Ask any editor or agent on the lookout for new work what they are looking for and they will tell you they’ll know it when they see it. What they mean is, they want to find a book that grabs them from the first line, paragraph or page and doesn’t let go.
They will give you all sorts of info about genres they are interested in, but when push comes to shove, page turning quality is what it’s all about. That’s how new genres get started. An author sends in a manuscript that the editor can’t put down, and the rest, as they say, is usually history.
Send in a half-baked story with too many structural errors and your precious effort will boomerang back with that dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” message attached. As for self-publishing, readers vote with their mouse and click away when they’ve read a couple of sample pages.
So how do you ensure your story is the best you can make it? Here’s a few principles you might bear in mind when you’re editing that first draft.
Have you stayed in your character’s head?
Telling the story from the point of view (POV) of your character is essential these days. Head-hopping immediately distances the reader and authorial intrusion throws your reader out of the story. If you have more than one POV character, stick with one at a time per section or scene. And make sure your main character is driving the story.
Is there enough action going on?
What is action, you may ask. Simply put, it’s something happening, something pushing the story along. Is there dialogue? Do you have characters in trouble, trying to get out of it, trying to handle problems? Are you setting something up, putting in hooks and clues? Do scenes develop your characters? In brief, is there any point to the scene? Does it have purpose?
Have you dwelled too much on backstory and description?
It’s easy to get lyrical and clever with description and forget to keep the action going. Or to drop into telling as you catch your reader up with backstory. Have you, in other words, info dumped? It’s a turn off and kills momentum. Drip-feed your description and backstory into the action, giving only as much as is necessary for the scene to make sense.
Is there enough tension and suspense?
Have you kept the reader hoping and wondering what’s going to happen? Have you built up to your high points by increasing the stakes? You need your low points too, but only so that you have somewhere to go when you build up again.
Do you have screeds of dense text in your manuscript?
Many writers don’t realise this, but readers love white space. Keep paragraphs short, use plenty of dialogue, and vary the length of sentences. Short sentences speed things up. Long ones slow things down. You can use both to control your reader’s response. But the more white space is visible, the easier it is to read and the smoother the ride for your reader.
Have you allowed your reader room to participate in the story?
Readers read because it gives their imagination rein. Throw in clues and hooks, give them pointers and signals, but don’t hammer your message home with over-emphasis and over-writing. Write spare and your reader gets a chance to put their own spin on the story.
This is a very brief look at some of the points that come into play with developmental editing. “What’s Wrong with Your Novel? And How to Fix it” goes into editing that first draft in much more detail, with advice based on the problems I’ve found coming up all the time in assessing authors’ stories.
I’ve learned a lot from helping other writers and found myself using my own advice! A salutary lesson to us all that it’s never too late to learn a few new tricks.