Okay now, that being said, before you do anything else, before you research agents, write the perfect query letter for this spectacular idea you have, write your book. Yes, all of it. (It never occurred to me and it probably never occurred to you to think otherwise, but as I've learned there are a lot of people who haven't.) Agents and/or publishers will very rarely consider looking at a book that's incomplete, and by incomplete, I also mean unpolished. It must be polished to a fare-thee-well. Which is what we're talking about today.
Now this is where it gets sticky. You'll see comments about polishing in the editor's blogs on the publishers websites sometimes. Please read them. They'll give you excellent advice on what they're looking for, but one or two also include a list of common mistakes that writers have made. Basic errors in English. I've heard or read about agent/editors who will look through a manuscript for specific errors, like sentences that begin with There was *wince* or excessive use of the word 'had', and automatically chuck the manuscript. Considering how many submissions they receive you can't really blame them, they have to set the bar somewhere.
So, since I have to do a final polish on one of my novels, I thought I'd invite you along on the process as I run through my checklist. By the by, no matter how good you are, if you aren't doing at least a second draft on your novel, you're not doing it right. A very few writers, usually those who've been with one specific publisher, might be able to get away with it, but not first time writers. And even they usually get at least one final line edit before they go to print. Being a 'pantser' - that is, I write by the seat of my pants, usually in a stream of consciousness - I may be a little more prone to that sort of thing than a plotter - someone who plots out the entire novel. Either way, though, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes. I was advanced English throughout my education, have been the walking dictionary/thesaurus for most of my friends and coworkers, and I make them all the time. (I'm also going to assume you have a copy of one of the books of style like the Chicago Book of Style, or Elements of Style.)
As a pantser, I usually do several drafts - a first draft to establish characters and plots, then additional drafts to lay in details, develop secondary characters, plotlines, atmosphere, description, etc. Then it's time to settle down to do a final draft, to polish it. So, I pull out my list.
- One of the first things they may or may not tell you in your writing classes or seminars, is that in a novel it's all about the action. It's about doing things. People don't 'begin' to do things, they don't 'start' to do things, they DO them. I start by doing a search for those particular words. So, for example - 'Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair again' vs. 'Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair again.' Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse by the way...) Don't have your characters start to do anything unless it's the first in a series of things they are going to do.
- Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better - When he kissed her it felt like she tingled all over -or- When he kissed her she tingled all over?
- Next, do a search for contractions. For some reason many writers - and I'm one of them - don't write in contractions. Especially with 'had'. He had, she had, rather than he'd or she'd. But be very careful not to do a universal search and replace, you'll hate yourself in the morning for it, because once it's saved that way you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made of things. (I usually start a new copy when I'm editing, just in case. It's a lot easier to start over sometimes)
- 'There was' Sometimes it's justified. I'd still look at each sentence and see if I can determine if I can rephrase it to take the phrase out. Sometimes it becomes clearer.
- *arrggh* The dreaded 'that'. That she, that he, that they... In most cases the use of the word that is completely unnecessary, but we use it in speech, and so it can sound right when you write it. And then there's my personal bugaboo, using that rather than who. The man that... when it should be the man who...
- Just and only. Always make sure you really need to use them, and then that they're next to the word you want to modify. only costs vs. costs only, for example
- Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those 'ing' words, aka gerunds. If you see a lot of them in your writing in conjunction with was, you need to change that sentence.
- As if/like. Make sure you know which of them you really mean. Do a search for like, and in each place see if 'as if' doesn't sound better there.
- Also watch split infinitives. Not all of them are bad - to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go - is generally accepted. Some though like "I decided to not go" can sound a little awkward.
Polishing can be tedious, but it's worth it in the long run. Not only will you make a better impression on the agent/editor to whom you're submitting, but *grin* even if they do accept your manuscript, they're going to make you fix them sooner or later. It might as well be sooner.
Then pass it off to your beta readers - a few people who will be brutally honest with you about where you screw up. One of mine still teases me about the overuse of the word 'astonishing' in one novel. In other words - not friends or family. They won't and can't be truly honest with you. I've never physically met any of of mine.
Always keep in mind as you're polishing, though, that you need to preserve your 'voice' - your style - and that of your characters. It's your book. For example, in the fantasy novel I'm polishing two of the central characters are Elven, so to them 'english' is a second language. When I first heard Elon speak in my head, he didn't use contractions. Neither did Colath. So I have to remember that about them and correct it in their speech, in their thoughts, but it's much easier and faster for readers to read contractions. So I have to watch carefully where I put my contractions, and not to make Elf either sound stilted. As both interact more with their human companions, they use begin (correct usage here, as part of a process) to use contractions more and more as they become used to hearing them. It's a subtle thing, but it contributes to their voices and the feeling of the novel.
Okay, good luck on your first attempt at polishing. And... ummmm... I strongly recommend you don't have a glass of wine when you start. Or you'll never finish. Voice of experience here. (Although I did finish eventually... *laughing*)