Do you make lists when you’re preparing for a trip? I do, even if only in my mind. I think about specific things I need to do before I leave. I figure out what I should wear for each day or function, and I write down items I’ll need that I might forget to bring along. And during the packing process, I double-check everything.
Double-checking is also part of the self-publishing journey. It’s a huge factor in creating a finished product that looks professional rather than self-published.
Before I uploaded my completed manuscript (MS) for Matthew Muddles Through, I double-checked it with these steps:
1. Personal Revision
This is the step writers repeatedly hear about as “revision, revision, revision” and it can’t be stressed enough. Go through your work again and again. Then go through it some more. Make sure it says exactly what you want it to say.
Look for word “echoes” (repeated words in close proximity), weak verbs (is, was, had), excessive “ing” words (don’t use “was looking” when “looked” will do), and “ly” adverbs (avoid descriptors such as “spoke harshly” and convey harsh speech through the words themselves or in an action beat).
What’s an action beat, you ask? That’s a good question. I learned how to use action beats well through the wise counsel of my online critique group (more about critiques in a moment). An action beat identifies the speaker and helps create a visual in the reader’s mind.
Let’s look at the following copyrighted excerpt from the third novel in my Matthew in the Middle series, Matthew Moves Ahead (Do not copy or paste or imitate this excerpt in any way; however, feel free to link to or share this blog post with appropriate credit to me, Glenda Faye Mathes, as the author. [Sorry for the legal interruption, necessary in this twisted world.]):
“Guns don’t bother me.” Sergeant Winters’s spoon scraped his bowl. “Just the way some people use them. A gun’s a tool. And any tool can be used for good or for evil.”
Mom tilted her head. “That’s very profound, Fred.”
“I did lots of hunting when I was a youngster. I still have the gun I used for deer hunting when I was in junior high.”
“Junior high?” I swiveled toward him. “You hunted when you were my age?”
“Let’s see.” Sergeant Winters squinted. “You’re in fifth grade, right?”
“Well, technically, sixth grade since it’s summer vacation—”
“Sixth grade was the first year I went deer hunting.” He pushed his chair away from the table. “But my daddy took me squirrel hunting when I was a lot younger.”
“Did you shoot a deer when you were in sixth grade?”
He shook his head. “I never even saw one that first year. We went with a big group of my relatives and I was a driver.”
My jaw dropped. “You drove a car when you were my age?”
“No, no.” Mr. Wilson chuckled. “A driver is someone—usually the snot-nosed kid—who walks through the woods and drives the deer ahead of him,” he made shooing motions with his hands, “toward the posters—the guys standing on the other side of the woods ready to shoot the deer when they come out.”
“Oh.” Walking toward people ready to shoot in your direction sounded very dangerous to me, but I wasn’t about to say that in front of Mom.
Do you see the action beats in the above excerpt? Notice how much work they do? They identify the speaker (crucial in group scenes like this discussion among several people around a dinner table). Action beats help create visuals and convey emotion. They intuitively provide natural breaks in a speaker’s words. They’re a lot more effective than “he said, she said,” although there’s certainly a place for that kind of invisible dialogue tag as well. Some people advise sticking to the invisible tags; others advocate nothing but action beats. I counsel you to go with your gut: use action beats as long as they work well, don’t be afraid to sprinkle in a few invisible dialogue tags, and avoid either when the speaker and scene are apparent.
You can thank me for the free action beat lesson by linking to this blog. Now, as promised, here’s more on that critique group mentioned earlier.
2. Group Critique
A big benefit of attending writing conferences is networking, and sometimes that networking yields the sweet fruit of a critique group. I can’t stress enough the value of participating in a group, whether online or physical, in which members submit writing and critique each other’s work.
I’m blessed to belong to both online and physical groups. My longtime writing buddy, Angela, and I have been meeting regularly since we first met in a creative writing class more than twenty years ago. My other good writing buddy, Susan, and I met at a mentoring retreat six years ago. Susan inducted Angela and me into an existing online critique group (which, coincidentally, included several members who had attended the same mentoring retreat where I met Susan but not them). About a year ago, the three of us became members of a newly-formed local chapter of Word Weavers. Check the Word Weavers website for a chapter in your area.
All groups have their own rules or guidelines, but each provides an avenue for writers to submit short sections of work for critique and to critique other writers’ work. You can learn a lot from both aspects of the process. Others point out your common mistakes and suggest great ways to improve your work. Critiquing other people’s work expands your horizons in terms of genre and style as well as introducing you to new techniques. In my online critique group, I love the Trini expressions and customs that come to life in Angela Joseph‘s trilogy based in Trinidad. I love traveling through the Gateway to Gannah in Yvonne Anderson‘s books. And I love entering the lives of Susan Lawrence‘s realistic characters, like Emily.
You can find like-minded writers at conferences, perhaps discovering someone who lives close enough to meet regularly with each other. Or, more likely, finding people with whom you feel an affinity and can form an online group through social sites such as Yahoo. If you can’t get to a conference, try searching Yahoo or a similar network for existing groups that might be a good fit for you.
Running your manuscript through a critique group saves numerous errors and improves your work exponentially. It’s amazing what mistakes another pair of eyes sees. Even when five or six people read my work, they make unique contributions. It often happens that someone will catch something all the others missed. Every reader comes with personal preconceptions and experiences that influence his or her reading, and hearing the different perspectives is invaluable. You realize that you aren’t being as clear as you could be at a certain point, or that someone with a different background will understand a particular thing very differently than you do.
If you run your MS through a critique group, you’ll be uploading (or submitting to a publisher) a much cleaner MS. No question.
You can thank me for this free advice about critique groups by buying my books.
3. Professional Proof
Finally, I highly recommend paying a professional to proofread your manuscript. Your high school daughter may be getting all As in English composition, but I guarantee a professional is going to do a far better job of proofing your work.
This will increase your cost, but it’s worth the money to me for professional expertise that greatly improves the finished product. Your critique friends will already have caught a lot of stuff, but they may not know as many grammar rules or be familiar with industry standards. And they’ll be reading your work in disjointed segments, while a professional plowing through the entire MS notices inconsistencies with previous chapters.
Many, many professional proofreaders and editors have websites. You should be able to find one in an online search. Most of them seem pricey and I’d be leery of simply choosing an online service with no knowledge of the quality of their work. I suggest first tapping into your network of writing friends for advice.
If you still don’t believe in the importance of proofreading, you may change your mind and will at least get a laugh out of this video posted by Michael Hyatt on his website.
You can thank me for the laugh and the free advice on proofreading by hopping over to Amazon and leaving some positive reviews on my books.