Looking at Your MS by Carolyn Mulford
Writing a book is a long, hard slog. Typing the last word of the first draft brings a moment of exultation and an evening of celebration. I go to sleep confident the plot intrigues, the characters appeal, and the language delights.
The next morning reality hits. Knowing I will find countless imperfections as I rewrite 330 pages, I suffer an episode of the second-draft blues.
These blues aren’t unique to novelists. I discovered a low follows the first-draft high when writing feature articles for magazines. Working as a magazine editor, I confirmed that almost every writer shares my inability to read our own words objectively right after completing a draft and can’t judge what the rewrite will entail. I devised a visual assessment system, an objective way a writer or editor can judge what kind of work and how much a manuscript needs.
I adapted the system to novels years later while writing Show Me the Murder, the first book in my mystery series featuring a former CIA covert operative who returns to Missouri. She solves rural crimes with two childhood friends. By the time I finished the draft of the just-released fourth book, Show Me the Ashes, I’d begun to share the system with other novelists.
By following these three simple steps, a writer or editor can estimate how much work a first draft will need.
Riffle or scroll through your entire manuscript.
If pages look gray, expect long descriptions, info dumps, telling rather than showing. Lots of work to be done, including cutting and moving information.
Watch for long sections of dialogue or long sections without dialogue. An imbalance may signal a pacing or structural problem.
Turn through each chapter.
Do the same visual check as above.
Summarize the chapter’s action in one sentence. If nothing happens or half a dozen different things vie for attention, the chapter needs a rewrite, not an edit.
Read the end of the chapter to see if it propels the reader to the next chapter. If it doesn’t, you may need to end the chapter in a different place.
Read the opening to see if the reader who put down the book will be lost. Readers tend to stop at the end of a chapter and may not start the next chapter for days.
Look at each page.
If you see only two or three paragraphs, anticipate some rewriting.
Check the first word or phrase of each paragraph. If all or most paragraphs start the same way, you’ll be editing that page. Anticipate slow going.
Look for periods. If most sentences are long or the same length, prepare to edit. You’ve been using your eyes. Use your ears, too. Read aloud to check sentence structure, sound, emphasis, and rhythm.
Read the verbs.
The verbs alone should summarize what happens on that page. If they don’t, replace weak verbs. Look for forms of to be, verbs with modifiers, and passive voice. Strong verbs produce shorter, more dynamic sentences.
The visual assessment system won’t yield a comprehensive analysis of our first drafts, but it indicates how much we still have to do and guides us in the rewrite.
Using the system doesn’t prevent the second-draft blues.
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Carolyn Mulford worked as a magazine editor and freelance writer on five continents before moving back to her home state of Missouri and focusing on fiction. She writes the award-winning Show Me series, character-driven mysteries featuring three women: Phoenix Smith, a former spy who adapts her tradecraft to solve crimes in her hometown; Annalynn Keyser Smith, a civic leader who becomes sheriff after her husband’s violent death; and Connie Diamante, a struggling singer who uses improv to extract information. Achilles, a K-9 dropout, serves on their team. The fourth book, Show Me the Ashes, came out in hardback and e-book March 16. Harlequin Worldwide Mystery will issue a paperback edition of the second book, Show Me the Deadly Deer, in June. Carolyn also writes historical novels for tweens and teens. Thunder Beneath My Feet, set during the devastating New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, came out in February 2016. The first chapter of each book appears on Carolyn’s website: http://carolynmulford.com.