Is Your Manuscript Ready to Submit?

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Here it is, the last Books & Such blog of 2012. My mind is firmly focused on the year ahead. I’m refining my goals, planning for the conferences I’ll attend, and strategizing for my clients. What about you? Hopefully, you spent a few days away from your manuscript over the Christmas holiday. Now you can go back to your WIP and, with fresh eyes, take a look at it. Is your manuscript ready to submit?

I hope you had precious time with family and friends during the much-needed break. Time to clear your head and focus on those people who are most important in your life. Nevertheless, the writer’s brain never fully disengages, does it? Occasions like these offer prime opportunities for you to observe interactions among people who have close-knit relationships. Creative ideas for characterization or plot can spring forth as you follow the goings-on. Ideas you can use to fix problems you might not have noticed before but now see with your fresh eyes might well occur to you after the respite.

Action usually picks up at publishing houses in January. Editors worked hard to finish current projects before taking time off over Christmas, but come January they’re in acquiring mode to fill remaining publishing slots for the new year and beyond. Agents are again looking for great new clients with exceptional books to represent.

But don’t be too quick to seize the moment and send your proposal and manuscript. Take time to review it first with a critical eye. Here are ten common concerns for you to address before sending:

  1. Do you introduce the reader to the main character and the main plot in the first few pages without giving away the whole story? If not, you may lose the reader before he or she gets hooked on your story. For nonfiction, did you effectively introduce the problem your manuscript solves?
  2. Have you eliminated the use of backstory in the first half of the book? For nonfiction, did you create a sense of forward motion for the reader in the first chapters and provided helpful information to keep him or her reading?
  3. Is there enough conflict? Do you reveal both positive and negative aspects of the main characters as they respond to the conflicts? For nonfiction, did you create conflict through illustrations or raised thorny issues you’ll resolve later?
  4. Are there up and down moments throughout the narrative arc? Does the protagonist have up and down moments throughout the emotional arc? Do those moments increase in frequency and intensity near the end of the story? For nonfiction, does the pace quicken as the manuscript is read?
  5. Do the emotional arcs of the main characters provide a more complicated relationship between them as the story progresses? For nonfiction, do you point out thorny issues, even if you don’t know how to resolve them?
  6. Do you maintain your unique voice throughout?
  7. Is the pacing consistent and appropriate for your story or manuscript?
  8. Is your chosen POV the right one to use for the greatest impact?
  9. Do you give the reader insights into the needs of the protagonist before she is aware of them herself? Does she finally realize them adequately? Does she experience complete redemption by the end of the book? Are her primary needs clear to the reader in the first few pages? For nonfiction, do you provide in-depth benefit for having read your manuscript?
  10. Have you overused adverbs, adjectives, and phrases? Is your manuscript free of punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors?

Which of these areas have you struggled with most in your WIP? What do you need to fix before your manuscript is ready to submit to agents and editors? Do not send it before it’s time.

I pray all of you have a blessed year ahead, growing in faith and in your writing career. May we all honor God with our words, thoughts, and deeds.

51 Responses

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  1. Lisa says:

    What an excellent list! Thank you so much. I’m bookmarking this. My biggest struggle: back story. I just deleted about half of my manuscript. This totally transformed my WIP, although entirely painful at first. I am happy to have experienced this learning curve as a new writer though. I think I have a better grasp of my characters from this error 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Lisa, I’m sure it was tough to take out all that backstory, but what a positive attitude you have about it.

    • jacqueline fairchild gillam says:

      Dear Mary: Thank you. I am taking a breather at my tea room with your list. Because my stories retain so many characters that seem to travel on to the next story I need to remind myself any reader may pick up a story and not know all these ‘people’ and yet I don’t want to weigh them down with back story.

      Sometimes I sincerely believe I only know two adjectives…and then I tend run them into the ground. So the comment to be careful hits home. I wonder if I talk the same way?

      Regardless, thank you and your team for all the great advice and encouragement.

      Warm regards
      Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild

  2. Mary, good points. I do think it’s notable that in #9, when you refer to the main character, you use the female pronoun. I realize, of course, that’s an accurate depiction of most Christian fiction. Maybe, in a decade or so, that will no longer be the case.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, I went with the norm, Richard. But I’m with you, hoping we’ll see more main characters who are male in Christian fiction. What do you think it will take to attract a male audience to Christian fiction?

      • Not complaining, mind you–after four unsuccessful books, I wrote one with a female protagonist and it sold. I’ve been told that 80+% of readers of Christian fiction are female. Authors do indeed go with what works.

        What would it take to get a larger male audience? We men have a short attention span–I admit it–so the subject matter would have to be appealing (perhaps a sports theme) and the tension sufficient to keep them turning pages.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I’m with you on this, but I’m also OK with it because Mary kept the pronoun consistent throughout.

      IIRC, a couple of years ago, there was a plethora of political correctness whereby articles would start out using a singular pronoun, such as “she,” and then mid-paragraph switch to plural “they” and “their.” That’s when the home educator in me automatically reached for my red pen LOL.

      Speaking for myself, if a male writer uses “he,” I’m totally OK with it, and if a female writer uses “she,” I’m also all for it. I use “she” myself, but when I’m talking to a largely male audience (e.g male relatives), I use “he” just for identification…

  3. Tiana Smith says:

    I’m planning on submitting my MS to agents within the next month or two. I’ve gone through as much of it as I can, and now am waiting on my second and third ring of critique partners to give me feedback. It’s been hard to do all the things you listed (it took me forever to eliminate most of the “just”s from my book) but I’ll have a much stronger book as a result. I’m excited!

  4. Hmmm, quite a buffet this morning!! Lots to ponder.
    As for #10, what if a character has an annoying phrase he uses to bug his brother? Is this considered overusing a phrase of word, or can it be a character trait? I’m leaning toward character trait, simply because brothers do use one or two word phrases to instantly bug the living daylights out of each other. I have 3 boys, and they do this constantly!! Example? When the youngest is being taunted by the middle one and starts to lose it, the middle one says “Oooooh, Zach angry!” And BAM! Off they go! Thankfully, the oldest acts as the ref and, ahem, “delicately smoothes things over”. Which is French for “shoves the middle one across the room”.
    As for #4, ohhhh yeah. If you mean a revolver.

    Happy New Year!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, you don’t want the reader to become annoyed by a repetitive annoying phrase. And unless that character is the villain, you want him or her to be somewhat likeable or sympathetic. That won’t happen if he or she is continually annoying.

      Hmm…a revolver. Sounds like an exciting ending.

      Happy New Year to you, too.

      • Actually, it’s more for levity than anything else. The younger brother calls the older brother “old man” and the older brother calls the younger, much taller brother, “boy”. Typical sibling behaviour which also serves in certain instances, to give the reader a needed respite from very intense scenes.
        And the revolver isn’t the ending, more so, it serves as an end to the begining. 😉

  5. Tonya says:

    Thank you! This is something I’ve been wondering about. The question I ask though is “am I ready to have a career?” At least it’s what I hope/shoot for. A struggle is I’m not the best judge of my work. I’d probably have to ask these questions to someone more experienced than I am.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Tonya, joining a critique group in which there are several members who are more advanced in writing craft than you would benefit you greatly.

      Continue to follow blogs like this one as well as author blogs. Read books on craft. And I suggest you attend at least one writers conference this year. You’ll learn about the business side of the writing career, and most of them also offer the opportunity to get a paid critique of your work. It’s well worth the investment. Do a search online for writers conferences near you and choose one that fits your needs.

      You can make 2013 a productive year toward your career. I wish you well.

  6. Emily R. says:

    Thank you so much for this list! Very timely information for me, as I’m getting ready to submit. 🙂

  7. Excellent checklist Mary. This could be helpful for critique partners to have one or two specific issues to address when helping with a WIP.

    May your New Year be full of joy and abundant blessings!

  8. Jan Thompson says:

    Thank you for the handy checklist! I’m going to use it in 2013!

    My dilemma is not whether my MS is ready or not, but whether I am ready or not to “let it go.” It’s like taking finals back in college when it was time to hand in the essay, and my eyes were still on the paper as it left my hands, as if there was something more I could’ve fixed (there could have been, but the prof didn’t think it was necessary — it was done as done could be).

    If I stare at my MS hard enough, I’m apt to rewrite the entire thing. I think one can over-edit a novel to shreds, and I’ve done that a few hundred times with the first complete MS I ever wrote. I’m now on my second MS, trying to apply everything I learned from my first MS.

    I think checklists like the one you provide will be useful to perfectionists like I am because for me, I need someone to say — Did you get #1-#10? Yes. Quadruple-checked everything? Yes. OK. Then let it go. Thanks again, Mary. Happy New Year!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Oh Jan, I know of what you speak. I hope the list is a helpful tool in discerning when to let go.

      Happy New Year!

      • Jan Thompson says:

        Thank you! I’m among the grateful writers who have bookmarked and printed out your checklist.

        I’m also going to ask my first readers use it like a rubric when they read my MSS.

        Perhaps the most helpful checklist I’ve collected, next to James Scott Bell’s writing books. Thanks again!

  9. Great list for a tough question! Since my first goal for 2013 is “finish this thing!” I’m definitely bookmarking. Happy New Year!

  10. Mary Keeley says:

    Brandy, I hope the list is helpful to you in reaching your great goal.

    Happy New Year!

  11. Mary,
    Great list to follow when preparing our submissions. It seems like there is so much more expected of writers these days BEFORE they even get representation, no less get a publishing contract, however, I would venture to guess that these high expectations are intended to make us BETTER WRITERS, not judged failures. I think the hardest thing for me is feeling like my work is ready (after crit partners, beta readers, etc.), then sending it out, then picking it up and finding more flaws. Ugh. Is it even POSSIBLE to catch everything before we send them out into the world? Sigh.

    I like your list because it’s more conceptual than black and white.


    • Mary Keeley says:

      Becky, it’s true that more is expected of writers these days. Since the economic downturn hit the publishing industry in 2008, publishers had to find ways to operate leaner in order to keep their doors open. Of necessity many of them have downsized their editorial services and now acquire only those manuscripts that are essentially publication-ready. This is why we stress on this blog not to submit your manuscript until it is the best it can be.

      But your second point is also true. The extra work expected is making you better writers.

  12. Michelle Lim says:

    Wonderful checklist, Mary! And it is just in time for a new season of edits that will begin in a few weeks. For me emotions and grammatical areas are the most difficult for me. I am working on editing those more and getting more feedback from my critique buddies.

  13. This is a great list to follow as I begin the revision process for my WIP.

    I especially appreciate #9.I hope the reader can relate to the needs of my protagonist without feeling preached at.If the author(me), the reader, and my protagonist experience transformation and a closer walk with the Lord at the end of my story, then that would be cause for much joy.

  14. Thank you, Mary, for this excellent checklist. I agree with Becky that it is helpful in that it is conceptual rather than black and white.

    My manuscript is definitely not ready to go yet. My goal is to start sending out queries in March.

    I very much agree that the information you give on this blog is helping us to be better writers (as long as we put it into practice). Many thanks, blessings and prayers to all of you for what you share. Reading this blog is like taking a Master’s program in How to Get Published. While it may be true that “more is expected of writers these days,” you give us the tools to have advantage over those writers who just write a manuscript and send it out without educating themselves on the business side of writing. Thank you again for your ministry of education.

    May you and your family have a joyous and peace-filled New Year!

  15. Kiersti says:

    Thanks so much, Mary–what a very helpful list! In my current WIP, I’m realizing I need to be especially careful of backstory because it’s a sequel. Also, #9 was thought-provoking–I hope to come back to this list later on! Thanks and happy new year to everyone at Books & Such. 🙂

  16. Thank you for this practical how-to blog post. Very helpful. I’m not ready to submit my manuscript yet. I’ve decided to improve my platform first. Over the Christmas break, I enjoyed sharing my writing goals with my family. The affirmation and well wishes have served as further motivation to work hard and keep hope high.

  17. Thanks so much for this excellent post! I’m so impressed with Books & Such and the professional, informative blogs you just keep putting out. I’ve learned so much!

    As for the checklist, I admit I struggle with #4. I tend throw too much emotion in the beginning of a novel thinking it will make the reader identify and CARE. But to be honest, if I watched a movie that opened on a crying woman I’d just be annoyed. I don’t know who she is. I don’t care. So, I’m learning to tone things down and build character in other ways.

    And I think #9 on your list is the key to a better emotional arc in my novels. My readers need to know that my protagonist needs closure from the loss of her parents before she realizes it. Then they are waiting for that emotional scene to come rather than rolling their eyes through drama they don’t care about.

  18. Navdeep Kaur says:

    Thank you. I just finished my first manuscript for a children’s picture book and that “The End” has me quite excited about querying agents. However, I will wait until I know it’s truly ready for submission–I will use the list as my guide.

    Happy New Year!

  19. Anne Love says:

    Great check list Mary. I’m on the home stretch of my first draft.
    Eliminate 100% of back story in first 1/2? Are you overstating because so many writer tend to overdo the back story?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Anne, that is a model to approximate whenever possible. By sticking to it your work continues to move forward, hooking the reader. You also are forced to use more creative ways to develop characterization.

  20. Although I stopped working on my story during December, I continued the writing with a short-notice script for a Live Nativity. Most of the words were straight out of the Bible mainly because you can’t improve on perfection, but it was my first attempt at playwriting. I used the proper Stage directions, as well as Lighting terms of Fade in, Fade out, etc. It was only a 4 page production, but I felt I truly accomplished something out of my norm. And I beamed like crazy when another writer said, “You’re a proficient screenwriter!” Yay me. 🙂

    We played to a full house and the aftermath is that everyone in the production, and those community members who didn’t get to attend now want to see the what they missed. As the sole cameraman and videographer, I’m now in post-production promotion. Facebook and blogs have taken a huge portion of my time, and I’m working on YouTube videos of the event.

    Do I need to do all this now? Well, I could wait until Nov/Dec 2013, but what would that accomplish? This way, people are already thinking about it and planning ahead for the next one. It should be easier to get help if we have visuals to show the result.

    It will also be one less thing to do next year in case I am under contract with a deadline.

    You’re right, Mary. My story hasn’t been far from my thoughts. My far-flung family is still here and I’m enjoying every moment with them. But give me another week and I’m back in the saddle, ready to use that excellent checklist you’ve presented. Thank you.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Anita, congratulations on your successful debut as a screenwriter! It sounds like you’re having fun with it. Thanks for sharing how a change of pace can rejuvenate the creative mind.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I love your author website — nice platform! It reminds me of horses and chaps and cowboy hats! Your bio is such a delight to read — especially when you said you “sold the goats and bought a used laptop.” Love the contrast!

      I wish you God’s best in your publishing journey. My own writing passions are narrow (e.g. I don’t write historical westerns), but I want to tell you I read all kinds of inspirational fiction (including outside my own genres). However, I haven’t yet read a historical western set in Canada. Wow! I can’t wait to read your novels! No pressure LOL. May the publishers compete for you. Write on! 🙂

      • Thank you, Jan. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know you’ve been to my website and how you perceived it. And your enthusiasm for my work is contagious. It’s the kind that inspires me to dig deeper and give the reader that extra tug on their heart.

        I wish you all the best in your own writing in the coming year. 🙂

  21. Hi Mary – thanks for the great advice. #9 is interesting and I wonder if it is different for characters in a series vs a stand alone novel. I’d also like to comment on concern #10. I am lucky that I have some great Beta readers, associated with publishing. I was told I needed to polish so I went back to Rachelle’s column from April 24,2012. How To Cut Thousands of Words without Shedding a Tear. As suggested, I went through the manuscript line by line, using Rachelle’s guidelines and it helped tremendously. I would suggest even reposting that particular blog for anyone who needs more specific details for #10, but only after the first 9 concerns have been handled. Thanks again, hope you have a Blessed, Joyful New Year!

  22. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you, Mary, for that check-list. This morning I began writing again after my holiday “break,” and have had a smile on my face all day. That check-list is exactly what I needed!

  23. I liked this very much will keep it handy while I write, thankyou.

  24. Elizabeth Westra says:

    Is there a way I can print this blog? I tried but nothing came through. I like printed copy so I can underline important parts that have meaning for me. Thanks.

  25. Theresa says:

    Love this, excited.