Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ten Best Things You Can Do For Your Manuscript

INTERN is feeling extremely wonderful and happy today and wanted to fill the world with yes's instead of no's, do's instead of don'ts. Here, then, are the ten most wonderful and useful things you can do you for your manuscript to give it the best possible chance of growing up big and strong.

1. Revise until there is no "anyway".

The single most common reason that reasonably good manuscripts get turned down (at least, as far as INTERN has observed) is because a writer had an exciting idea, wrote a kinda promising book with a lot of flaws, tried to fix the flaws, gave up, and submitted it anyway.

Never submit it anyway.

"Anyway" is an otherwise promising manuscript's worst enemy. And a manuscript that has been tinkered with until its eyeballs bleed and then submitted anyway screams like a mandrake when pulled out of its envelope. Would you try to fix your car's brakes, get frustrated, and drive it anyway? No? Point made!

2. Run more tests on it than a three-year old applying for an exclusive Manhattan pre-school.

INTERN has already posted about the Electric Kool-Aid Conflict Test method of making sure your manuscript has enough tension. But you could and should devise other draconian tests for your baby Einstein.

Pick a page at random. Can you identify what's at stake in a particular scene? Is every sentence your finger lands on brilliant? Can your manuscript recite the alphabet, sing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and know the word for "octagon"? No cheating!

3. Listen to Weird Al's song Everything You Know Is Wrong.

In the wise words of Weird Al Yankovic Everything you know is wrong
Black is white, up is down and short is long
And everything you thought was just so
Important doesn't matter

The same is true of your manuscript. Remember that everything that has come to feel so innate and set-in-stone in your manuscript is actually just something you came up with one day and haven't thought about changing. What if your main character's masseuse and her parole officer were actually one character? What if you axed the character's fiancé altogether? Is your story the way it is because it has to be that way, or have those elements just been sitting there for so long you can't see them anymore?

4. Read other books.

Is your manuscript as good as these books? Or is your manuscript just good compared to its own first draft?

5. Treat your beta readers as professionals.

Even if you're not paying someone to critique your manuscript, approach the situation as if you were. INTERN has a writer-friend in New Zealand who is extremely professional about asking other writer-friends to review his manuscripts. For each carefully formatted and proofread manuscript he sends out to beta readers, he writes a neat, conscientious e-mail with guidelines for the kind of input he's looking for and a requested deadline for comments. Somehow, this seems to generate more thoughtful feedback than a simple "hit me back wid comments, yo!"

6. Spend time in a publishing office.

OK, so this one is impossible for most people, especially since most publishers would have the doorman eject would-be flies on the wall inside of two minutes. But this is INTERN's list of Ten Best Things, and in INTERN's preferred magical world, every aspiring author could turn into an actual fly and sit in on an editorial meeting or two. Author-flies would have to watch out, though, or they might get swatted to death with a galley.

7. Sow your oats in other places.

Get something published in McSweeney's or Bomb or on or in another magazine hip editors read. Win a Pushcart Prize or pursue a writing residency. These are not things that can necessarily be done in a weekend, but they do help (and your ease or difficulty in finding homes for your shorter pieces of writing can sometimes be a good barometer of your longer manuscript's chances at publication).

8. Shine your manuscript's shoes.

Proofread. Copyedit. There is no "anyway."

9. Send your manuscript to the right place.

Did you ever get on the wrong school bus when you were little? Remember the horror when you showed up in a weird neighborhood with only your Power Rangers lunchbox for protection? That's how your manuscript feels when you send it to an inappropriate agent or publisher. This is common advice, but so, so true. If you can't picture a given publisher's logo, you probably aren't familiar enough with that publisher to submit. Ditto several books agent has sold : agent.

10. Become an A-list celebrity, develop an addiction or severe mental illness that gets a lot of press, and then submit your manuscript.

Pretty much the best thing you can do.


  1. "Become an A-list celebrity, develop an addiciton or severe mental illness . . ."

    Truer words never spoken. Great post.

  2. Excellent post even for those of us who are not aspiring writers!! #9 would absolutely be #1 (okay, maybe #2) in my book. I need to finish working on my own list of "The Ten Best Things You Can Do For Your Art Submissions" . . . I'll let you know when I do!

  3. "had an exciting idea, wrote a kinda promising book with a lot of flaws, tried to fix the flaws, gave up, and submitted it anyway."


    Anyway, guess it's time to get back to work on polishing up my severe mental ill- err I mean... manuscript.

  4. aw man... I already DID the celeb thing and totally forgot to write a book about it. dammit.

  5. YAY #10! AND I was in a HBO documentary because of it (but sadly, I am not even on the d list). There is hope for my memoir. Somewhere. *sigh*

  6. Great advice! #10 is hilarious, but #5 really struck me--why haven't I been doing this? *head desk*

  7. Any way : Anyway

    Anyway, six million manuscripts in the pipeline at any given moment seeking publication any way.

    Anyway; regardless
    Any way; in whatever manner

  8. Great Post. Great Advice. No. 5 is a huge pet peeve of mine. I have several friends who have written (still unpublished) novels and sent them to me for comments. I was appalled by how many typos they contained. And how many instances where the tense changed in mid-sentence!

    One of these friends writes short stories, and each time she sends me one, before I can even open the file, she'll send me another email with a revision and the subject line: "STOP! Read this one." And then another...

    What the hell. It's insulting to me, as I am painstakingly working on my own shit.

    Further, how can they live with themselves? It's like being in a car wreck where you're thrown 20 feet from your vehicle, land at the foot of a tree with your skirt up around your waist, on a day when you wore your rattiest grandma underpants.

    p.s. I painstakingly proofread this comment.

  9. Remember that everything that has come to feel so innate and set-in-stone in your manuscript is actually just something you came up with one day and haven't thought about changing.

    Actually, that sounds like my life. But really, that's often where we have blinders on and don't see how much a simple twist could spark a chapter.

    A writer-friend in New Zealand who is extremely professional about asking other writer-friends to review his manuscripts... a neat, conscientious e-mail with guidelines for the kind of input he's looking for.

    I’d love to see this. Maybe you could persuade said friend to write a guest blog on just this topic?

    And agoraphob – thanks for being in that HBO special. I got a copy on tape, and I’ve given out copies for people suffering from panic attacks 'cause it means far more than any medical text.

  10. Ah, #6. Every author's fondest dream and worst nightmare. Or it should be.

    If you can't manage that, try joining an e-zine. It doesn't even have to be particularly good. Start one yourself, even. (People will submit if you have an active online presence, or even just duotrope. Trust me.)

    Examine how you react to other people's work, both good and bad. Then apply that knowledge to your own work.

  11. Yo, this post is kickin', yo!

    KIDDING, of course. Thank you as always for your insight, INTERN.

    I really DO appreciate every one of your posts. Hope all is well at Venny McP.

  12. Why don't you transcribe a couple of editorial meetings for us? Since we all live in Nebraska and we assume editorial meetings are:

    Do I look wonderful, Claude? (bored voice)
    I'm too busy contemplating my Vassar diploma to look, Maudine. (lazily)
    Have we any herbal tea? I fancy the peppermint kind.
    I used it in my purge last week.
    Should we discuss books?
    Why bother? The Great Gatsby was already written, presumably by intelligent toads.
    So true. More cognac?

    Also, are there more typos on craigslist furniture-for-sale postings or raw manuscripts? Be honest!

  13. I love number 10! Here's to ideal worlds! :D

  14. YAY!! Ditto Kevin, except can you post the audio file somewhere secret so only we can hear it?

    Love this post!

  15. This is brilliant. Personal favorites 1, 6 and 10.

    I hope it's OK with you, but I've linked to this article from my blog (although I can't offer much in the way of traffic as I'm only just starting out)

  16. Intern is an extremely kind and generous soul.
    Much obliged for these excellent tips of the trade.
    Is Intern allowed guests at lunchtime, for possible publishing experience?
    Hmmm...thought not, but there are many other suggestions here every aspiring whatever can strive for.
    I have struck "anyways" from my vocab permanently.

  17. I love the second point 'run more tests on it...' basically something I do to every single page.

    Being a writer takes a certain kind of bloody single-mindedness

  18. That was really insightful INTERN! Thank you so much for sharing those valuable thoughts with us aspiring authors! Will definitely share this on Twitter :)

  19. Oh my, love, loVE, LOVE that!!

  20. Hey INTERN! Finally got around to spinning your post into a list for the illustration half... check it out! Thanks for the inspiration!

  21. #1...I'm guilty. Especially with my first novel. Which thankfully isn't in querying anymore and I'm in the process of erasing the 'anyway.'

  22. Brilliantly written :) I always thought of sending my written work to anyone and everyone.. but after reading this, I feel I should keep it for the right people.

  23. "Is your manuscript as good as those? Or just good compared to its own first draft?"

    ...that one is great. Yes...yes..much to think about.

  24. Love your blog! Great post!

  25. Oh Man, this is hilarious. Thanks for a nice boost of optimism. Just when I was thinking of using my manuscript to prop up the coffee table.

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