The Final Polish
Maryland Writers’ Association Quarterly Newsletter
I’ve finished my mystery and my beta reader said I need to do a final polish. I don’t think I can stand to look at it again! Any suggestions?
Congratulations on finishing! A final polish is always a good idea. You want your novel to sparkle like a newly-waxed car in order to catch the eye of an agent/editor.
I call my system for the final polish a chapter by chapter edit. It involves treating each chapter as its own discreet entity.
But before you start waxing, take a week or two away from your novel. Then print it out and hold it in your lap. Get out your highlighter and dig in.
Start with the first chapter. With the eye of an objective reader, ask yourself the following questions:
Does the opening pull me in? Do I want to keep reading or could I go to bed and pick up the book another day?
Can I see the characters?
Have I immersed the reader in the setting? What time of day is it? Where is the light? Is it cloudy and gray? So sunny your character shields her eyes? Is the room lit by only one small lamp casting oversized shadows on the wall?
Are the characters consistent? Easy to identify?
Does the chapter move the story forward? Something significant should happen in each chapter. This is an essential element to crafting a polished, engaging novel.
Does the chapter add to character development? Does a character learn something new or reveal a different part of their personality?
Are there repeated phrases, words, or gestures? In my first drafts I find I have my character comb her hair back from her face a lot. A LOT. If you have a character who frequently clears his throat, adjusts his belt, rolls her shoulders back, change it up. And open that thesaurus, it is by far your most helpful publishing tool.
Are all senses engaged? Adding a scent, such as bad cologne or pine from the Christmas candle, is always good to help transport your reader. What’s the temperature? Are the characters pulling their sweaters tighter around them? See their breath? Or is their hairline sporting bubbles of sweat?
Did you skim a section while reading? This is key. You may have read a section many times, but if you skim it on this final read, it’s a red flag. It wasn’t good enough for you to want to enjoy your writing. It could be an info dump or just too much uninteresting detail. If it isn’t vital to the story, delete and come up with something better.
Are the descriptions vague or boring? Give us a pop of color. A quirk. A smear of mascara. Dirty dishes in the sink. An overflowing ashtray.
Is the POV consistent? If you switch POV mid-chapter, be sure it is obvious to the reader. I like a space between lines so I know we have changed perspective. Bottom line: don’t confuse your readers. They hate that.
Do you have enough dialog tags so the reader knows who’s speaking? This goes both ways, you may have too many tags which slows the reader down. Also, read those sections aloud. Does it sound like natural conversation? Are the characters differentiated and consistent?
Did you stick the landing? If the end of the chapter is a cliff hanger of sorts, your reader will keep reading. Think Dan Brown. He has short cliff hanger chapters that keep you up until 3 AM without you even noticing. Until the next morning, that is.
Okay, now put the first chapter aside and start fresh with the second, asking all of the above questions.
Have fun with it. It’s like choosing the spices for your spaghetti sauce. Toppings for pizza. Or painting a water color. Reading should be a delight to our senses. When you’ve finished, ask yourself, did I cry? Laugh? Smile? Feel fear? If so, nicely done.
Finally, run your novel through some sort of grammar check to fix all the commas, spelling, and typos. Then give it one more read as a whole to ensure these newly polished chapters flow together. You may need to add a new segue or two before you take this baby out for a test drive.
All the best,