Writing a Manuscript

Elements of Writing & Story

  • Don’t overwrite.
  • Don’t use clichés.
  • Don’t use a lot of adverbs (e.g., run fast). Obviously, if you’re running, it’s fast. And don’t use a lot of unnecessary words. For example, if someone is nodding, obviously it’s with their head — so no need to write nodding her head.
  • If you’re going to use a lot of sentences to describe something, it better be something important. Similarly, if a character is not important to the story, there’s no need to describe him or her in detail.
  • Show — don’t tell. Instead of explaining how someone feels, use actions or dialog to show us.
  • The point of view (P.O.V.) should always be from the same person. You can only be in one person’s head, not in everybody’s.
  • Be careful not to make dialog too “on the nose.” Dialog should be natural, reflecting the way we speak in everyday life.
  • Hook the reader in the first 10 pages. (Besides, that’s all you may get to send a literary agent along with a query letter, so make the first 10 pages great.)
  • Each chapter should end with the reader anxious to start the next chapter.
  • Create characters who are three-dimensional, not two-dimensional.
  • Unless the genre calls for it, antagonists should not be cartoonishly evil. In real life, even really bad people have some redeeming qualities.
  • If you were writing a screenplay using a lot of erroneous characters, the first thing the director would do would be to eliminate some of the minor roles, combining them instead into a single, more important role. The same goes for novels. Don’t overwhelm the reader with a lot of insignificant characters. Do more with less.
  • Writing a novel is an exercise in problem solving. To find the answers, look to the story.
  • Everything should always be earned. For example, if a character is going to suddenly run a marathon, you should at least have him/her go for a jog once in a while.
  • If you set something up, don’t forget to pay it off. Similarly, if you create a great payoff, don’t forget to set it up. In Sand Dollar: A Story of Undying Love, for example, Noah’s father uses his last, dying words to tell his son something that he previously could never get himself to say — that he’s proud of him. That’s a payoff, because throughout the book, Noah sought, but never received, his father’s approval. I messed up, however, because I neglected to set up this payoff. When I realized this, it was an easy fix. I simply added in dialog toward the beginning of the story of Noah asking his father if he’s proud of him. To which his father replies, “That’s not the point…” skirting the issue.
  • Each scene should either develop character, advance the plot, or introduce conflict.
  • Essentially, every story should have a three-act structure, with the middle act amounting to approximately 50%.
  • Toward the beginning of the story, the main character should “save the cat” (a seemingly insignificant gesture — like saving a cat from a tree — that makes you instantly like his/her character). In Sand Dollar, this is accomplished when Robin disregards protocol and empties out her office at the homeless shelter so a homeless family could have a place to sleep, thereby “saving the cat.”

Technical Aspects

  • Use 12-point Times New Roman font, double spaced, with 1” margins all around.
  • In the header, put the title and author’s name on the left, and put the page number on the right (e.g., “SAND DOLLAR / Sebastian Cole                    1”).
  • New chapters start 1/3 of the way down (i.e., 6 lines down).
  • Don’t use the Tab key to indent. First-line indentation should be half an inch.
  • In between sentences, use one space after periods, not two.
  • For scene breaks, use three asterisks, centered.
  • When referring to your book, you should either italicize the title or CAPITALIZE it, but not both at the same time (e.g., Sand Dollar or SAND DOLLAR, but not SAND DOLLAR). If your book has a subtitle, put it after the title and a colon (e.g., Sand Dollar: A Story of Undying Love or SAND DOLLAR: A Story of Undying Love).


  • Take advantage of the Internet as a tool for research, dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar rules, etc.
  • Microsoft Word’s spell checker is not necessarily reliable, so definitely use common sense when deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. A great place to double-check your spelling is with Google’s spell checker, which is part of Google DriveAnd the best part about Google Drive is that it’s FREE! To elaborate, if Google’s spell checker identifies 100 words that might be misspelled or misused, perhaps the majority of them are unjustified, and the words are just fine the way they are. You may feel like this is a waist of time until you come across several mistakes that you’ve never caught before. That’s because MS Word doesn’t necessarily know when valid words are used incorrectly. For example, MS Word would never catch the mistake waist of time, because “waist” is a perfectly valid word, meaning the area above the hip. It just doesn’t belong in this context. Whereas Google’s spell checker references the zillions of documents out there in cyberspace and knows that the correct spelling in this particular case should be “waste of time.”
  • A lot of people have given the Scrivenir software program rave reviews. Although I’ve never tried it, it looks pretty cool!


Perfecting the Manuscript

  • Although your words are technically copyrighted the moment you commit them to paper, it would be a good idea to copyright your manuscript at www.copyright.gov ($35 online) before sending out the first draft. You could also mail yourself a copy in a sealed enveloped that’s postdated without ever opening it, however I’m not sure if this method would hold up in court if you ever had to use it, so better do it the right way the first time.
  • Join writers groups to swap pages and critique each other’s work.
  • Send out copies of your manuscript to your friends who read a lot, to get honest, constructive criticism. Ask them if they got confused by anything, if there was ever a point in the story where they lost interest, if they liked the main characters, etc. Then rewrite it.
  • Hire a professional to critique the story. Then rewrite it.
  • Go to writer’s conferences where, among other things, you can schedule meetings with literary agents. Then rewrite it.
  • Consider hiring a professional editor for developmental editing and copyediting. Then rewrite it.

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