Sunday, August 8, 2010

19 Deborah Halverson's 10 Tests a Novel Must Pass to Prove It's Ready for Submission

Ara Burklund has been kind enough to provide us with a great synopsis of the intensive given by the talented author and editor Deborah Halverson. The recap is information-packed, but Deborah is an engaging speaker, and her session was so good you'll want to hear her for yourself if you have the opportunity.

The Ultimate Checklist for Submitting to Publishers: 10 Tests a Novel Must Pass to Prove It's REALLY Ready for Submission to Publishers

At the SCBWI's 39th Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles, Deborah Halverson, award-winning author of HONK IF YOU HATE ME, BIG MOUTH, and the upcoming WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES (available in stores June 2011), gave an incredible presentation packed full of information writers would do well to heed before submitting their work to agents and publishers. A former editor at Harcourt, Halverson already had a wealth of editorial experience when she began writing her first novel while pregnant with her triplet sons. In her Ultimate Checklist workshop, she consolidated years of expertise into ten simple tests.

1. Stop "Looking"
  • This test scans your manuscript for passive voice in dialog beats. Search out places where your characters look, stare, glance, gaze, smile, frown, turn, nod, shrug, etc. while engaged in dialog. These are static ways to express what's going on while characters speak to each other, causing the writer to miss out on opportunities for action in a more dynamic setting.
  • One fast way to diagnose incidences of overused words in your manuscript is to use a computer program that counts repetitions of word usage. Words like just, so, very, and feel are often way too plentiful in a manuscript.
  • To remedy word overuse: (1) seek more dynamic substitutions; (2) change your characters' behavior; or (3) change the entire setting and/or scene in which the dialog is occurring.

 2. Twist and Drop 
  • This test addresses characterization. Since characters should change over the course of your manuscript as a result of the dilemmas they've endured in the story, think about taking the person your main character is in the final chapter and dropping them into your opening scene. If the whole story wouldn't have even happened to your stronger, wiser, final-chapter version of the main character, you've passed the test. Passing this test ensures that a character arc has been completed.
  • To fix failing this test, you can throw larger obstacles in your main character's path or put more at stake.
  • Another fix is to stop playing it safe with your main character. Don't be afraid to give him or her quirks or flaws. Flaws are one of the things that make characters more believable as people, and hence sympathetic.
3. The CIP Challenge 
  • See the back of title pages for examples of Library of Congress-mandated Cataloging-in-Publication data, which include a quick synopsis of the work. 
  • Following the CIP model, write a one-sentence statement summarizing your story that includes the main character, the main theme, and the main problem to be overcome. 
  • This test will reveal how focused your story is. Optimally, it should be done before starting a writing project.
  • Keep in mind that a fresh approach to a universally relatable challenge is what your book should be about.
  • This one-line hook is what editors will be pitching at their editorial acquisition meetings, as well as to sales reps.
  • If you can't formulate a sentence to summarize your manuscript, your story's theme needs to be examined. Also, the story's problem might need to be better defined in your mind.

4. Read with Your Fingers

  • This test addresses plot and characterization progress over the course of your manuscript. To perform it, go through your story and read the first paragraph of every chapter. From these isolated paragraphs alone, you should be able to detect forward movement in the story, with both plot and characterization escalating.
  • If you don't see an increase in tension or character progression, your story might be meandering.
  • To fix, cut random chapters that don't directly contribute to progression. This is often referred to as "killing your babies" or "killing your darlings," since it can be especially painful. To ease the pain of this process, Deborah puts the chapters she's cut into a separate file, so she can use them later if a better use for those scenes ever presents itself.
5. The "Blah, Blah" Bleck! Check

  • This test scans your manuscript for statements of plot facts incorporated into dialog (also knows as information dumping).
  • You want dialog to illuminate character personality and reveal emotion. It can influence or lead other characters. What it should NOT do, however, is be used as a device to state plot facts. (Deborah's example cited a character telling another character something like, "He's at Lakeside Park? Oh, no! That's gang territory, over on the other side of town across the railroad tracks. Plus, Jimmy might be in even more trouble because he always wears a red shirt, which is dangerous because the Lakeside Park's gang color is blue and they might mistake him for one of the Rockland Reds, their rival gang.")
  • To fix, replace long passages of dialog with shorter sentences. Characters can talk back and forth, speaking more believably by interrupting each other and using broken fragments. 
  • Another way to get ride of info dumps in dialog is to take the passage out of the manuscript completely or convey that information through narrative.  
6. Check Your "Ases"
  • This test will refine voice in your manuscript. Search for the word "as" in construction (e.g., As she ran out the door, she grabbed a sweater from the closet. He pulled on his coat as she started the car.) Breaking these constructions into separate sentences will strengthen your voice and give your story more power.
  • Also watch out for -ing action constructions (e.g., She took a quick right onto a side street, causing the cop to fishtail when he followed.) Again, direct, separate sentences are more immediate and effective.
  • To fix, simply break these constructions into shorter, separate sentences. This will cause your work to include more sentence variety as well as serve to vary sentence length.
  • Make the most of narrative beats between dialog. Use the space to create action.

7. Scratch & Sniff

  • As you read over your work, do you get the feeling that your characters are standing in front of a blue screen reciting their lines? Setting is often overlooked in favor of dialog and action. Strive not to neglect it.
  • To perform this test, use a highlighter pen to mark references to the five senses in your manuscript. Make sure you have at least three references to the senses per chapter.
  • Don't forget to show characters interacting with their setting. 
8. The Italics Detector

  • Don't use italics for emphasis.
  • To make your voice stronger, use an action to denote emphasis, not italics. (e.g., A whiny character saying, "I want to go too," becomes, "She clutched his sleeve. 'I want to go.'")
  • Use the search and replace function in Word to seek and eliminate arbitrary use of italics in your manuscript. 
9. Check Your Sleeve
  • Are your characters wearing their hearts on their sleeves? Scan your manuscript and highlight direct references to feelings.
  • Don't have teens analyze their emotional situations, as this is unnatural and not how teens generally think. Show actions such as observing, judging, acting, and dealing with consequences instead of flat out telling the reader how a character feels.
10. The Eagle Eye of Igor

  • After writing, be sure to copy edit your manuscript, since sloppy use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting can be a real turn-off to editors and agents.
  • Have someone you don't know read your pages for typos and errors. Pay extra for each mistake he or she finds. 
For more information and news on Deborah Halverson and her work, please visit  and check out her advice to writers blog at


  1. What a great checklist. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Brilliant. Wish I'd seen this earlier! :)

  3. Wow!! Excellent recap, Ara. Thanks so much for sharing this valuable info. I'll keep this post bookmarked. Thanks also to Deborah Halverson and Adventures in Children's Publishing.

  4. That is an awesome list!! I'm going to print this one out and keep it for future reference - thanks!! :)

  5. Fabulous post. I bookmarked this for sure. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I was going to do a post for this amazing session come September. Now I don't have to. I'm linking it to my blog next Friday. :)

  7. Thank you for a super checklist. Wish I would've had it years ago.

  8. Wow--great advice. I printed it out, and plan to use every bit of it.

  9. Great post! Wouldn't say "never" use italics for emphasis, though, or to "always" use an action beat instead. You have to weigh it against the pacing, mood, whether an action beat makes sense....

    Or: it's not about rules, but guidelines.

  10. Thanks for commenting and letting Ara know how great it is to get such valuable information. Deborah Halverson is amazing. This is seriously one of the best pre-sub checklists I've ever seen, and I love how generous she is with her advice on

    Cynthia, you're right -- as usual. Everything is a guideline. But knowing the guideline helps us consider each instance and its impact as an active decision.


  11. Great post. Thanks for sharing all the info. It's really helpful and detailed.

  12. Awesome post--thanks for this!

  13. um, yeah. this would have come in handy about 2 years ago. thanks for that. better late than never!

  14. Thank you for sharing! I really wanted to go to this panel, but it conflicted with a master class I was enrolled in.

  15. That was so helpful! Thank you very much!

  16. This came at the perfect time, as I'm "polishing" the MS for my agent. I especially like the overuse of words tip. Didn't know my characters shook their heads so much!


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