Can you read your story without feeling the urge to rewrite every other sentence? If you can’t get through reading your story without reaching for the red pen, cringing, or throwing the pen against the wall, it might not be ready to publish.
Before publishing my first book, a historical novel called A Decent Woman, I’d read individual chapters of the manuscript…oh, at least a hundred times. I read the complete manuscript three times before and after incorporating my editor and proofreader’s changes, which were golden. I was blessed they understood me and where I was headed with my story.
For the all-important last read, I decided to read the manuscript like a new reader—with new eyes. Now, I should tell you this: I must have a physical copy of my manuscript for final edits, and certainly for the last read. It makes me feel like I’m holding a real book, which helps me mimic the mind and imagination of a reader.
I remember feeling as excited as if I were beginning a new book. I don’t know about you, but to me there’s nothing more entertaining than films, cultural events, concerts, and especially a new story. I made the last read a special occasion, and soon if felt like it. Pens and pencils were put out of reach, the cell phone turned off, and in my darkened living room with a mug of hot tea and curtains closed, I vowed to read and not make a single red mark on a single page. Red pens, I love them.
I remember fighting the urge to reach for the pen when I felt it rise inside—the familiar critical parent, my muse—who were nudging me, but I ignored them. My goal was to read for pleasure, which is tough for a writer to do, and to challenge myself even more, I tried pretending I didn’t know a thing about turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. I even made believe I’d never been to an island, just to see how I would perceive and react to the story and characters.
When I noticed myself slowing down at a particular chapter or passage, or rereading for clarity, I reached for the red pen. I know! But hey, I didn’t say this was an exact science. I made up this last read game, and I felt the need to change the rules as I went along. I merely drew a question mark next to the passages in question and kept reading. It took me three days to read my manuscript, which I thought was quite fast, and of course, that made me wonder if I’d fleshed out characters and the story enough. But I let it go.
I took the weekend off, and Monday morning, I went to the first question mark and put myself in a reader’s shoes. As I read along, questions arose, such as:
If I didn’t know what a hurricane sounded like; what a baby looks, feels, and smells like as it is pulled from the mother’s body; what the skin on a dead body look like after a drowning; how frying onions and garlic smells like in a closed, hot room; what color the ocean is after a tropical storm; how the skin reacts to extreme hot or cold…you get the picture, would this passage make sense?
Had I offered the reader enough explanation or description?
Had I used all the senses in description of place, person, and thing?
Had I capitalized on emotion and body movement and language in the all-important saying, ‘show, don’t tell’?
For historical novelists such as myself, who are the absolute gluttons for punishment in the writing world, it was imperative to be 100% certain of timeline, dates, accurate spellings, and date stamps so the reader knows where they are at any given moment.
When I wasn’t sure if a particular passage or chapter was clear, I rewrote the passage, adding what was necessary for my reader to experience the full weight of my story. If more research was needed for accuracy, I did it then.
The initial last read had birthed an honest to goodness last read the following week, and then we sent the manuscript in for printing. Now did I find a few typos minutes after I pressed, ‘send’? Yes, and we fixed them!
When writers describe writing books as a labor of love, it’s true. If a writer doesn’t love the story, doesn’t know her characters intimately, or has rushed through—a reader will pick on that; it will show in the writing. I’ve put down enough books to know this is true.
We want our readers coming back time and time again.
Happy writing to you.
Puerto Rican-born novelist Eleanor Parker Sapia was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time.
A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s bestselling historical novel, is the July 2015 Book of the Month selection for the national organization Las Comadres & Friends Book Club. It is described as “…a true work of historical depth and artistry.” Eleanor has two adventurous, grown children and currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia.