Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Devil's in the Details: The Difference between Fine and Fabulous in your Manuscript

As Pitchwars submission day looms nearer, I find myself thinking about what makes a manuscript sing when I read. What makes me perk up and say "oh this writer has it" versus "this is good, but I'm not quite feeling it." True for me, and I'm sure all of the mentors, is the excitement of these days leading up to submission day. It's kind of like speed dating on Twitter, but here's the thing, as fun and interesting and awesome as each of you are, the pick will really come down to the manuscript and your words and the marketability of your story.

So, if you've followed the mentors' wisdom of "Is your manuscript truly ready" then here's what I bet you have going for you:

  • Grammar, spelling, and mechanics. The basics you've got down pat.
  • A pretty decent plot line. You have a solid beginning, middle, and end that make sense.
  • A main character we can travel with.
Assuming, you have all of the above, what are going to be the things that set your manuscript apart. 

  • A good handle on showing versus telling (Monica B.W. wrote a good post HERE)
  • Well-rounded characters. As fun as stereotypes are to write (raises hand - I love making bad guys so bad they're ridiculous), characters are far more interesting when they're nuanced. If you watch Justified (if you do, we can be friends) - both Raylen Givens and Boyd Crowder are great examples of characters who are neither all bad or all good. Also backstory plays a role, think of Draco Malfoy, the favorite platinum blonde you love to hate. When you know his life, the pressure and prejudice he was raised with, you can, if not forgive him, at least empathize. PRO TIP: I create backstory for every single one of my characters. At times, NONE of it ends up in the book, but it helps me write them real.
  • Plausible motivations. Sometimes when we write and we need a character to get from point A to point B, whether emotionally or physically, we throw our writer hands up in the air and go "Oh, I'll just do this." Fine for first drafts. Mine are filled with ALL CAPS PLACEHOLDERS THAT SAY THINGS LIKE YOU WILL REVISE THE SNOT OUT OF THIS MOTIVATION. But by this draft, it should be pretty smoothed out.
  • A nice blend of exposition to dialogue to interiority. Hunger Games is a great example of this. My recommendation? Go through the first couple of pages with three highlighters. One for exposition, one for dialogue, one for interiority. See how it balances.
  • A cool setting. This could be your cousin Ephau's single wide trailer. But if we get a clear picture of the wood paneling, the collection of Velvet Elvis paintings, the vase of fresh flowers he buys every week at the SuperFoods, all of a sudden it's more than just a trailer. PRO TIP: Every detail you put in your setting should be a stage for either character or plot.
There's more, there's always more, but I'm going to move on to talk about marketability. This is the part that sucks. Here is a real live quote, about a real live manuscript I once had submitted to editors:

This story has such a compelling premise, and a truly unique world which I can tell Jaye put a lot of thought into constructing.  Roan’s emotions feel very authentic, and I found myself really rooting for her.
However, I’m afraid it’s not an ideal fit for me.  The truth is, Penguin already has so much dystopian on our list that for us to sign up more, it’s got to be just staggeringly unique and totally unlike anything else in order to compete for the marketing muscle.

And this is another part of the truth. PRO TIP: Publishing, especially big 5 publishing, is a business. Plain and simple. It is about the money. You may have the best damn sparkly vampire book ever written, but right now, if Big 5 is your goal, it probably isn't going to happen. Yes, it sucks. It bites, it's horrible. But you know what, I haven't given up on the manuscript referred to above. It was subbed to a small group and it's not dead to me. One day, I'll pull it out of a drawer, revise it yet again, and try to sell it. But the thing is, marketability does matter. And as mentors, we want to pick mentees who HAVE THE BEST CHANCE RIGHT NOW of getting picked up by an agent. So we're going to pay attention to agent wish and editor wish lists as well as our own. It may be the deciding factor in some cases, and we may pick manuscripts that aren't our personal favorites in lieu of picking one that has a better chance of agent action. Because we want our mentees to GET ALL THE REQUESTS!

Hope this helps and have a great Thanksgivukkah!


  1. Lovely post, hun! And thanks for that link to my blog, too. =D

  2. So much great advice here, JRo, and coming at a very timely time. Oh, and give Roan a hug for me. I love that girl!

  3. Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  4. Very nice post! I feel pretty good about my chances, but, of course, I know the competition will be fierce. So I'm just concentrating on what's in my control. My pitch and opening pages are vetted in the query trenches, but picking my four mentors... ugh, that's the tough bit.

  5. Such awesome tips! (And I know the story mentioned will be picked up someday--it's too amazing not to!)

  6. Thanks Meradeth. As you know, that's definitely one of the books of my heart.

  7. Great tips! Gah, I always wonder whether I'm fine or fabulous, good or amazing, great or brilliant. And from what I hear, that doesn't much go away even when you get published. Writers are such worry bunnies. Anyways, though, I can't wait to see more Pitch Wars drama! I look forward to seeing who you and Natalie pick after all the Twitter trash talk :)


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