After you’ve finished the first draft of your popular fiction novel or short story – or even if you’re only a third or halfway into it but have some nagging doubts about the viability of various aspects of the story – take a short break. Put your manuscript aside for a week or two and concentrate on other things. Then come back to it with a bit of distance, as a reader. Here's a step-by-step guide to looking for any possible weaknesses in your writing, story line, or characterization.
STEP 1: LOOK FOR ANY BIG-PICTURE ISSUES:
Premise: Is it intriguing and solid? Will the foundation of your story stand up to scrutiny?
Characterization: Is your protagonist charismatic, multi-dimensional, conflicted, and at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable?
See Create a Complex, Charismatic Main Character.
Does he have significant, meaningful goals and motivations? Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic?
Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character.
Are your supporting characters different from each other and the protagonist, for interesting contrast and tension?
Point of View: Are you staying firmly in the head of the viewpoint character for each scene, or are there places where you’re hovering above or inadvertently slipping into the thoughts of other characters (head-hopping)?
POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There
POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping
POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View
Plot: Does your protagonist have a significant challenge or dilemma that’s difficult to solve? Are you piling on the problems as the story goes on? Make sure every plot point directly affects the character and his journey.
Structure: Should you start your story or any of your scenes later? Or earlier? Would it be more effective to change the order of some chapters or scenes? Shorten some or expand others? Or even delete a few?
Scenes: Does every scene drive the story forward?
Every Scene needs Tension and a Change.
Make brief scene outlines, using this template:
Scene: Chapter: Place:
- Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):
- POV character for this scene:
- Other main characters here:
- POV character’s goal here:
- Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):
- Main problem/conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:
- Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:
Delete or rewrite any scenes that don’t have conflict and a change and don’t advance the story.
Plot holes, inconsistencies, or discrepancies: Ask others to watch out for any bloopers for you.
Opening: Will your opening paragraphs and first pages hook the readers and entice them to keep reading? Don’t warm up your engines with backstory or start with lengthy description – get right into the story!
12 Dos and Don’ts for a Riveting Opening.
Length: Is your story too long or too short? If it’s more than 90,000 words (okay, unless it’s a fantasy or epic), check out
How to Slash Your Word Cut by 20-40% - Without losing any of the good stuff!
This would be a good time to send your story off to some trusted beta readers, volunteers who read critically in your genre. They don’t need to be writers.
Here’s list of 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions
STEP 2: WRITING STYLE, VOICE, TONE, AND PACING
Show, don’t tell. Be sure to show, rather than tell, all critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue, and quickly summarize or skip over humdrum scenes. See my article, Show, Don't Tell.
Show character reactions: Bring characters to life on the page by showing their emotions, physical reactions, thought reactions, and sensory perceptions.
See: Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions and
Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details.
Relax your writing. Is your writing style too correct and formal for fiction? If so, loosen up the language. Read it aloud to see where you can make it more casual by streamlining sentences and using contractions and everyday words.
See Tips for Loosening up Your Writing.
Spark up your prose. Use strong, specific nouns and verbs instead of tired, overused ones. Check out my article,
Nail it with Just the Right Word.
Pacing and adding tension: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner and
Add Tension, Suspense, and Intrigue.
Write tight. Read aloud to see where you can cut down on wordiness and repetitions. Take out any “little word pile-ups” and all unnecessary detail to improve flow and pacing. Make every word count. See many chapters of Fire up Your Fiction for more specifics on this, and my post,
Don’t Muddle Your Message.
Authentic dialogue. Read aloud to make sure your dialogue sounds natural, like that character would actually speak. See my blog post,
Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.
Avoid these Style Blunders in Fiction.
STEP 3: Go through the revised copy for a final proofreading.
Look for typos, spelling, punctuation, missing or repeated words, and anywhere the prose doesn’t flow easily and sparkle. Also, look for formatting problems. Is your prose broken down into short paragraphs, for more white space? Have you started a new paragraph for every new speaker? Is your dialogue properly punctuated? See my article
Dialogue Nuts and Bolts.
Some techniques that work for effective proofreading:
~ Change the font and print out your story on paper or download it to your e-reader or tablet; or get a sample book printed. Then read it in a different location from where you wrote it and make notes.
For more tips on effective final proofreading, see my article,
Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work.
Also, see How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality and
Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)