, pruning a submission to meet a fixed word count is generally an exercise in seeing just how much extraneous information you’ve included. I’ve taken 1,500 words out of one short story to make it meet eligibility requirements; I’ve cut 20% of the words from another to make it fit the most usual parameters for flash fiction.
If you’ve got your sample chapter word count as low as it can go without losing coherence, then that’s just the length it needs to be, but you’ll waste everyone’s time (including your own) by submitting it to agents and publishers who’ve specifically asked for shorter samples.
Spelling and grammatical mistakes make your writing look unprofessional in a context where it needs to look professional.
Spelling and grammar
Spelling and grammar errors are another sure fire way to lose a reader in the blink of an eye. If that’s something you know you struggle with, that’s absolutely fair, but you should enlist the support of one of the plethora of online assistants available (Grammarly or similar). It’s not enough to rely on Microsoft Word’s spell checker: while Word has definitely got better at recognising linguistic patterns, it’s still hit and miss sometimes about misplaced homophones
Many writers skip about from past to present tense in their early drafts, too, and that’s something to watch out for in your edit. Also, if you’re using a word or a name that has multiple accepted spellings, keep an eye out for consistency. Editors can generally spot that sort of thing at twenty paces, and it may well reduce their confidence in you as a writer.
That’s what it’s all about, really: instilling confidence in your reader.
Spelling and grammatical mistakes make your writing look unprofessional in a context where it needs to look professional. Yes, on acceptance you’ll almost certainly work with your agent or publisher on one or more rounds of fresh edits, but they don’t want to give themselves extra work by having to go through the text line by line and correct the syntax. Copy editing should be complete before you submit.
Punctuation is another way to lose your reader’s confidence. The most common punctuation error I encounter is in dialogue, and it’s an easy way for an overworked editor to decide at first glance not to take a chance on reading further. If you struggle with dialogue punctuation, you’re definitely not alone: most of us learn it briefly at school and then never use it again, so it’s unsurprising that emerging writers find themselves rusty in that area. But it’s another essential factor in persuading your reader to trust your skill.
This blog by fiction editor Beth Hill is absolutely best-in-class when it comes to laying out the rules of dialogue punctuation. Everyone should read it and then bookmark it on their browser; it’s amazing how much we don’t know what we don’t know. It will give you all the tools you need to make sure your dialogue punctuation is up to scratch before submission.
Other punctuation issues I see regularly are misplaced commas and semicolons where a colon or a full stop should be. While both are often an art rather than a science, there are definitely places where they’re just wrong. Again, an online grammar checker will help you out if you’re unsure (though bear in mind that many online tools default to the Oxford comma, which is not always preferred in UK English).
Long chunks of unbroken text are harder for the eye to follow, whereas short paragraphs, or dialogue exchanges, are more inviting to the reader.
Formatting is another way to… okay, you get the idea. But there are formatting conventions that editors expect you to follow – such as taking a new line for a new speaker when writing dialogue – and they’re not always obvious. This one is less likely to get you an outright rejection, unless you’re doing something really weird, but you can very much use it to your advantage
For a start, submission guidelines will often spell out exactly how they want you to format your work. If it specifies Shunn Manuscript Format and you don’t use Shunn Manuscript Format, that will be obvious immediately (and you might well get a rejection at that point). If it specifies double spacing and you single space your document, you’ll almost certainly get yourself an autoreject for that as well. Using size 10 font instead of size 12 might be a greyer area; likewise, deviations from fixed margin widths are often harder to spot. Always, but always read the submission guidelines. Most are fairly standard, but there’s always the outlier that throws you off your game.
One final note on formatting: try to consider white space when you’re presenting your work.
White space is the area of the page where there’s no text, and, while that might sound like a bizarre thing to focus on, a lack of white space makes writing harder to read. Long chunks of unbroken text are harder for the eye to follow, whereas short paragraphs, or dialogue exchanges, are more inviting to the reader. No, it’s not fair to submit your painstakingly crafted words to the vagaries of aesthetics — but encouraging your reader to engage is the name of the game, and white space makes that more likely.
Proofing is the courtesy you extend to your reader, and if there’s evidence that a piece hasn’t been proofed, you’ve almost certainly lost all but the most invested.
Autocorrect / find-and-replace errors
Autocorrect / find-and-replace errors are insidious little bloodsuckers that hide in plain sight, and the reason that you can’t afford to skip Section 4. If I had a penny for every time I’ve encountered evidence of an author’s draft two character renaming, I’d have… several pennies, at least. Here are some common ways it plays out:
Autocorrect is another false friend who’ll stab you in the back without a second thought. To whit:
As soon as I see one of these, I know the author hasn’t fully proofed their MS. At submission level, there’s no coming back from that. Proofing is the courtesy you extend to your reader, and if there’s evidence that a piece hasn’t been proofed, you’ve almost certainly lost all but the most invested.
(An error on page 15 is a different beast than an error on page 1, of course — but it very often depends on how egregious the error turns out to be. You can probably come back from a your/you’re oversight, though it’ll likely make the editor’s teeth itch. But failing to spot a disconjimulation? Not so much.)
The bottom line is that there’s no way around Section 4. You absolutely must have at least one other set of eyes on your work before you press SEND.
Another set of eyes
You know that old saying, “I do my best editing the moment after I press ‘send’”? There’s a good reason for it. According to Tom Stafford, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield:
“You see,” he continues, “when we read our own work back, we already know the meaning we’re intending to deliver, so we have an expectation. Our brains fill in the missing information, correct the incorrect information, and give us the meaning we expect to see. This means we don’t spot our errors, because our brains have autocorrected them out.”
Good old autocorrect again. And that’s the reason you absolutely must get at least one other set of eyes on your work before you submit it. Two, if you can. Three or more? Eh, maybe not — they’ll all have different opinions about what works and what doesn’t, and that way madness lies — but you do you.
You don’t have to pay somebody for this, by the way. Take care when approaching professional writers, because (a) they get asked to do this by a lot of people and (b) editing work is often part of their suite of professional services, and they can’t really afford to edit your novel for free.
But you don’t need to ask a professional writer. Friends and family with a decent grasp of grammar and spelling will be able to pick up the errors that slipped through. If they read widely in your genre, so much the better: they may also be able to give you a sense of how well your story coheres, if there are spots where the action lags, or how satisfying they found the narrative arc.
You will, of course, owe them big time, and you can thank them profusely in the acknowledgements when your book goes to print — but in my long experience, I’ve found that people are usually wonderful and love to help.
Taking the next step
“Books aren't written,” said the late, great Michael Crichton, “they're rewritten.” The first draft’s job is simply to exist; the polish comes in the drafts that follow. Some novels go through as many as 25 rounds of edits before the author feels they’re ready to submit. I wouldn’t say that was typical — but it’s not outlandish either. Getting your book into its best possible shape takes time, but it’s worth the effort.
At some point, of course, you’ll have to accept it’s as ready as it’ll ever be. It may never feel completely ready, and that’s fine. “Perfect” doesn’t exist, but “ready for submission” does.
Next month, we’ll look at what to do when that moment arrives.
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
Blog updates on the first of every month.