This post first published on October 16, 2008 and will resonate with every editor who has ever processed book manuscript submissions.
Reviewing manuscripts and looking for ones that seem to say “pick me, pick me” is a time-consuming, but necessary task for any publisher. In a small house such as mine, it can be overwhelming. And, boy, do we have to live with our mistakes.
After reviewing countless manuscripts over the past ten-plus years, I have developed some trigger points to make this process more efficient. Not all concern editing, but many, such as these, do.
1. Before I actually read a novel manuscript, I just look at it: the first page, then, by flipping through, the next 20-30 pages. The amount of white space will give me an idea of when dialog kicks in. Readers today are accustomed to stories that engage fast. Dialogue isn’t the only way to accomplish a launch, but it’s a good indicator. Think about how movies often set up under the opening credits.
2. Next, I take an impression of stylistic things which I have come to see as tip-offs to amateurish writing: all caps for shouting, spelling out sounds (KEEERASH or KABOOOM), overuse of dashes and ellipses, and (perhaps worst of all) rows of ????? or !!!!!
3. Another stylistic thing that puts me on alert is the excessive use of space breaks. Noting a space break every three or four paragraphs can indicate that the writer doesn’t know how to transition from scene to scene, or to move time along. In third person viewpoint and often in romance novels, a space break alerts the reader to a shift in POV, which is fine. Still, overuse of this technique can produce a choppy read. If I see a lot of it, I make a mental note.
4. Now I read the opening…just the first paragraph or two, then stop and think: does this engage? Did someone say something or do something that makes be want to know more?
Then I recap: little to no dialogue in the first 20 pages, lots of ellipses, dashes and space breaks and a ho-hum opening. Everything’s subjective, of course, but for many submissions, this is the end of the line. But, for the sake of conversation, let’s say that it’s a fence-straddler or there is something fresh about the story slant, and I decide to read on. What else comes into play?
1. How’s the dialogue? The chit-chat among the characters is crucially important. Is it real? Does it ring true? Or do we hear a university president with really poor grammar? A teenager who sound like an octogenarian?
2. Does the dialogue “work” or is there too much of what my first writing teacher called “salt and pepper” chat? Dialogue needs to show character or move plot, action. Perhaps you can have just a little pointless chatter for flavor, but be sparing.
3. What’s the cliché count? The occasional cliché can be okay, and even effective, but too many will kill reader’s interest and give the piece a stale, dated feeling. And clichéd situations are deadly. My particular un-favorite is when the character looks in a mirror and describes herself…that one’s been done to death!
4. Is the cast of characters a cast of thousands? If there are too many characters, the reader will find it hard to keep them distinct. I subscribe to the theory that you have three levels of characters: the main ones, the supporting cast, and the background, what a lecturer once called the “spear carriers.” Are their names distinct? And in the case of the background characters, most won’t need names and may not even have dialog. We don’t need backstory on the waitress who will never reappear in the story. Again, take a tip from the movies. Watch the credits roll, after the stars and the supporting cast, you will see roles such as “man on elevator” and “taxi driver #1.” So we don’t always need to know that the waitress is named Doris and her bunion hurts…she can just serve the pastrami sandwiches and exit the scene.
That “No, thanks” pile is discouraging for both author and publisher. Publishers need product, yearn for stories that captivate, inspire tears and laughter and make us feel the writer peeked into our personal thoughts. Every once in a while, I find one of these -- as I did this weekend. Huzzah!
Billie Johnson, Publisher
Oak Tree Press
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