“The first draft of anything is shit,” Hemingway memorably said, and writers who’ve been writing for any length of time know that much of the real work lies in the editing and revision process. But once you’ve polished your story, how do you know when it’s good enough to publish or submit?
In a craft and business as subjective as writing, there’s no clear finish line to let you know when you’ve arrived. But there are key areas of your manuscript you can evaluate to determine whether your story is as effective as you can make it—and when you’re ready to hit “send” or “publish.”
How to Know When Your Manuscript Is Ready
Check Your Foundation
The general essence or “formula” of story is this: A character the reader feels invested in is driven to attain or avoid something she cares enormously about, and she takes a series of actions in pursuit of that goal, the result of which engenders a shift in her internal and external situation.
So the first thing to assess is whether that foundation is solidly in place, using this basic definition as a template.
A key factor to keep in mind is that the greatest disconnect—and biggest hurdle—writers face in objectively evaluating their work is that they tend to “fill in the blanks” of the story that lives so vividly in their heads. So in answering the questions below, judge solely on what’s actually on the page in the finished draft—specifically, clearly, and concretely.
Have you created character(s) the reader feels invested in?
Do readers immediately see who the character is?
Readers don’t care what’s happening until we care who it’s happening to, and for that we have to have a clear, vivid sense of character from page one. You may know them inside and out, but readers need to see who they are on the page. How do you reveal character from the very beginning in their actions, reactions, interactions, behavior, dialogue, inner life, attitude/beliefs, demeanor, etc., to show what makes them interesting, believable, and three-dimensional?
Do we have reasons to care what happens to the character(s)?
What about them—as we see them on the page—draws us in, makes us invest in their experience? They don’t necessarily have to be likable, just engaging and compelling enough for us to want to get on the train and take this journey with them as our main traveling companions. Give us a reason to care: Is the character funny? Especially good at what he does, or gifted in some way, or have a driving passion we can root for? Can we invest in her admirable goal, even if we don’t like the character herself? Is she fascinating or unique in a way that compels us to pay attention? How do you show that on the page?
Have you shown that the character is driven to attain or avoid something she cares enormously about (stakes), and the series of actions she takes in direct pursuit of that goal (plot)?
Do we see clearly the character(s)’ situation/attitude at the beginning of the story?
Before we can care about the character’s destination, we have to understand their origination point: the character’s “point A.” What situation are they in when we meet them, and what is their attitude about it? Where do readers glean both their initial external and internal circumstances and the longing or lack (motivation) that compels them to move out of it?
Do we know why it matters?
Readers can’t care about what a character has to gain or lose—the stakes—unless the character cares profoundly. Where on the page do we see what drives the character (motivation), and why it’s so compelling to her (stakes)? Have you shown concretely and vividly what that character wants, or wants to avoid (goal)? Does what is at stake for him drive every action the character takes in pursuit of that goal? Do the stakes stay strong, urgent, and immediate in each scene, and rise higher over the course of the story as the character moves closer to her goal?
Do we see that motivation directly propel the character toward a specific goal she embarks on a journey to attain?
Have you clearly shown what knocks her out of her point-A stasis (inciting event) relatively early in the story that sets her on the journey of the story? Does every scene show either movement toward or setbacks from the character(s)’ goal as a result of every event that happens in the story? Is each scene’s immediate goal concretely related or in service to the character’s pursuit of their overarching goal? Is the character the engine of the action in pursuit of that goal, rather than a passive recipient, witness, or bystander?
Does the journey the character takes in the story engender a meaningful shift in her internal and external situation?
Do we clearly see the character’s arc?
If your character isn’t changed by her journey, it’s like disembarking in the same town where you boarded the plane—you must take the reader somewhere. Have you shown how every triumph and setback the character experiences over the course of the story moves her along an arc of growth or change—from her point A to a different situation and attitude, her point B? Have you clearly shown his attainment of or failure to attain his goal? Do we see how the character is changed as a direct result—internally as well as externally?
Other Essential Elements
Having the foundational elements of story rock-solid is vital in creating an effective, competitive manuscript. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to hit “send.” There are countless moving parts that make up a compelling, polished story, but several areas are especially key to calibrate:
- Is every scene essential—meaning does it show the character moving along her arc, advance the plot, and/or raise stakes (structure)? The most effective stories accomplish most or all of these goals in each scene.
- Are all the characters essential in moving your protagonist(s) along their arcs? If not could you more effectively combine minor characters to fill a more intrinsic function in the story?
- Have you introduced some question or uncertainty in every single scene (suspense) to propel readers forward (momentum)? Human beings are curious creatures and crave answers; have you consistently created unknowns to pique that desire in us?
- Do you have elements of friction, conflict, or an obstacle on every page, underlying nearly every line (tension)? Smooth sailing is narrative dead space.
- Does the story action rise to a clear climax where the protagonist faces her greatest challenge or obstacle? Do we see how the growth or lessons she has attained in her journey to this point equip her to triumph (or cause her to fail), and the outcome of the challenge? Are all loose ends tied up in the story’s resolution?
- Is your prose concise, concrete, evocative, and polished? Have you said exactly what you mean, without redundancy or wordiness?
As fundamental as they are, these questions are really the tip of the clichéd iceberg of evaluating your story’s effectiveness and competitiveness—you can find a much more extensive checklist on my website here.
But one question I heard recently from an author might be the best final gut-check—if you can answer with brutal honesty—of whether your story is ready to compete with hundreds of others on agent slush piles and the millions of books already on the market: Is there any area you intuitively know still needs work and are hoping agents, editors, or readers will overlook?
If you can honestly answer no, you can be fairly confident your story is ready for launch.