7 points to self-test a novel for "quality"I'm pretty good at the grammar and polish part . . . I just need to make sure I'm doing a good job with plot integrity and character motivation.
1) PLOT INTEGRITY - check to make sure what I call the "because-line" actually tracks logically. If YOU think it tracks, ask someone you don't know to read it then ask them questions about why things happened in the novel. To FIX missing links, make sure every event happens BECAUSE OF the initial event. Anything with a very tight PLOT (PLOT = BECAUSE LINE) but very little EXPOSITION will sell somewhere (that's from Robert A. Heinlein).
2) CHARACTER MOTIVATION (i.e. the STORY-LINE which is the sequence of emotional states that leads the main character to change) must be clear to the target readership (not just to you). You have to explain WHY people do things in SHOW rather than TELL -- that WHY is inside the chosen plot events. When a character DOES SOMETHING the world responds with a LOGICAL consequence from which the CHARACTER derives a (possibly illogical but human) LESSON which the CHARACTER tests by doing something different "next time" which CAUSES (plot-line) another logical consequence, until the character has learned his/her lesson (theme=lesson learned)
3) When you've got both these lines whole, complete, transparent, accessible to your target reader, and precisely formulated to the genre that the symbolism belongs to, when everything makes complete sense, REDUCE THE WHOLE THING to an outline (chapter-by-chapter, describe what happens, why, and what it means in just 2 or 3 complete sentences -- this is your sales tool for your pitch). If you can't do that reduction, there's something wrong with the structure. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NOT VIOLATED A TROPE OF YOUR GENRE (that is the real criteria by which Manhattan Agents and Editors work - trope-trope-trope.) Trope is often the cause of the PACING issue that editors will cite when rejecting. Editors don't know what's wrong or how to fix it. They're not writers. That's your job. Readers expect you to do your job. If you don't, they call the work badly written or low quality.
4) Go back and DELETE 15% of the words, cut-cut-cut, use better words, delete all the adjectives and adverbs, and shift to well-chosen words. Then if necessary add-add-add to get the exact length for the genre. Then delete almost all the EXPOSITION. Take what's left and break it up like a sonic beam breaks up a kidney stone. Pulverize the exposition and sprinkle it here and there in LOGICAL sequence. The trick with exposition is to make the reader curious to know the fact you need to impart -- take about 50 pages to build the curiosity -- meanwhile drive up the suspense until the reader just HAS TO KNOW. Then tell them in a dependent clause buried in the middle of something -- use an oblique reference, nothing "on the nose." Make the reader FIGURE OUT what you want to tell them in exposition. That's a dodge for SHOW DON'T TELL -- make the reader think it's their own idea, not yours. If you do the work for them, they don't have any fun even though you do. Writing is selling FUN, which means you have to give away your fun in return for money. So you don't get to tell. You have to work to induce the reader to figure it out.
5) Send it out to test readers you DON'T KNOW and who don't know you personally (not work-shoppers you see every month- actual people who have no stake in stroking your ego -- yes, building a cadre of such folks you have access to is one thing online networking can do best). Get tech experts in fields you have used to check the facts.
6) NOW - after all that, you polish the text, not just running spell check, but going through the whole MS looking for word-substitution typos, bad sentence structure, wordy constructions "Well, the fact of the matter is that he lied" becomes "Well... he lied." Don't use grammar-check, learn grammar.
7) Yet another test reader, one who knows grammar, punctuation, spelling and reads books from your target publisher in your target genre. (each publishing house has a style sheet dictating grammar, spelling, punctuation). That's your final step - no sense polishing words you're going to delete. In hand-written times, that was known as "making a fair copy." On foolscap.
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