Checklist for manuscripts

If you are a new writer, you might find it worthwhile to browse through some of these lists before you send off a manuscript. The checklists are based on some of the handouts that I’ve given out over the years at historical novel workshops but they include points that are hopefully useful to writers in any genre. Some points may be repeated under more than one heading. These lists are just scratching the surface of things you need to think about, but I hope they are helpful to you and don't be dispirited, you can do it!

1. A toe in the water

Perfecting the first chapter is your main chance to hook the editor's interest but ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this the absolutely perfect point to start your story? Often, books begin with a sudden change in the main character's fortunes or something that interests the editor/reader straight away. Have a look at books by some of your favourite authors and see how they've tackled this.
  • Does your story need a prologue? If there is an early incident years before that vitally impinges on your story but is inappropriate for an opening chapter, you might try putting it in a prologue.
  • Do you have too much detail in the early pages? Sometimes it's tempting to put in too much 'backstory' in the first chapter – in other words, too much about your character's past. Are you making that mistake? Could some of it be gradually woven in later?
  • Does the first sentence snare the attention?
  • Is it clear what is happening and when this story is taking place?
  • Has the setting been clearly established?
  • By the end of the first sentence, do you want to read on?
  • By the end of the first para, do you want to read on?
  • By the end of the first page, do you want to read on?
  • Is it easy for the reader to recognise the main character?
  • By page three, have you established enough empathy so that your reader will care deeply what happens to your main character?
  • Have you ended the first chapter (and/or prologue) with a hook?

Try reading the first chapter out loud to yourself. It's amazing how much you can pick up – repetition, flat and boring bits, sentences where the meaning isn't quite clear.

And, OK, assuming now you are satisfied with the first chapter, can you sustain the plot for the mss length the publisher requires?

2. The bigger picture

Whether you have finished a manuscript or are just getting started, you need to think about whether there's a market for your manuscript.

  • What sort of story are you planning to write? Does it fit into a genre/subgenre?
  • What sort of reader are you aiming at?
  • Have you any publisher in mind and, if so, do they publish the sort of book you are writing?
  • Is your manuscript going to be the correct length for this publishing house?
  • Can you sum up the concept in an exciting phrase?
  • Can you create an exciting blurb for your story in about three lines?
  • Have you requested a style sheet before completing your manuscript? Some publishers prefer you do this, and it will help you polish up your manuscript before submission.
  • Does this publisher use double or single quote marks? Look at the books they publish if they don't have a style sheet to send you.
  • What size paragraph indent does this publisher require? Ah, and don't leave line spaces between paragraphs. Remember it's a book not a report.
  • If you are submitting to the US market, have you set your spelling checker to American spelling?
  • Is your story ‘your voice’ or are you subconsciously copying an author you like?
  • If you are writing a historical or creating another world, is there enough detail to make this ‘other world’ intriguing for the reader?
  • Have you a subplot/minor characters to help provide depth?
  • Have you consider using a theme and imagery to enrich your story? (You may have subconsciously done this already.)
  • Does each scene move the story on?
  • Does your story have peaks and valleys?
  • Is the ending satisfactory? US readers, for instance, tend to like to have the loose ends tied up.

3. Character checklist

  • If you are writing a historical novel, have you named your characters correctly for the era?
  • Is it easy to work out who is who in your narrative, especially when the action is fast and furious?
  • Are there any characters whose names can be confused?
  • Are they wearing clothing appropriate to status, personality, colouring?
  • Have you thought about their faults as well as their virtues?
  • Think about how you can increase the pressure on your hero and heroine. As he/she makes a decision, does it lead to different problems for him/her?
  • Do the decisions the main characters take show how they are changing?
  • Are you sure the reader can empathise with the main character and approve of his/her behaviour?
  • Are characters well-rounded and consistent in their behaviour?
  • Are their motives for acting as they do credible and acceptable?
  • Are minor characters drawn/described sufficiently, according to their importance in story?
  • Is the villain (romance/thriller) a sufficient challenge for the hero?

4. Romance checklist

  • Do you have a main character with whom the reader can empathise?
  • Do you have motional tension? When and will they finally get together?
  • Do you have sparky dialogue?
  • Are you writing single title or category romance? If you want to include more subplot, background and develop minor characters, you might be more comfortable with the former.
  • If you are writing category romance, are your hero and heroine centre stage nearly all the time?
  • Can your reader, if female, identify with heroine and approve of her actions?
  • Is the hero acceptable to the reader even if he may not be at first to the heroine?
  • What internal or external obstacles cause your lovers to resist each other?
  • Is the conflict between hero and heroine credible and sustained? In other words, if the conflict is based on a flimsy misunderstanding, please think again.
  • Have you shown why they are increasingly attracted to each other?
  • What do lovers see in each other that they need or lack in themselves?

5. Viewpoint (POV) checklist

  • Do you prefer to write in the first person, as though you are in a character's shoes (remember this will limit your viewpoint) or would you rather write in the third person (i.e. he or she)? The latter too has different depths. This is simplifying things but imagine you are in a theatre foyer waiting to go into a performance. Do you want to describe what is happening as though you are on an upstairs balcony watching everyone congregate, or are you down below, rubbing shoulders, getting into what your hero or heroine is thinking? Those of you who have seen the film Russian Ark will understand what I mean. The camera is right in the ballroom moving through the dancers and the people standing talking.
  • If using more than one viewpoint, is it always clear to reader whose viewpoint is being described?
  • If your main interest is a historical character like Joan of Arc but you write about events from a fictional character's viewpoint, make sure you let that character live their own life. Remember that the fictional character is actually the main character in the readers' eyes and they will want to know what is happening to him/her.
  • Have you avoided going into the viewpoint of people who are insignificant in the story (e.g. the butler or the upstairs maid)? This is a very common mistake.
  • Have you checked there are no POV changes in mid-paragraph?
  • Have you remembered that men and women think differently?
  • Don't forget that you can't say something like 'his expression was enigmatic', if you are entering into his thoughts. He can't see what his face looks like unless he catches sight of himself in the mirror. You could say 'he tried for an enigmatic expression'.

6. Use of language checklist (especially historicals)

  • Have you used any words whose meaning is not clear within your text?
  • Have you checked all spellings of unusual words? Why not keep a list of the correct spelling or key it into your spelling checker and that saves a lot of time for the copy editor.
  • Have you made sure you are not using any anachronisms?
  • Make sure you are not using words that have acquired a different meaning?
  • Have you checked that all forms of address and rank are accurate? Please don't describe Sir Arthur Sadler as Sir Sadler.
  • Is the imagery appropriate for era and tone of novel?
  • Have you read page aloud to see if text flows?

7. Synopsis checklist

  • Is your synopsis the appropriate length? Check with the publisher's requirements if you are not sure.
  • Is there a strong opening and a hook to keep the editor reading on?
  • Does text flow?
  • Have you remembered to write it in the present tense?
  • Have you checked for typos, repetition, poor spacing etc?
  • Does it reflect your style and skills? eg if you use humour, does it show here?
  • Are you demonstrating not just plot but what motivates your main character and how he/she changes and grows?
  • Have you made era and setting clear?
  • Have you created empathy for your main character?
  • Have you shown their motivations/objectives/strengths/weaknesses?
  • Are conflict(s) clear and satisfactorily resolved?
  • Are all crises or watersheds covered?
  • Are there any characters whose names can be confused?
  • Are minor characters/loose ends, essential to plot, dealt with?
  • Have you wasted any valuable space on irrelevant info?
  • Do you need all those adjectives?
  • Have you read the synopsis aloud?
  • Finally, if you were the editor reading this, would you want to read the entire manuscript? In other words, be honest, would ultra-busy you ask to see the full mss if you were in her/his shoes?

8. Query letter checklist

  • Is your query letter lively and enticing without being too cute or over the top?
  • Can you fit all you want to say into a one-page letter?
  • Can you give your story a high concept (a phrase that sums up the plot in an exciting way)?
  • Alternatively, can you write a mouth-watering description of your book in three lines?
  • What can you tell the editor that might help him/her fight for your story’s acceptance through all the publishing meetings? For instance:
    • Have you a special area of knowledge relevant to story?
    • Have you had anything published in a different or related field?
    • Have you been interviewed on the radio? Even if it's about nothing to do with writing!
    • Have you done any public speaking? You might have been chairperson on a school committee or given presentations to colleagues as part of your work.
    • Would you be happy to give talks and help promote your book?
    • Do you belong to any writers’ societies/groups or to any organisation that might be willing to publicise your book through their newsletters?

You can't fit all that onto one page? No, but you could attach a bullet point single sheet to the query letter so that the editor can take all that information on board in a glance.

9. Final Draft Checklist

Content

  • Have you eliminated those boring early chapters that helped you get your characters right but lacked pace and thrill?
  • Is your book lively, believable and a page-turner?
  • Is the story satisfying, especially the ending?
  • Have you created likable, well drawn characters that will keep reader with them?
  • Are you meeting your reader’s expectations for this type of genre?

Layout

  • Have you requested and observed publisher’s guidelines?
  • Have you analysed the layout in desired publisher’s existing books, e.g. paragraph indents, quote marks?
  • Do you have appropriate headers, footers and page numbering?
  • Do you understand the correct use of apostrophe?
  • Are you satisfied you understand how to punctuate dialogue? Check a novel by a well-known author, if you don't.
  • Have you run text through a spelling and spacing check?
  • Have you checked things that slip through spelling check like ‘there’ and ‘their’?
  • Does your manuscript presentation show that you have an eye for accuracy?
  • Have you demonstrated you are capable of self-editing? In other words, that you have read your typescript through and corrected the errors?
  • Is your presentation perfect?

© Isolde Martyn 2006