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Clean Your Novel, As If It’s Your Home

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Getting a manuscript ready for submission to agents or publishers is much like cleaning your home or car.

Since I’m no mechanic, and we all have homes, I’m going to go with the home analogy for now.

But why, do you ask, is preparing your novel anything like cleaning your home? What’s that, you don’t even clean your home – you have someone else do it for you? Well, either way, the analogy works. Let me explain…

Imagine you’re expecting some important guests to visit your home…

And yes, your home is your manuscript. And yes, the important guests are the agents/editors to whom you’re sending your novel. Can I continue now? Good, right then…

… you want your home to look its best. So you’re going to tidy up a bit.

First, you do the regular cleaning: you clean the floors and dust – this is the spell-checking of your manuscript, you need to delete all the dirt that might discourage your important visitors from relaxing in your home.

Next you tidy away any visible mess – this is the formatting of your manuscript, you need it to look pretty.

Now what?

Well, now it’s time to go a step further.

In my home, I know where the dust traps are, I know those little nooks and crannies that get missed on a general tidy up or clean. There’s a particular ledge on my toilet roll holder that gathers dust especially well and, being polished silver (no, not real silver, just chrome okay?), it shows up the dirt really well. Any visitor, important or not, will see that dust trap for what it is – something I’ve missed.

The same is true of my writing – I know my flaws. So before sending out any manuscript I search for those flaws and, sure enough, I always find them. For instance, I seem to love the word ‘but’ in my writing. I also often start paragraphs with the same sentence structure. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’ve started three or four paragraphs in a row with the word ‘I’ (easy to do when you write in first person). Grouping examples in threes is something I do on a regular basis. You get the idea? Knowing what to look for in your own writing will ensure you send out only the best manuscript you can.

Now, back to cleaning my home…

When I’m cleaning my home, even after I’ve addressed all those problem spots, I often leave a room believing it’s all clean and tidy, then re-enter it a few minutes later and spot something that needs putting away or cleaning. (These are really important guests, remember – your house has to be perfect!)

The same is true of my writing. I might think it’s ready to go out to agents/editors but, absolutely guaranteed, if I put it away for a few months, when I pick it back up and read it afresh I see all manner of flaws. When you’re close to a writing project, you don’t see it in the same way as when you’ve had your view set on something else for a while.

What’s that, there’s more to this analogy? There sure is!

Sometimes, when my Hubbie is helping to clean our home, he’ll think he’s done a good job of something. But when I come to ‘inspect’ the results, I find he’s still got lots of work to do.

Yep, you’ve guessed it: the same is true of my writing – sometimes, no matter how much time has passed, I can’t see anything wrong with what I’ve produced. That’s when it’s time to bring in beta readers. Beta readers are readers who give your novel manuscript a final look before it’s sent out into the world. They’re not readers who’ve helped you form the plot or characters as the manuscript has developed. They’re the ‘fresh eye’ of the process. Use them!

What about perspective?

When I’m being really thorough about cleaning a piece of furniture, I often get down on my hands and knees and clean at eye level. The different angle gives me a different perspective and I find dirt (possibly spiders) I wouldn’t have otherwise seen from above. Lucky me!

The same is true of my writing. When I print it out and read it in a different area of my home, I see things I hadn’t seen before on the computer screen. I have a fresh perspective and it really helps me polish the manuscript.

Don’t forget – you can learn from others!

Another way to improve your cleaning(!), is to watch someone else clean. My mum is a professional at cleaning. I would never have thought to unscrew pop-up sink plugs and clean underneath. But having seen her do it, I check all the time now! (Well, okay, maybe once a year)

Sometimes seeing just a sample of your writing edited by someone else (in Word’s tracked changes or in pen), will show you a habit you need to work on.

Or, you could just pay for a polish!

If you want a really clean home – bring in the professionals! Professional cleaners can save you a lot of time and effort, and bring a touch of bling to your abode.

The same is true of your manuscript. If you can afford it – hire an editor! Editors repair and improve novel manuscripts everyday, that’s why they’re so good at it. They’ll see things you never saw before; they’ll know tricks that you never knew. They can bring a touch of bling to your manuscript.

Now get polishing!!

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