Making a list and checking it twice

Nope, not channeling Santa, but a Twitter reader asked if I would give a checklist for polishing a manuscript before querying an agent. Well, certainly! But a caveat: this is what would work for me. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. Nothing I tell you is ever chiseled in stone except as it applies to me. If there is something here that applies to you or makes your life easier, take it and prosper, my friend. If not, well.

  1. Finish the book. I speak to LOTS of people who want to query without a complete manuscript. Forget the caveat above; this applies to everyone: FINISH THE BOOK. If you are as yet unpublished by a traditional publisher, you have to prove you can go the distance. The only way to do that is to show them the money and hand over a complete book. Otherwise, they have no reason to believe you can go the distance and take a book all the way from idea to completion–and a LOT of people can’t. Everybody and their cat thinks they have a book in them, and some do. But most don’t. If you want to prove that you do, you have to get the book OUT. Don’t bother asking for further advice from anyone until you have typed THE END.
  2. Check for typos. If you’re in Word, turn on your spellcheck feature and look for the squiggly lines.
  3. Check echoes. This is a more subtle type of mistake than a misspelling because no squiggly line is going to alert you. An echo is a repeat of a word–and sometimes just an overabundance of alliteration–in a short space. The easiest way to catch echoes is to read aloud. This is one of those things that gets caught by a good copy editor, but if you can fix it first, it will just make your project seem all the more polished.
  4. Check for consistency. Did you say the main character’s eyes were blue in chapter one and then green in chapter two? FIX IT. Read through action sequences to make sure the fight or sex choreography works. (You’d be amazed at how many times a character would have to be an Olympic gymnast or octopus to make a scene function as described.) Follow a scene from start to finish to make certain the physical grammar makes sense.
  5. Check for infodump. Is there a dense passage of prose where you natter on for PAGES about unnecessary backstory? SLASH IT. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is Persia Woolley in HOW TO WRITE AND SELL HISTORICAL FICTION: do your research, but remember that only 30% of it should ever make it into the book. The other 70% is for you. The reader DOESN’T NEED IT. That research is for you to understand the world and suggest it to the reader without regurgitating everything you’ve read. See if there is anything you can suggest to a reader in a few words instead of a few paragraphs.
  6. Check for cliches. Do you have a character looking in the mirror to describe herself? Give a thought to changing that. IT’S BEEN DONE.
  7. Check margins and spacing, font size, etc. to make sure everything is TIDY.
  8. Write your proposal–a 5-7 page synopsis of the plot. Make it clear and concise, with a complete ending. Don’t make the agent guess whether you can finish a book properly. The proposal should be as clean as the manuscript with the same attention to detail.
  9. Write your cover letter. One page–no more. Give a teaser as to the book, tell a little about yourself, do NOT over-promise. You might have written the greatest book since MOBY-DICK, but you know what? You might not have. If you claim to have penned the most stupendous book in the history of the English language, you have nowhere to go but down. Under-promise, over-deliver. \
  10. Be professional and polite. Agents have a LOT to read. Don’t make them slog through anything unnecessary to get to the good stuff.