[Closed] Prose Writing Tutorial
We have created a place here that gathers together writing tips in an easily-digestible manner, for reference or just browsing through. For new writers, it will give them the basic skills they need, for more experienced writers, there will be tips to get the best out of what they already know.
Subjects will range from basic topics such as 'point of view' and 'show not tell' to dialogue, characters, plots etc. Experienced writers Aliya Whiteley (bluepootle) and David Gardiner (sirat) have made contributions, and there are links to advice that seems helpful.
Aliya has also volunteered to write some wise words about finding an agent, a publisher, and being published.
These are the first few vital writing rules I learnt on this site. Neglecting them will indicate to anyone you submit to that here is someone who hasn't bothered to 'get it right':
Show, not tell. When to describe and when to narrate.
POV. Narrative POV - first or third person? Omniscient? Character POV
1. Exclamation marks
When I first started writing, my text was full of these devils! I felt I needed them! I used to end stories on them!
While fine in kids stories or humorous spoofs, in serious writing the exclamation mark should NEVER be used in narration, and only used in speech where it accurately reflects the tone of the character (and sparingly at that). They become boring!
2. ‘Show’ not ‘tell’ (by David/sirat)
The bête noire of students on creative writing courses. It can be a difficult concept to grasp at first, but once grasped it seems laughably simple.
This is one of the ‘rules’ that has become an accepted part of modern short story writing. Before the middle of the 20th century it didn’t exist (probable influence of cinema/TV). The idea is that if you want your readers to be involved in the story you shouldn’t spoon-feed them by telling them (for example) why things are happening or pointing out the significance of events or commenting on them in any way, you should just show your readers the events taking place as if they were present observing, and let them interpret those events for themselves and draw their own conclusions. It’s closely related to the notion of not being an intrusive author, but from the point of view of neutrality rather than intrusiveness – it’s allowing the reader to arrive at his/her own interpretation without you as author imposing your view. And the big gain of this technique is in terms of involvement. The reader is actively constructing the story inside his or her head, and that is total involvement.
3. Point of View (POV) (by David/sirat)
The point of view from which a story is narrated, often abbreviated to POV, has a strict meaning and a looser meaning. In its strict meaning it refers to whether the story is narrated in the first person (told by an actual character in the story, inevitably with liberal use of the pronoun ‘I’), the second person (the unusual technique of telling you what you thought and did) or the third person (where the story is recounted by the voice of the author, or by a character specially created for the purpose who does not directly participate in the story). I think it’s relatively unusual to get these three mixed up, or accidentally blunder from one into the other.
The looser meaning of the term POV refers to the perspective from which the story is told. If the narration is in the first person or the (highly unusual) second person, there is no real problem. We are ‘inside the head’ of a particular character, seeing things and understanding things from his or her point of view. Our experience is that character’s experience, we can’t see or know anything except what is that character sees or knows.
When the story is narrated in the third person, which is perhaps the commonest mode of narration, this question of what and how much the narrator knows becomes critical. The narrator can be a God-like entity who knows everything there is to know inside the universe of the story : people’s innermost thoughts and motivations; what the future holds; causes of events that are unseen by any character in the story. This mode of narration is known as ‘omniscient’ (all-knowing) author. In this mode we are seeing the story from an entirely external perspective, where the narrator may flit from one character to another and introduce material of which none of them could possibly be aware. It is the standard mode of narration in a fairytale or in stories told by traditional storytellers in most cultures, but generally to be avoided in modern short story writing because it doesn’t encourage the imaginative involvement of the reader or identification with the characters at the emotional level. Instead it tends to create a barrier between the story and the reader, to hold things at arm’s length.
Most often in third party narration the story is told from a particular character’s point of view, typically the central or most important character, although not necessarily so. The author tells his or her story as experienced by that one character, and it is through this character’s understanding and perceptions that we experience the universe of the story. There are two mistakes that the writer can make when working in this way, one is to jump from the perspective of character A to the perspective of character B (often without realising), the other is to drift into ‘omniscient author’ mode (again often without realising). This is probably the most frequent POV error of all. The point of view may be changed deliberately during the telling of the story, in which case it’s highly advisable to start a new section so that the break is perfectly clear and unambiguous. Confusion of POV tends to be a mark of an inexperienced author and will certainly count against a story submitted to an editor or publisher.
This link will take you to an absolutely excellent site with interactive exercises that will tell you immediately if you are right or wrong - it covers punctuation marks and grammar. Top Class!
once you get on the site, I recommend saving it as a favourite/bookmarking it ...
the advice is aimed at Bristol University students to enable them to impress their tutors etc, but it's equally applicable to normal writing.
These topics come from Aliya Whiteley (bluepootle) and David Gardiner (sirat) and tell us a bit more about refining our writing to improve the standard.
Beginnings: The hook. What makes a reader want to read on?
Endings: When to stop. The satisfaction of the reader.
Voice: Appropriate language
Character: How to find characters. How to make them real/interesting.
Plot: What makes a satisfying plot. Writing what you know. How to handle twists, surprises, or standard plot progressions.
Chapters: Beginning and end points. Sustaining the reader’s interest through breaks.
Tension: What purpose it serves. Continually hooking the reader. How to increase it and release it in the narrative.
Editing and Rewriting How to go about it, and some general advice.
Dialogue (by Aliya/ bluepootle)
It’s a difficult task to make dialogue seem real without losing the focus of the reason for speech. If you have a large section of dialogue coming up between two or more people, jot down first what the point of the conversation is – what information has to be relayed? Who knows what? Then think about the characters that are going to speak – are they the kind of person who gets to the point? Do they have a certain word or phrase that they like to use? Are they self-important or self-effacing? Do they have an accent? The character and the point of the scene should shape the dialogue nicely.
Dialogue tags – the general advice at the moment is to stick to he said or she said. Tags such as asserted, responded, replied, muttered, murmured, barked, clipped out, etc tend to draw attention to themselves and break the flow of the writing, just at the time when you want the reader to be paying attention to the dialogue. If you’re writing a long exchange, remember to put the character’s names into the tags every now and again (said Trevor) so that the reader can follow who is speaking.
There are exceptions to the he said/she said rule. Using other dialogue tags can have comedic value, or can break up a long procession of said tags to advantage. Generally these techniques should be used sparingly.
What is the point of the dialogue?
How does the character sound? Age, background etc?
The Opening Paragraphs (by Aliya/ bluepootle)
The ‘hook’ is the concept by which you should grab and keep the reader’s attention. It need not be only related to the plot, but can be an unusual voice, or description – anything which attracts interest. Sometimes a line of dialogue can work very well. The opening paragraphs usually do not lend themselves well to long, overly descriptive writing, which can be a challenge to a reader who is not already ‘in the flow’ of the writing style. Something short is usually more effective.
An often stated rule is to write your short story/novel, and to then look at cutting the initial paragraph/chapter. This cuts the initially awkward, over-written approach that many writers suffer from when they sit down to write the beginning of a piece. Find the thread of your story, and then cut the writing that precedes it.
Examples of successful openings (over-used ones, just to give you an idea…)
• Plot-led hooks: crime novels might well have a dead body
• Dialogue-led hooks: an argument immediately sets up a strong hook
• Voice-led hooks: the character grabs our attention with their view of the world; the opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye is a good example: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
• Descriptive hooks: very difficult to get right. Helps if the place you are describing is interesting in itself, for instance Umberto Eco describing the Abbey at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. This is just a part of it:
It was a beautiful morning at the end of November. During the night it had snowed, but only a little, and the earth was covered with a cool blanket no more than three fingers high. In the darkness, immediately after lauds, we heard Mass in a village in the valley. Then we set off toward the mountain, as the sun first appeared.
While we toiled up the steep path that wound around the mountain, I saw the abbey.
Endings (by David/Sirat)
There are two senses of ‘ending’; the actual resolution of the plot, which might take a whole section or chapter to unfold, and the last few words on the final page of the story or novel. It’s these closing words that I deal with mainly here, ‘ending’ in the other sense is part of overall plot construction, which is addressed elsewhere.
The first thing to say is that endings are probably a bit less critical to stories than beginnings. Often we don’t really notice or remember them – we remember the gist of the story, perhaps, and can give an account of the plot and who the various characters were, but if asked exactly how the piece ended we simply wouldn’t be able to recall. We only notice endings, I think, if they are outstandingly good or outstandingly bad.
First, let us look at one or two ways in which an ending can be outstandingly bad. An ending in which the author steps in to explain things or draw lessons from what has gone before, is, with little doubt, going to be a big turn-off. Victorian writers, especially Victorian writers for children, loved doing this, but to the modern mind-set it comes across as very patronising, and is frankly inexcusable.
Another way to alienate your reader in the last few words is to introduce a ‘twist’ just for the sake of it. The story was all a dream. The narrator was really a ghost. The narrator was really a dog. It all took place in a lunatic asylum and the people only thought they were kings and inventors and criminal masterminds. Twist, surprise or ‘sting-in-the-tail’ endings are particularly difficult to do well, and when they fail, which is most of the time, they can render everything that has gone before ridiculous and cheapened. I will look at surprise endings in a bit more detail below.
A third way to destroy the story from the rear is to go on too long. Once the point has been made, stop. It’s better to stop a little too soon and leave one or two things unsaid than to over-write and leave the reader with the feeling that you’re milking it.
Something else you can do wrong (although it’s relatively unusual) is to go to the other extreme and end too abruptly. Occasionally you will come to the end of a story and say to yourself: Is that it? An abrupt ending leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied, emotionally or intellectually short-changed.
A good ending has about it a certain elegance. It feels as though the story is complete, that everything has been said that needed to be said. It requires sound judgement on the part of the writer to know when that point has been reached.
It’s very useful to look at classical endings in fiction, acknowledged to ‘work’. It’s an interesting exercise to see how many you can remember, excluding Shakespeare. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…’ (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities). ‘Reader, I married him’ (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre). ‘please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard’ (Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon). ‘He loved Big Brother’ (George Orwell, 1984). ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby). Do these examples of arresting closing words have anything in common?
One thing is a sense of inevitability, that there is no other ending that could possibly fit. But that doesn’t get us very far, it is just another way of saying that the ending works. There is also a sense in which each sums up the theme of the book in an indirect way. Dickens’ aristocrat has redeemed himself by his sacrifice. Bronte’s heroine has taken control of her own life, she has turned into the active ‘I’ who is doing what she wants to do, no longer having things done to her. Keyes’ regressed artificial genius has retained his humanity. Orwell’s Winston Smith has had his resistance completely crushed. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is unable to break free of the patterns of behaviour and emotional reaction laid down in his past. And so on. Hence it’s a good idea to think about what the theme of the story actually is, and find a way to make that theme resonate in those final few words.
Twist endings, where some vital piece of information has been withheld from the reader or false expectations deliberately fostered in order to reveal all in the closing few words, represent a very dangerous area for the inexperienced. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, just being tricked isn’t a very nice experience. You don’t endear someone by making them feel a fool. I think that in order for a trick ending to be worth doing it has to be there for a reason – it has to have some point beyond simply putting one over on the reader. It might, for example, give great pathos to the story when we realize that the man who has been joyfully planning his wedding and future life with the girl of his dreams is actually awaiting execution in the condemned cell, and none of it is ever going to happen (okay, that was one of mine) or it might make the reader aware of some prejudice or set of assumptions that they didn’t know they harboured, or illuminate some deeper meaning to the story that would otherwise be lost. Also, as in a good detective story, the clues must be there, just tricking the reader isn’t enough, the reader must be given a fair chance.
In what may well be the best twist ending story ever written, O Henry has a young girl lying in bed in the grip of a fever in a New York tenement, convinced that when the last leaf falls from the creeper plant she sees through her window, growing against a nearby wall, her life will end also. The last leaf never falls and the girl recovers. But when we discover the reason for the leaf’s survival we suddenly realize that we have been given not just a story about poverty and resilience but a metaphor for what O Henry sees as the nature of art and its function in human affairs (The Last Leaf). In another of his stories two young sweethearts sell that which they treasure most to buy Christmas presents for one another, but fail to realize that the lack of what they have sold renders their respective presents useless. What we don’t see coming is their joy at receiving the two useless presents, which represent the total love they have for one another (The Gift of the Magi). What matters I think is that your ending should be powerful and poignant, and in this regard the ‘twist’ is incidental, just one possible means of getting there.
A story has a shape, like a piece of music, with a build-up, a climax and in some cases a winding-down or even a second climax. There is no absolute reason why it has to end at any particular place on this graph. It’s perfectly in order to end before the climax is reached and leave the outcome implied, or leave the story open-ended with regard to how things are going to be resolved, or continue past the climax if that is what you consider your vision calls for. The important point is that you remain in control of your ending, that you know what you’re doing and that you understand the effect it is likely to have on your readers. As part of your re-editing take a good look at the ending and ask yourself: 1. Is my ending in the right place? and 2. Does it resonate with the theme of the story? If the answer to both of these questions is yes there probably isn’t too much wrong with it.
Voice/Style (by Aliya/ bluepootle)
Agents and publishers often say that ‘voice’ is what they’re looking for: fresh, original, exciting – but not so mannered that it quickly becomes annoying.
If you’re writing in first person, it can be much easier to find your character’s voice and to sustain it. With short fiction, the voice can be quite extreme, and experiments in accents, foibles, word repetition or misspelling can yield results. For longer fiction this becomes very difficult to sustain, so if you’re writing a novel keep in mind that the voice must not overpower the plot. Voice and plot have to work together. How does the voice of your character reflect on the plot? For instance:
You’re writing a crime novel about a man whose girlfriend is kidnapped and held to ransom. You have a number of choices about voice to make. You could have him be very straightforward, reporting exactly what happens in clear language, concentrating on the plot. This places the reader firmly in his shoes and involves them deeply in the action, because they are not being asked to question the voice, only to identify with it. But what if you give him an edge? He tells the reader about unhappy memories he has had with his girlfriend, or he says snide things about the other characters he comes across, or he withholds some information from the reader and doesn’t explain certain events. Now his voice needs to be examined by the reader – it can’t be taken at face value. It adds an extra level of suspense, but we lose the total immersion of the reader into the plot. You have to decide which kind of novel you’d prefer to write, and stick to that decision.
Try initially writing something in the voice of the character, just to get the flow of it and to work out what will make it interesting – do they have a philanthropic or a misanthropic approach to life? Do they pay more attention to tiny detail or to the big picture? Don’t use this initial sketch as the starting point of your story (unless it comes out brilliantly…!) – then start with a plot hook, and work the voice in gradually, trying to get a balance between the two.
Third person voice can be more of a challenge. Do you have a style that would shine through, no matter what genre you write in? How many writers can you name where you would know their work from a few paragraphs? Not many, and yet this is what publishing is always looking for. The only way to find your own style, I think, is to write and write and write, and to find out what works for the reader, and for you. Eventually you’ll develop a style that will start to be recognisable, in terms of how you approach grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. It should also give you some idea of what genre suits you best. Very generally (and by no means 100% correctly!) those writers with very strong voices and characterisation tend to go towards literary fiction and those who write in a straightforward fashion with the plot taking precedence might fit more easily into a genre category – crime, romance, fantasy. But hey, who wants to be told what to write!?
Characterisation (by Aliya/ bluepootle)
A good main character needs to be a mixture of the familiar and the surprising: familiar, so that the reader identifies with them; surprising, so that the reader is not bored by them. Try to have at least one small element of the character that is unexpected. It can be as small as a hobby, and it need not be shocking or mystifying. It simply adds another level to your novel and rounds out the character:
• A scientist who paints surrealist oil paintings
A good way to start thinking about your character is to write his/her CV. Take a sheet of A4 and write down their full name, date of birth, address, job history, hobbies and interests etc. Add to it some random facts: what possession would they save if their house went up in smoke? If they had to pick three words to describe themselves, what would they say? What about their parents? This is not information you’ll put into the novel in the main, but it will give the character a ‘tip of the iceberg’ feel – there’s so much more to them than the reader knows, and that makes them feel alive.
Plot (by Aliya/ bluepootle)
You don’t always have to know where the plot is going to go when you write your first sentence (but if you work like that you must be prepared to edit heavily later on!). You only need to have an idea of what the book is about. If it’s about a particular character or idea, then that might be enough to get the ball rolling. At some point you will have to address some basic questions about the plot:
- How is this going to come together in a satisfying way?
Writing without having a blow-by-blow synopsis already in mind can lead to some interesting twists and turns, but you might write yourself into a dead end, and have to rewrite a large amount later. On the other hand, if you capture everything in a synopsis first then you run the risk of making it a boring task for yourself to write the book… I try to leave at least one element unresolved to surprise myself with at the end, and have found that tends to bring the prose to life. The tension of the writer can come across well for the reader.
Surprising the reader is a key part of making a book enjoyable. That doesn’t mean having aliens land in the middle of a romance! (Actually that sounds great, but you’ll have a hard job selling it to a publisher.) Some plots are very well established and if you are treading a well-worn path your voice/characterisation will need to be exceptional to raise it above average. Genre fiction in particular can be very hard to enliven. For instance –
Aliens land on Earth. They have come to warn us that we are destroying our planet, and they will wipe out humanity for the sake of other species if we don’t do something about it.
That’s a pretty traditional sci-fi plot, but still a good one. How are you going to bring it to life for the reader? Although the big arc of the story is well-known, playing with the characters might help.
Aliens lands on Earth. They have come to destroy humanity if it won’t change its ways, but the aliens get to like human culture. One of them falls in love with a human. But the human cheats on them and dumps them, and even though humanity has changed its ways by the end of the book the aliens destroy us anyway.
That’s pretty downbeat, but it gives it an extra level of human interest. You can see where characterisation will start to come into play. Or fiddle with the perspective:
Aliens land on Earth. They have come to destroy humanity if it won’t change its ways. John Dailey is a farmer in Arkansas who is going through a messy divorce. He decides to lead humanity forward, organising us in a fight against the aliens. But when he captures an alien and manages to communicate with it, he understands that the earth is being destroyed by humanity, and changes sides.
So we’ve started with a basic plot and elaborated through character, voice, and perspective, to make it more interesting. If you intertwine those last two plots, you’d maybe have a starting point for a novel– see how they complement each other? They illuminate the best and worst of humanity, and have something to say about us all.
Don’t concentrate on putting in extra twists and turns that don’t spring naturally from characterisation or voice – they’ll always look improbable. And even if you have a detailed synopsis from the beginning, be open to the story moving in a different direction, and allow yourself to be led by the characters and the mood.
Chapters (by David/Sirat)
Why do novels have chapters? For the obvious reason that most people read them in sections – perhaps a chapter a night before going to sleep – and because in most cases longer stories fall naturally into sections, defined by particular events, divisions of time, interactions, or more generally ‘scenes’, as in a film. There can be a conflict between these two underlying notions, that of breaking the book up into bite-sized sections and keeping the underlying unity of each scene. One scene may need fifty pages to play out and another only five, or three. This isn’t very helpful for the person reading in bed.
As part of the structuring of a novel therefore you need to think about where the chapter breaks should come. As in the above example it may be necessary to divide up material which you feel ideally belongs together. When this happens it becomes necessary to create an artificial (and hopefully unobtrusive) pause or division of some kind. It isn’t enough simply to stop and restart, there must be some degree of unity to each individual chapter.
Very short chapters don’t present too much of a problem. Most people know that the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible consists of the two words, ‘Jesus wept’. If it’s very short we can include it with the next substantial chapter when we’re reading. But if it’s exceptionally long we may find it inconvenient and irritating that the author has given us no indication of where we should break off and restart.
Generally speaking you should aim at having chapters of (very roughly) equal length, and also not excessive length. Up to about 4,000 words is in my opinion acceptable as an average chapter length in most cases, but it’s not a hard and fast rule by any means. Lighter material (detective fiction, romance, horror, adventure) is normally written in shorter chunks than the more literary kind of novel.
The division of the work into chapters presents opportunities as well as challenges. Each new chapter provides (for example) an opportunity to shift the POV to a different character, or jump forwards or backwards in time, or shift to a different location or even a new narrator. It also provides an opportunity to leave something hanging that will constitute a hook and keep the reader turning those pages. Who is knocking at the door at this time of night? Will the speeding car hit the blind man who has just stepped out into the street?
In my opinion, the need to keep some kind of unity to each chapter over-rides to a large extent the need to provide convenient stopping points for the reader. I would prefer a chapter to ‘feel right’ but to be a bit on the long or the short side rather than for it to have just the right length but feel like it has been trimmed in some arbitrary way. Like so much in writing, it’s all a matter of judgement.
There are of course exceptions to everything. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is famous for not having a chapter structure at all, and doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result. But bold experimentalism like that isn’t to be recommended when you’re just starting out.
Tension (by David/Sirat)
In some genres, tension is at the very heart of the story. Suspense fiction is a genre in its own right, and the notion is pretty central to horror fiction, ghost stories, war stories or adventure fiction of any kind. There are also genres or individual stories in which it doesn’t figure very much simply because the story deals with some other aspect of human experience. Self-delusion, for example, or rites of passage, or unrequited love. But if the story is to engage the reader at all there has to be some sense of anticipation, some curiosity as to what is going to happen next. A plot line without any underlying tension is going to be very dull indeed.
What then is necessary to the creation of tension? Obviously there has to be something to ‘feel tense about’ – there must be a situation of some potential significance whose outcome is uncertain. The element of uncertainty is quite important – if the outcome is certain from the outset very little tension is created, but rather perhaps a feeling of sadness in the face of the inevitable or some other similar emotion. Given that there is something to satisfy this condition, there are I think two principal ways in which the tension can be created and maintained. Both require that we identify with and care about at least one of the characters. That indeed is necessary if the story is to have any emotional leverage whatsoever.
The first way involves our seeing the world from the key character’s POV, so that we are to some extent inside their head, experiencing their thoughts and feelings from moment to moment as their anxiety builds.
The second way involves our being privy to information of which the key character is unaware, regarding something which poses a threat, either physical or psychological. The anxiety in this example belongs to the reader, the character we care about is blissfully unaware. Creating tension of this kind brings us into contact with all the problems of POV and the omniscient author discussed elsewhere. There is a danger that we might find ourselves relating events from an external perspective, creating a barrier between our reader and the characters with whom we want them to get involved.
Tension may be a more or less constant undercurrent throughout the narrative, or there may be a particular section in which you want to ‘build-up the tension’ leading to some dramatic climax. The pace of the writing is very important in doing this. Basically, we want the pace to speed up as the tension builds, the sentences to become shorter, the events to follow one another more closely, with the anticipation of immanent disaster correspondingly rising. This isn’t the place in the narrative to launch into a long description of the weather or the mole on the chin of the villain. Short, sharp sentences with increasing bluntness and impact.
A question arises as to whether the tension should always find resolution or relief within the context of the story, or whether we can end with the dreaded outcome still uncertain, leaving the reader to imagine what comes next. I think either is perfectly allowable, and I have a slight personal prejudice towards leaving some space for the imaginative interpretation of the reader. I’m sure some readers must hate it when this happens, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t require them to work a bit too from time to time.
Edits and Rewrites (by David/sirat)
note: the way an individual approaches these tasks can be very personal - regard this as advice you can modify for you own purposes, rather than gospel to follow slavishly
It is often said that writing is 90% rewriting, and I think this is absolutely true. The chances of getting everything right (by which I mean as good as you can possibly get it) in a first draft are just about nil. You are going to have to go over what you’ve written again and again. Anybody who tells you otherwise shouldn’t be listened to – they are no writer. Don’t be fooled into thinking that revision will lose the ‘freshness’ of the piece. If you’re worried about this possibility there is a very easy remedy in this age of computers and word processors: make a copy of your first draft and file it away. Then, when you have done all the editing you are ever likely to do on the manuscript, open this first draft file again and read through it and see if there is any respect in which you think it’s better than the edited version. If you feel that there is you can still change things. But it’s a safe bet that there won’t be if you follow the scheme set out below.
How to Rewrite
Rewriting in my opinion falls into two stages, with a recommended third stage if you are lucky enough to have the luxury of people who are willing to read your work and give you feedback, especially people more experienced in the craft than yourself.
The first stage is opening the file and making a series of corrections in accordance with a list of questions which should include the following (the list is by no means exhaustive):
Is the general shape of this right? Have I told the story in the best way that it can be told, from the right POV and in the right tense (past, present or future), with proper attention to pace, character development, atmosphere, plot development, beginning, middle and end?
Does the story have an identifiable and consistent theme? Does it make any kind of statement, or is there a point to it? Does it leave me with anything to think about after I’ve finished reading it?
Is the story (or some part of it) in the ‘tell’ mode unnecessarily? Is the author obtrusive in any way? For example, are there instances of ‘purple prose’ or self-conscious wit or affectation where I’m just showing off and distracting my readers from what matters in the story?
Have I got anything in there that’s redundant, i.e. that doesn’t move the story forward or illuminate anything about character, motivation or setting?
Can any parts be shortened without loss, or expressed in a more succinct way?
Do my section divisions come in the right places, and is the length of each section and of the story as a whole appropriate for the material?
Is the dialogue and the voice of the narrator convincing, consistent and appropriate?
Do my descriptive passages include all of the senses where possible – smell and sound, taste and ‘feel’ (textures, wetness and dryness, heat and cold) as well as what is visible?
Is the atmosphere of the story right (e.g. eerie, sad, cheerful, nostalgic, anxious, angry, suspenseful)?
Have I got at least one character that my readers are going to like, care about and identify with?
Have I got a hook at the beginning to make people want to read on?
Have I got a good satisfying ending (see the section on endings)? Do the last few words in some way echo or reinforce the theme of the story?
Does the text contain technical errors (typos, grammatical errors, wrongly-used punctuation marks, wrong versions of similar-sounding words, such as to, too and two; disinterested and uninterested; refute and repudiate; their and there; its and it’s; hole and whole; accept and except, past and passed, breath and breathe; affect and effect, and so on?
Is the format consistent and appropriate for the story’s intended purpose or market (line spacing, paragraph indents, typeface, margins etc.)?
When you are happy with all these things (which may involve far more than a single rewrite) put the file away and WAIT.
Stage Two is when you open the file again after the LONGEST POSSIBLE TIME INTERVAL that you can give it (a week is better than a day, a month is better than a week etc.)
Read the whole story with fresh eyes. Does anything jump out at you now that you hadn’t noticed at all during Stage One? There’s a very high likelihood that something will, most probably several things. Correct the newly-noticed faults. Now your manuscript is (hopefully) as good as you can get it on your own. But there’s no need to stop at this point.
Get as much feedback on the story, both general impressions and detailed criticism, from as wide a group of people as you can, particularly (if possible) people a bit more experienced than yourself.
Listen to what everybody says, and then incorporate ONLY THOSE POINTS THAT YOU AGREE WITH. This is still your story, and even if one of your reviewers is a Nobel laureate in literature it’s your name that’s going to appear under the title, and in the end you are the one who has to be happy with the story.
Don’t ignore comments from people who aren’t particularly accomplished or experienced writers. Remember your readers, by and large, won’t be experts either, and what ordinary readers think matters perhaps most of all.
Getting an Agent by Aliya
First up – do you really need an agent? It might be in your favour to go directly to the publisher nowadays, as more publishers accept unsolicited submissions. Success with a smaller publisher can lead to an offer from a bigger one.
Out of the bigger publishers, Harper Collins runs the website Authonomy, and has published manuscripts submitted to the site. Snowbooks accepts non-agented submissions and has quite a quick turnaround. Macmillan has the New Writing imprint, where you can email your ms directly to them.
If you feel you must have an agent first, then check The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook to find one that represents your area. Then abide by their submission guidelines: some want a synopsis and two sample chapters, some just want to hear about the project first. I submitted to more than one at the same time and made a note of it in my covering letter – the process takes long enough as it is without waiting for each one to get back to you over months and months.
The covering letter gets a lot of attention. Make sure there are no typos. Address the agent by name (no Dear Sir/Madam). Give a brief outline of your book (like the blurb on the back if it was published), the approx word count, the genre, the type of person you see it appealing to. If you have personal experience relating to the subject matter of your novel, it can help to mention it. Tell the agent if you’ve been published before and a little bit about yourself. If you have the next project in mind already, tell them about that. Some agents hate covering letters/submissions on coloured paper or in funny fonts, so I think it’s worth sticking with Times New Roman or Arial and double-spacing your ms (apparently they like room to scribble in the margins).
Of course, none of that will make any difference at all if your opening chapters aren’t brilliant, so get them as good as they possibly can be. Agents aren’t really looking for raw potential any more; too many writers fit into that mould. They’re looking for someone who is polished, professional and ready to go. Your package (synopsis, covering letter, sample chapters) needs to reflect that.