What’s wrong with your manuscript?

I recently signed on for a part-time internship with a online publishing group where my primary duty is to read full manuscripts requested by editors and to offer my recommendation of whether they should acquire or pass on a submission. It has been a very enlightening experience thus far, giving me a rare look at what an imperfect novel looks like before it is accepted and goes on for polishing.

It’s an empowering, yet frightening feeling that I am what stands between an author and publication with this company. That’s a big deal, especially for someone like me who knows that someday I am going to be that author anxiously waiting for some intern to decide if what I’ve done is good enough or not.

So far I’ve found this to be a great learning experience. Between working for my school’s literary magazine and judging our annual novella contest, I’ve read a fair amount of inadequate work, and I like to think I can identify good writing when I see it. But the manuscripts I’m reading are full-length novels, already past round one of queries and partials, and now I’m picking out the good from the bad in a batch of submissions that has already had the first approval. It’s not as easy as finding someone who can’t string together a coherent sentence anymore, it’s more about looking at what makes for an effective novel: pacing, character development, plot development, etc.

And it’s a struggle! The worst is when you get really into the first part of a book–the writing is great, the action is gripping, the characters are interesting–and then everything just falls apart as you continue on. As a reader, I am really rooting for these manuscripts to work, but sometimes (often times) they just don’t.

What I’ve gained the most is a realization of how hard it is to write a good novel, one that really hits home ever necessary aspect of a novel. And more than that, it made me realize how much of a difference editing makes. A few times through with a red pen and some of these mediocre novels could be really fantastic, but where is the cut off between salvageable and not worth the effort?

So far I’ve noticed three things that stop me in my tracks when I’m reading that I thought may be of help for those in the submission process. If you’ve got a great query and keep getting requests for a full, but then get a pass, it might be one of the following.

1) Mediocre writing. As you’ve heard from plenty of agents, writing is first and foremost and if it’s not good at any point while I’m reading, then no amount of effort is really worth it to an editor to put into polishing your story because if they have to rewrite everything…well, you get the idea.

2) Pacing Issues. Most seem to have exciting starts, that’s probably why they were asked to submit a full. But the problems arise when there isn’t enough development. There needs to be plot complication, story depth, and character development, and it needs to build upon itself. Reading a full manuscript that doesn’t do this makes you really appreciate one that does. I just finished one manuscript that really had me, and then suddenly things ground to a halt and I didn’t even want to keep going–so I didn’t.

3) Excessive repetition of key plot points. The past few manuscripts I’ve read just kept throwing plot points and details in my face, but they were always the same, reminding me what needed to happen, what was at stake, asking the same questions, etc. It’s probably something that can be edited down, taken out, worked on. But the problem with that is if you take out all the repetition and filler, there isn’t much left and it’s not the editor’s job to fill in the gaping holes left by their red pen.

Granted, these are just my personal opinons and what I’m using as a guide when I’m reading. What it really boils down to, and what the woman I work for suggested to me was: “If you aren’t liking what you’re reading, stop. We don’t want you to read anything you aren’t enjoying.” Sadly, the publishing industry is based on my opinions and you have to impress A LOT of people to get anywhere, even the lowly interns just trying to finish grad school.

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4 Comments

Filed under Writing

4 responses to “What’s wrong with your manuscript?

  1. Very informative. I always thought it was an editor who makes the decision what to pass and not an intern. Great insight.

    • Kristen

      Editors absolutely have the final say. As an intern, I submit along with my recommendation a list of everything I thought the manuscript did well and did poorly, which helps the editor decide what can be fixed with edits and what can’t. Just because a book didn’t jazz with me doesn’t mean the editor won’t love the idea, and if I felt the writing was good even if I didn’t like the story, they might still choose to acquire it. While an intern’s recommendation is not necessarily what they go by in the end, I think it weighs heavily on the final decision.

  2. The pacing issue, and the similar issue I’ve seen where the writing starts out great and then tails off into the nearly unreadable partway through the book, is a result of an unbalanced approach some people have to editing, I think. I’ve noticed a number of people get extremely focused on the beginning, spend hours polishing the first sentence, paragraph, the first 3 chapters, all in hopes of impressing their way into a request for a full. That’s fine, and I agree that you need to have those in good shape to progress on the path towards eventual acceptance and publication. But sometimes in that focus on the early parts, I think the rest of the book gets neglected, perhaps due to both time and energy constraints on the part of the writer. Again, I understand it’s an exhausting process to fully edit a novel (I really get it as I’m doing that on my own book right now), but if you don’t do it, then you’ve wasted all the time you spent on the early parts, since it still won’t be picked up. Your own words here confirm that for me. Something for this writer to keep in mind when the time comes, but then I always knew the book was a while package. Nice post.

    • Kristen

      That was exactly my thought. It often feels like a writer loses steam half way through their edits and the end of the story is drastically less polished than the beginning. When I’m reading manuscripts, I feel like I’m crossing my fingers at the half-way point hoping the rest of the story received just as much attention as the beginning. It’s really sad when you see how good a writer can write in the first few chapters and then just don’t see that same talent at the end.

      Thank you for the insightful comment!

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