Novel writing workshops

POLISHING YOUR FIRST 5,000 WORDS

Are you thinking of entering our Women’s Novel Competition this year? The deadline for entries is 18 September.

Remember, you only have to submit the first 5,000 words in the first instance. If your entry is longlisted, we will ask for the full manuscript towards the end of October – so you’ll have an extra six weeks after the closing date to polish up the rest.

Tips for your Writing Competition Submission Part 1 – What are you Pitching?

This is the first of a three-part series written by editor and literary consultant Claire Wingfield to help you improve your manuscript and give that crucial 5,000 words the very best chance.

Interrogating your idea

Whilst Mslexia kindly doesn’t ask for a synopsis or cover letter to accompany your entry, and only asks for your first 5,000 words,  spending some time drilling down into how your book would be pitched – to an agent, editor and ultimately a reader – can really help you focus on what’s important about your novel and, by extension, what will help it stand out from the crowd.

You can then use that knowledge to shape your first 5,000 words so they give a really good intimation of what is to come if the reader reads on…

As a first step, try to identify the core elements or ‘hooks’ of your novel. These are almost certainly the reasons you came to write it in the first place, and why you were passionate enough about it to persevere with it  to produce an entire first draft. If those elements were enough to hook you and keep you motivated, they are likely to appeal to your reader too. Write them down in a list.

Here are some questions to ask:

 

Setting

  • Are you describing an unusual or remote location?
  • Have you created an entirely new world, in the future, or the past, or in a fantasy world?
  • Are you contrasting some dramatic action with a comfortable domestic setting?
  • Does your action take place in a well-known location (e.g. Madam Tussauds)?

 

Consider how you can make best use of the setting you have chosen; or tweak it slightly to make it a little more compelling.

 

Concept/Theme

A high-concept novel is one that asks a ‘what-if’ question. They are easy to describe, because the plot revolves around a single unusual idea. What if a genetic abnormality allowed someone to time-travel? What if a gameshow host became President of America? Of course, not all novels fall into this category. But most do explore an interesting central issue, or an underlying dilemma that the reader may identify with.

 

  • Can you identify a ‘what-if’ question in your novel?
  • What is the main dilemma of your protagonist?
  • What is his or her main quest in the book?

 

Character

Character is often what starts us writing in the first place, and it’s certainly something that keeps the reader gripped. Unless they care about the character, they won’t keep reading the book.

 

  • Who is your main character?
  • What is special or interesting about him or her?
  • How would you describe his or her central relationships in your novel?

 

If I was S K Tremayne, author of bestseller The Ice Twins, and I was completing this task before submitting the novel, here are the notes I might have made:

Setting: Story takes place on an extremely remote Scottish island; many people may have fantasised about moving to somewhere like this; the remoteness adds to the chilling atmosphere that is also a key feature of the novel.

Concept: The death of an identical twin ­– but which one? This plays on people’s fascination with twins in general; the death of a young child is a parents’ worst nightmare.

If you’re having difficulty applying this analysis to your own novel, try practising with other books. Get into the habit of identifying the ‘hooks’ of any book you read. For now, take a look at a selection of books you own, ideally those that are in the same genre as your own.

 

  • What does the cover text and artwork tell you about how this book is being pitched to its readers?
  • Ask yourself: what is the hook of this novel?
  • What do you think is responsible for the book’s success?

 

Hopefully this will help you imagine your own book as a finished product. What would appeal to a reader most about your book?

Focusing on these main elements should help you judge what your opening 5,000 words need to achieve. Make notes on any changes you could make to meet these aims.


CLAIRE WINGFIELD is an editor and literary consultant, and author of the writing handbook 52 Dates for Writers, which is designed to help writers take a fresh look at a novel draft. It includes an editing checklist and examples from ‘live’ editing projects. Claire is offering the book at a special price of £5.99 to Mslexia competition entrants. Use the discount code MSNC17 before 18 September 2017 at www.clairewingfield.co.uk/writing-handbook/

This is the second of a three-part series written by editor and literary consultant Claire Wingfield to help you improve your manuscript and give your crucial 5,000-word initial entry the very best chance.

 

Polishing your words

One of the key aspects of polishing a text for publication is cutting out unnecessary material. This material often takes the form of the repetition or words or phrases where the meaning is already covered elsewhere in the text.

You need to ensure that not a word is wasted, or without meaning. Cutting out excess wordage not only results in a well-paced text, but also leaves room for a reader’s interpretation and involvement.

‘Amazing,’ gulped Leo nervously

In this text fragment the word ‘nervously’ is not needed, because the reader will understand that this is implied by the word ‘gulped’.

If a word’s meaning is already conveyed elsewhere in a sentence, that can be cut too. Here are two examples of redundant words:

He dashed off quickly (‘quickly’ is contained in ‘dashed off’)

He crouched down beside her body (we know his position will be ‘down’ from the term ‘crouched’)

Take a look at this paragraph:

Mrs Doolan always commented that Dad was doing very well in London seeing as he could afford to send her so much money each week. The streets of London must indeed be made of gold even with the war going on. Mam and Mrs Doolan had the same conversation every week, and we always laughed about it.

The same information could be conveyed more succinctly, leaving room for a more active reading experience. Here’s one option for editing these three lines into a single sentence:

Mrs Doolan always laughed and said the streets of London must be made of gold, even with the war going on.

Here the reported speech gives the reader something to reflect on. What exactly is meant by the gold on the streets of London? Is Mrs Doolan’s picture of London an accurate one?

There are many other ways this could be edited, of course. How would you cut it back?

 

Dialogue

Beware repeating yourself in dialogue – for example, by stating something the reader has already witnessed. Dialogue needs to propel the plot forwards, or provide a fresh perspective.

Here’s a neat example of sidestepping this, from Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton. In this instance, the reader has just witnessed exactly how our character came to unexpectedly board a ship, and so a recap of this in dialogue would be unnecessary repetition. Here’s how the author avoids this:

‘What are you doing on my ship? Explain yourself at once!’

‘Actually, don’t – I can’t be bothered to listen!’

Watch out for padding in dialogue too. We often don’t need the pleasantries at the beginning or end of a conversation. And laborious explanations in dialogue can feel unconvincing. A great prompt to keep in mind both when writing and editing dialogue is George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’. This line always reminds me of the possibilities for misunderstandings and miscommunication in dialogue – and leaves me wary of lots of lines where characters explain exactly what they mean and are perfectly understood. Not true to life at all!

Editing down dialogue can give a strong momentum to your narrative.

‘You savage monster!’ cried Pigsy. ‘You horrid animal!’

can become

‘Savage monster!’ cried Pigsy. ‘Horrid animal!’

‘Are you off to meet your daddy?’ Margaret asked me.

might become

Margaret smiled. ‘Off to meet your daddy?’

Whilst you are interrogating your dialogue, consider how it differs from the rest of the text. Do the speech patterns feel too formal or are they matched to your character?

Consider the following example of reported speech:

Mum shouted was I coming in for lunch.

This informal grammar feels perfectly authentic, which adds to the credibility of the ‘I’ character reporting events.

Or what about:

‘Oh, Gurkles!’ cursed Polly. ‘I’m a disgracer to the name of nine-year-olds.’

and

‘I knewed you’d have the answer.’

Both of these examples from Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear take delight in the quirky diction of its young protagonist.

 

Over to you

If you tend to overwrite, sometimes simply looking at the shape of the text in a favourite novel can highlight how much can be achieved in relatively brief sentences and paragraphs. Look out for three-word sentences; or even one-word paragraphs. Look out for short chapters too. Experiment with paring down your writing as much as you can.


CLAIRE WINGFIELD is an editor and literary consultant, and author of the writing handbook 52 Dates for Writers, which is designed to help writers take a fresh look at a novel draft. It includes an editing checklist and examples from ‘live’ editing projects. Claire is offering the book at a special price of £5.99 to Mslexia competition entrants. Use the discount code MSNC17 before 18 September 2017 at www.clairewingfield.co.uk/writing-handbook/

This is the third of a three-part series written by editor and literary consultant Claire Wingfield to help you improve your manuscript and give your crucial 5,000-word initial entry the very best chance.

 

Close editing

So often in life – and in editing manuscripts – we see and hear only what we expect. In the act of writing, we also fall into familiar, comfortable patterns and habits. The trick to a good bout of self-editing is in slowing down enough to see and interrogate the words we have written.

Going through the manuscript line by line basis, it’s important to consider:

  • Is that image convincing ?
  • Is that action really plausible and possible?
  • Is that really the spelling of xxx?
  • Have I selected the correct homonym (words that sound the same but are spelled differently, e.g. ‘peaking’ vs ‘peeking’)?
  • Do I keep inadvertently repeating myself?
  • Might this scene or sentence confuse the reader?
  • Is the tense consistent?
  • Is the point of view consistent?

Professional editors and proofreaders have developed a series of strategies to help bring a text to publication standard. Below are a few you might consider trying with your first 5,000 words.

  • Print out your draft. You’d be surprised how many mistakes and infelicities jump out at you when you read on the page instead of the screen. You might also try printing out in a different format to the one you normally see on your computer, and in a different font. The aim is to see the text with fresh eyes.
  • Read your work aloud. This will help you identify any problems with the pace or rhythm of the text. Are all the sentences the same length? Are the commas in the right place to help your reader pace themselves? You might even record your reading for further analysis. (This exercise is also excellent practice for author events once you are published.)
  • Keep an editorial ‘style sheet’ to keep track of any unusual spellings, punctuation preferences, etc. (e.g. single vs double quote marks for speech; whether to spell out numbers or use actual numerals). You might consider investing in the proof-reader’s Bible for trickier points of grammar and style – New Hart’s Rules: the Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors.
  • An obvious one this, but one many writers forget: make sure the word-processing programme on your computer is set to English spelling, and not the default, which is usually America spelling. It will make sure your automatic spelling checks spotlight words such as ‘colour’ and ‘neighbor’.
  • Schedule your fine line edition for short concentrated bursts of time, to keep yourself fresh. If your mind starts wandering, take a break. You might decide to edit a certain number of pages in one sitting, or to edit for a set time such as one hour. This will keep you sharper and more focussed than attempting to edit a manuscript as quickly as you can.

Beta readers

If you decide to ask someone who isn’t a publishing professional (a so-called ‘beta reader’) for feedback on your manuscript, it helps to provide them with a simple key, such as a colour code, to keep their reading focussed and to give them permission to tell you when something isn’t working for them.

For example, you might ask your beta reader to highlight in red anything that doesn’t make sense to them, on where they felt bored or found their attention wandering. Green could be used for sections that are working especially well (a useful indication of where to look when writing a pitch for your manuscript – and a way of cheering yourself up if your motivation flags…). Yellow might highlight a word or phrase too often repeated – you can then check for all instances with the ‘search’ function on your computer to decide which need replacing. (Make sure you supply the pens!)

 

Know when to stop

There’s a balance to be found in bringing your manuscript as far as you can without getting hopelessly bogged down in the editing process. This is where it’s useful to have a deadline to aim for, when you will let your manuscript go – such as 18 September, the deadline for Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition… Good luck!


CLAIRE WINGFIELD is an editor and literary consultant, and author of the writing handbook 52 Dates for Writers, which is designed to help writers take a fresh look at a novel draft. It includes an editing checklist and examples from ‘live’ editing projects. Claire is offering the book at a special price of £5.99 to Mslexia competition entrants. Use the the discount code MSNC17 before 18 September 2017 at www.clairewingfield.co.uk/writing-handbook/

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