This is the test of fire; one you have to undergo time and time again. Because for every “Yes! We'd love to publish your book and give you a squillion pounds advance!" There are 100, or possibly 1,000 “Thank you for sending us your manuscript, but I am afraid it does not suit our requirements. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere".
There are several possible reactions to receiving a rejection letter:
Retiring to a monastery:
Falling into despair:
Taking the same manuscript around every agent and publisher in the world:
Looking again at the manuscript:
By the way, this is a page from the edited manuscript of George Orwell's 1984. Now there's a book I wish I had written.
Of the above options, my personal recommendation is for the fifth. I have tried two of the other four, but I'm not telling you which ones.
This is because, as everyone knows, persistence is the handmaiden of luck, which is the catalyst for success.
But being able to appraise and revise your own work objectively is a skill, and probably the most difficult part of writing.
Even more difficult than appearing on chat shows.
So here are my top ten tips for revising a novel. (And by the way, I am talking mostly about novels for young adults.)
1. Go through it and look to see if your viewpoint is consistent. If we are not following the action through one particular character's point of view, there must be a very good reason why. If you dart into another character's head or perspective, or find that you are giving your own description of a scene, during the same scene, steer it back to the primary viewpoint.
2. Are we as close as possible to the feelings of the character? Are their feelings reported and described, or evoked and given? This is the difference between "She felt a jolt of shock" and her shouting: "How dare she?" Don't distance the reader from the action and emotion; maximise the effect you are after.
3. Put it through a cliché strainer. Hang the manuscript up in a net so that everything falls through the holes except the clichés. We all write clichés; they're a kind of shorthand put in at the first draft when you want to get on with the plot. Then, we don't always notice them later. Here's a list of some cliches I strained out of a recent novel:
‘makes a beeline for’ p8, ‘spot it a mile away’ p21, ‘stand out a mile’ p98, ‘head is reeling’ p22, ‘mouth falls open’ p22, ‘cold as ice’ p25, ‘knows it like the back of her hand’ p34, ‘coast is clear’ p109, ‘dead to the world’ p41.
What do you replace them with? Inspired images!
4. Apply a similar filter for speech words. Really, the modern reader doesn't want to be held up in their appreciation of the plot by a variety of inappropriate speech verbs. Here is another list of mine, that you won't find in the latest draft of a novel:
‘trilled’ p9, ‘croaks’ p24 & p42, ‘breathes’ p45, p52, p88, p90 & p114, ‘laughs’ p46 & p89, ‘gushes’ p50, ‘giggles’ p71, ‘grins’ p76, p79 & p151, ‘weeps’ p82, ‘growls’ p88, ‘muses’ p94, ‘wheedles’ p111, ‘blurts’ p169 and ‘starts’ on p173.
5. Check the pacing. If it feels like it's dragging, or you feel a bit bored at any point when you're reading it, cut it down. Be ruthless. Sometimes you find you have rushed where you should have taken your time to paint the scene a little. Throw in some nice imagery. Evoke that sense of place or person using all of the senses.
6. Check the transitions. These are how a chapter ends and the next chapter begins. Each chapter should end with a cliffhanger of some sort to keep your reader up until four in the morning because they can't bear to put it down. In some way there should be a link with the beginning of the next chapter, but vary what kind of link it is. This could be a word echoed, or an image subverted. It could be similar in mood or theme, or violently contrasting. After a period of high tension, you probably want a light moment of humour, or take the opportunity to insert some vital information.
7. Add emotion. Scare me. Shock me. Make me fall on the floor laughing. If there is any dramatic moment, make sure you have made the most of it. If there is any interesting concept, make sure you have explored it. But always do it from the point of view of your characters.
7. When you've done everything you can yourself, pay an editorial critique service to do a professional job. It may cost £300 or so, but the business that does not invest in itself will lose out to one that does. And you are a business. You are serious about your success. Think you want to spend the money on a nice weekend at a writers' retreat? Or a glitzy conference where you rub shoulders with the famous? Fine, but do this first. You will learn far more from the detailed, specific, personal attention that you will get. Even if you disagree with it. And, you probably won't. Choose the service based on recommendation from other writers.
8. Rewrite the beginning, then the end, then the beginning again, then the end again. Make sure that you match up the themes that you establish at the beginning at the end. Use similar imagery, for example. Make sure the opening is as arresting, direct, and suspenseful as possible.
I have learnt a lot by reading the opening three pages of bestsellers, and analysing how they achieve their effects.
9. Print it out. Read it out loud. Reading it out loud will show up things you won't notice otherwise. Apply the spelling filter and the grammar filter at the same time. Don't rely on spell checks, do it properly yourself.
10. Give it to someone else again to read. One more eye never hurts.
This is just my top 10. This list is by no means exhaustive although it might be exhausting. The perfect manuscript is an elusive creature that requires much patient nurturing to tame and train.
Of course, you will always think you did all of these things before you sent it away in the first place. The fact that you found loads of things to change means, quite simply, that you were wrong. And the reason is: you needed some time to get a fresh perspective.
Conspicuous in its absence on my list is:
11. Take seriously any hints or advice contained in the rejection letter (if you were lucky enough not to get a standard letter).
This kind of goes without saying. But then again, I find that these letters are often written in haste, or perhaps not by someone who is particularly qualified, or contain only a general impression, not anything that is necessarily useful. Sometimes the reason given for the rejection is just an excuse thrown in and the real reason is totally different. In other words, it's not a technical response.
If, after all the above, your next draft is still rejected, then at least you will know that it's simply because the agent or editor concerned does not go for this particular type of work, or their list is already full for this category. It's not that it's not perfect!
Here is an extract from one rejection letter I had recently which illustrates just this approach:
“Should you write a comedy or another piece that has a little more light in the darkness, we'd be happy to consider it. You can clearly write."
Good luck. And by the way, if you want to compare the edited with the original version of 1984 have a look here.
May Big Brother always ignore you and your manuscript avoid Room 101.