Who is my intended audience?
A book written for “everyone” will interest very few. Are you writing primarily for children, teens or adults? Women or men? Christian believers or mainstream? The story you tell and the way you tell it will vary greatly depending on your audience.
What genre am I writing?
We may resist putting a label on our work, but the fact is that bookstores want to know where to shelve the book. Is it mystery? Romance? Historical? Even on-line distributors are looking for tags to direct readers to collections of titles. Without that tag, your book will be lost in the slough of general fiction.
Within that genre, readers have certain expectations of pacing, description, point-of-view, etc. In order to meet those expectations (and earn positive reviews!) you need to know where your book fits. Wikipedia has a large collection of articles describing genres. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_literary_genres
How much have I read the genre I am writing?
The more you read the more you will accustom your “ear” to how that genre sounds. I’m talking modern books that people today get excited about. Classics are great, but the writing style that was so popular in the nineteenth century (before radio, much less TV and internet, when authors were paid by the word) will not sell today. Look for award winners. Ask yourself, what makes this book so good? Don’t expect to be able to write effectively if you are not a reader. It takes a lifetime to absorb the way story works, the feel of a chapter ending that won’t let you close the book, etc.
Have I put in enough time studying the craft of effective writing?
You can find a variety of books on effective writing in the 808 section of your public library or in a bookstore. Look for one with a fairly recent copyright or updated edition to get the most accurate take on what readers look for today. Choose one that deals with the specific genre you are writing, read it and do the practice exercises you will undoubtedly find at the ends of chapters. You don’t have to follow the author’s instructions exactly. Feel free to adapt the writing prompts to your characters and your story idea. The point is to practice the principles being taught in that chapter—point-of-view, description, character development, etc. Now go through your manuscript and apply all you have learned about effective writing.
Writers’ conferences are another way to hone your craft. American Christian Fictions Writers annual conference has workshops on all levels from beginner to multi-published author. Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers regional conferences as well as semi-annual national conferences with opportunities to network with other writers, agents and publishing house editors. (Agents and editors tend to take your proposal more seriously when you have been to a conference where they presented and you get to by-pass the slush pile.) Conferences often offer opportunity for one-on-one professional critique for a fee.
Who else has read my manuscript?
Your editor should not be the first person besides your mother to see your work. Invite a knowledgeable friend to read your manuscript and offer suggestions. It isn’t easy to accept criticism, but “I loved it; you write so well” is not helpful. Better gentle correction from a critique partner than a scathing review on Amazon for all the world to see. The best readers are fellow writers who are also striving for excellence. Ask your librarian or an English teacher about local writers’ groups where you can exchange manuscripts for peer critique. You might have to shop around to find one that is serious about writing for publication. If you write inspirational fiction, join American Christian Fiction Writers to network and exchange manuscripts for critique.
Have I polished my manuscript the best that I know how?
There is no point in studying craft or getting input from a critique group if you are unwilling to apply what they say. The best writing goes through many drafts before it is ready to submit to an editor. Even after we work together, your publisher may well ask for more revision to better meet the expectations of their house. So prepare yourself right now to do the hard work of revising. It often helps to set a manuscript aside for a few weeks or even months and then come back to it with fresh eyes.
When you think you are ready, contact me or another editor to help you make your publishing dream a reality.
You might also want to check out the writing tips included in the "On Writing" article linked to each of my books.