INTERN is feeling extremely wonderful and happy today and wanted to fill the world with yes's instead of no's, do's instead of don'ts. Here, then, are the ten most wonderful and useful things you can do you for your manuscript to give it the best possible chance of growing up big and strong.
1. Revise until there is no "anyway".
The single most common reason that reasonably good manuscripts get turned down (at least, as far as INTERN has observed) is because a writer had an exciting idea, wrote a kinda promising book with a lot of flaws, tried to fix the flaws, gave up, and submitted it anyway.
Never submit it anyway.
"Anyway" is an otherwise promising manuscript's worst enemy. And a manuscript that has been tinkered with until its eyeballs bleed and then submitted anyway screams like a mandrake when pulled out of its envelope. Would you try to fix your car's brakes, get frustrated, and drive it anyway? No? Point made!
2. Run more tests on it than a three-year old applying for an exclusive Manhattan pre-school.
INTERN has already posted about the Electric Kool-Aid Conflict Test method of making sure your manuscript has enough tension. But you could and should devise other draconian tests for your baby Einstein.
Pick a page at random. Can you identify what's at stake in a particular scene? Is every sentence your finger lands on brilliant? Can your manuscript recite the alphabet, sing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and know the word for "octagon"? No cheating!
3. Listen to Weird Al's song Everything You Know Is Wrong.
In the wise words of Weird Al Yankovic Everything you know is wrong
Black is white, up is down and short is long
And everything you thought was just so
Important doesn't matter
The same is true of your manuscript. Remember that everything that has come to feel so innate and set-in-stone in your manuscript is actually just something you came up with one day and haven't thought about changing. What if your main character's masseuse and her parole officer were actually one character? What if you axed the character's fiancé altogether? Is your story the way it is because it has to be that way, or have those elements just been sitting there for so long you can't see them anymore?
4. Read other books.
Is your manuscript as good as these books? Or is your manuscript just good compared to its own first draft?
5. Treat your beta readers as professionals.
Even if you're not paying someone to critique your manuscript, approach the situation as if you were. INTERN has a writer-friend in New Zealand who is extremely professional about asking other writer-friends to review his manuscripts. For each carefully formatted and proofread manuscript he sends out to beta readers, he writes a neat, conscientious e-mail with guidelines for the kind of input he's looking for and a requested deadline for comments. Somehow, this seems to generate more thoughtful feedback than a simple "hit me back wid comments, yo!"
6. Spend time in a publishing office.
OK, so this one is impossible for most people, especially since most publishers would have the doorman eject would-be flies on the wall inside of two minutes. But this is INTERN's list of Ten Best Things, and in INTERN's preferred magical world, every aspiring author could turn into an actual fly and sit in on an editorial meeting or two. Author-flies would have to watch out, though, or they might get swatted to death with a galley.
7. Sow your oats in other places.
Get something published in McSweeney's or Bomb or on Salon.com or in another magazine hip editors read. Win a Pushcart Prize or pursue a writing residency. These are not things that can necessarily be done in a weekend, but they do help (and your ease or difficulty in finding homes for your shorter pieces of writing can sometimes be a good barometer of your longer manuscript's chances at publication).
8. Shine your manuscript's shoes.
Proofread. Copyedit. There is no "anyway."
9. Send your manuscript to the right place.
Did you ever get on the wrong school bus when you were little? Remember the horror when you showed up in a weird neighborhood with only your Power Rangers lunchbox for protection? That's how your manuscript feels when you send it to an inappropriate agent or publisher. This is common advice, but so, so true. If you can't picture a given publisher's logo, you probably aren't familiar enough with that publisher to submit. Ditto several books agent has sold : agent.
10. Become an A-list celebrity, develop an addiction or severe mental illness that gets a lot of press, and then submit your manuscript.
Pretty much the best thing you can do.