Conferences, Craft, Thrillerfest, Writing Life

John Sandford’s Advice on How to Polish Your Manuscript

Small Things: Techniques and Ideas to Burnish Your Text

John Sandford (Thrillerfest, July 10, 2013)

  • About to release his 23rd Prey novel – Silk and Prey
  • Publishers want to see completed manuscripts
  • Avoid echoes (i.e., word repetitions) and
  • Do a search for empty words (eg., large, big, small) like empty calories
  • Likes to put spaces between sections – adding white spaces make the text easier to read
  • Check that your references are accurate (eg., time and distance)
  • Google Earth is a great reference for distance. He uses it a lot.
  • Main character has to be solid – describe them, but not just what they look like…
  • To describe his main character, Lucas Davenport, he has him take time dressing. The man is a clothes horse and takes great care in his looks, so it makes it easy for Sandford to describe him physically and at the same time show his character’s personality.
  • Work the 5 senses – odor is critical especially if it’s bad
  • Sensory details can be added at the last minute
  • He pays particular attention to the first and last chapter and makes sure he adds the sensory comments.
  • Usually writes between 25 and 30 chapters – Expects to add  200-300 words per chapter in his revision
  • Know your physical places (Sandford uses his own home over and over again for a house setting so he doesn’t mess up where things are from scene to scene)
  • Always have a specific model of a physical place in your mind
  • When revising be careful to not make unnecessary improvements (His example was he once replaced the word gun with Glock, but it screwed him up because Glocks don’t have a safety, and one was referred to later in the plot.  When people later complained he leaned on the fact that some after-market editions have a safety added.)
  • Try to avoid factual info in dialogue – it’s not how people talk
  • Dialogue is for levying the narrative – it loosens the text – makes it feel right
  • Check the dialogue in revision – is it stilted?
  • Remember people talk in short hand not long sentences – it has to sound right
  • Again – most important chapters are the first and last – they must be emotionally engaging – Action should start in the first paragraph
  • Last Chapter – want to end with a bang, have the reader smile, humor’s good too
  • Always have a wrap up chapter – like a tight little knot – succinct
  • Don’t let the end  peter out
  • After all things said “There isn’t any one way of doing things.”
  • He figures revisions improve his work by 20%
  • When asked by a member of the audience whether he recommended we have professional editors review our work before we submit it he answered: “No.” You can get too many cooks in the kitchen – you have to learn how to finish the book on your own.
  • “I want people to not want to stop reading.”

Please note: If any of these notes don’t make sense, the fault is mine. John Sandford delivered a riveting lecture. I scribbled as fast as I could while my mind reeled with thoughts on how I can improve my writing.

Next Wednesday: T. Jefferson Parker’s lecture from Thrillerfest on Outlining

24 thoughts on “John Sandford’s Advice on How to Polish Your Manuscript

  1. Oh Wow! You lucky girl to have had the chance to learn from one of my ALL time favorites. His writing is the best. You feel like Lucas is an old friend. A friend you’d want in your corner if the bad guy came after you. His advice is spot on!!

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    1. Hi Jerrie
      It was amazing. During the whole conference, I felt like I was walking amidst (writing) royalty. I love Lucas too.
      And Sandsford’s advice is golden.
      Thanks for stopping by
      Best
      Jo-Ann

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    1. Ros
      Want to go next year? I’m going to wait until I see the line-up, but I’m definitely saving for it.
      Best
      Jo-Ann

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  2. Hey, Jo-Ann. Great post. His nuggets are golden for sure. It really struggle with the info dump in the conversation. Glad you had such a good time in NYC, learned so much and had such a good pitch experience. Yu’ve sent all those requests out, right? 🙂

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    1. Hi Marsha
      I seem to spend most of my life these days cutting info dumps. I know what you mean.
      I’ve sent our my partials. But I’m reworking my “full”. My three beta-readers gave me great feedback to work on and I’m tweaking it.
      I’m at the stage where it feels like nothing fits- but I know it will in the end.
      Thanks for stopping by
      Best
      Jo-Ann

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    1. Hey Pres
      Your welcome. I loved the fact that he didn’t recommend getting a professional edit before shopping it. Makes sense to me and is more do-able.
      Best
      Jo-Ann

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    1. Danielle
      He makes writing look easy doesn’t he, with his clean prose and expert storytelling.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      Best
      Jo-Ann

      Like

  3. Thanks so much for posting this! Wish I could have been there. John Sandford probably inspired my true love of thrillers. He is amazing.

    I really appreciate your time to take notes and share.

    You rock!

    –Kerri

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  4. Thank you for collating so much wisdom for us, Jo-Ann. The comment that jumped out at me was John Sandford”s, “Always have a specific model of a physical place in mind,” when you are thinking of your setting. I went on a tour of English country estates two years ago and made notes about which ones I could imagine setting a story in. It was inevitably the smaller (six bedroom) mansions which appealed to me. Ducal palaces were too grand for my heroines.

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