Sorry for the slight delay between posts. I went back to the submissions pile to work on the SF, which still had a number in there. I was also taken out by a series of migraines, social events and fatigue. When reading submissions I must remember to wear my glasses and not cheat and upsize the font.
Below is a series of common problems that I recall from reading the submissions. It is not an exhaustive list and I think I’m not saying anything different that what other editors have blogged about submission reading. A number of blog posts back I have a link to one, which I looked at when I started reading for Angry Robot and was heartened to find that I was on the right track.
I wish I could beam this into your brains (if you are interested) because trying to put together this blog post doesn’t seem to capture it all. I also end the post with what worked for me in an manuscript.
So, common issues…
One of the things that sticks out in a submission is the use of wrong words and the inappropriate use of words. Also lots of additional words that aren’t needed, or just plain ‘I am trying to be arty and I didn’t quite manage it’ use of words.
As a reader I’m set up to read your story. I like the sound of it and am keen to get started. I read a few lines and then all of a sudden this thing pokes me in the eye. It’s a wrong word. You meant to say yoke but you said yolk, you meant to say coarse but you wrote course, you meant to say pore over books but you said pour over books. There was one really funny one, which I can’t repeat but let’s just say it was a biggie and this wrong word appeared three times on the first page. It made my day.
Okay these aren’t usually fatal. I’m going to keep reading. But then I may come across more of them. You know the words where you want something to sound different so you use a thesaurus to find another word. Well the thesaurus isn’t always a genius. These substitute words just plain jar. If you are wondering, I do get out the dictionary some times to check when I’m not quite sure. I am quite happy to be wrong.
Another is where the writer is trying for something different,a description that is not a cliché but it doesn’t quite get there. It jars, it pokes the reader in the eye.
Sometimes there were too many words, this includes purple prose (overwrought writing, trying too hard to wring an emotional reaction from the reader). These just get in the way of the story. ‘Her eyes stared for a momentous moment.’ Or tautology and saying things twice. I know about this one because I used to do that when I was a beginner and still sometimes catch myself at it.
Then there is just plain whimsical, fluffy-floaty, going all over the place prose and you get to the end of the paragraph and you scratch your head, wondering what the purpose of that communication was. Thankfully there weren’t too many like that.
How much do you tell about your character and your set up? This can be a difficult question. I think none, until the reader needs to know. Backstory can be doled out judiciously. However, the issue in some submissions was too much backstory. I read one submission that had an excellent prologue then I started reading the chapters. Chapter one was all in the character’s head about what had happened to him in his whole life right to that moment. The action probably consisted of him sitting down at the table. Let’s see what happens in chapter two and it is more of the same…more back story, maybe the character made it to school. As a reader, I am conscious that before being published a manuscript would be edited and that first may get cut. However, if the backstory is continuing in chapter two and maybe three, I’m going to give up reading the MS at this time. This happened frequently in the MSs I read.
Sometimes the writing in the MS is fine. The sentences are lovely, containing vivid descriptions of the room, the character waking up. Trouble is nothing is happening. There is too much description. In chapter one all the character has done is get out of bed, put on a cardigan, walked down the steps and got a drink.
Or the character wakes up to find themselves in a room with a dead/dying person. The whole chapter is about them considering what to do. It contains descriptions of cobwebs on the window and repeated rethinking about how they got into the situation and how they should escape but very stilted or no action. What I mean is that they don’t escape they just think about it.
There are no hard and fast rules. A story doesn’t have to be just about action. There can be intrigue or a foreshadowing of something more to come. However, there has to be something tol keep me reading.
Getting information across to the reader can be difficult at times, too. The worst example in reading is big chunks of indigestible info dump, particularly when the character says to another character—“Why are you telling me that? I already know.” You might think this happens more in SF but there was a bit of it in the fantasy. I didn’t read enough of the horror submissions to have an opinion on those submissions. Some examples would be explaining the properties of the asteroid the character was on in the opening chapters for some obscure reason. I wonder how relevant it is to the story, particularly at that moment in time. Or a character/narrator explaining the impact of global warming, which is fairly common knowledge these days. The reader does not want or need a lecture.
In my mind, if the info dump gets in the way of telling the story and is not relevant, particularly in the opening then you don’t need it. Withholding information from the reader can increase the intrigue. For instance, your character is trying to kill someone. The reader doesn’t know who, they don’t need to know why. If you write it well enough then the reader is engaged. This is an insight I got from reading submissions. Learning to be smarter in story telling. Moving from writing the story to crafting the story.
You may wonder what this is. I haven’t searched the web to find a definition. To me it means writing that does not excite me. For example, There was this and there was that and he did this and he did that and he went there and did that. Or first person: I came there, I saw that, I went there and then did that. Sometimes you can see it as soon as you open the MS…the IIIIIII and the he he he…or she she she at the beginning of sentences.
Sometimes pedestrian writing to me is where there is something going on, action…but the writing is not interesting. There is no descriptive words, nothing to excite the eye, the mind. I do not mean situations where there is a deliberate flatness to the writing as part of the technique.
Too much detail
This is probably a subset of the above. The detail is accurate but there is too much and it is getting in the way of the action. It is clouding the narrative line.
Really bad dialogue
Actually it doesn’t have to be bad. It can be mediocre and it leaves a lasting impression. The only thing the reader remembers is the bad dialogue even though they enjoyed the rest of the story. Bad dialogue includes:
- having characters say things that make them sound stupid;
- having meaningless dialogue to fill up space;
- repeating what the character thought;
- flowery, silly speech that makes the character sound stuck up or stupid;
- dialogue that is imprecise; and
- many other types of transgressions.
Lots of setup without anything going on
This is a bit harder to define or even recognise. The writing is good. It’s luring you in and you keep reading and then there is no payoff. It is all set up. Sometimes this can be that the action is all internally focussed. For example, a couple arguing. You expect something from the bigger picture is going to be felt, either as a hint or some event. However, you get to the end of the chapter and it’s only about the couple arguing. You read the second chapter anticipating the bigger picture event but it’s about the couple making up from the argument and nothing else. Chapter three and still no bigger picture event. It might be coming by chapter 10 but you are no longer reading it.
By talking heads, I mean dialogue with no scene setting, no character thoughts, no description. A big glass jar of dialogue, sometimes with no attribution so you don’t even know the names of the characters, you don’t know anything. Sometimes talking heads is fine for a short period, particularly when you know the characters and you know enough about the scene. The talking heads pop up in the middle of the book or a few chapters in. Having talking heads straight up at the beginning of a novel is harder, I think, unless the dialogue is very interesting.
Characters acting out of character
This is where we set up characters to act inconsistently with their set up. For example, the character is a witch, say a white witch. Then when confronted with black magic says they don’t believe it exists. This makes little sense to me because by being a white witch it goes without saying you know there is something called black magic and black witches.
Characters not written convincingly
Another is a character who is a demon slayer. However, when they get to the demon slaying scenes, the character kills ten demons in two sentences in a way that is neither convincing nor descriptive. It is a bit hard to write an action character without decent action scenes and seemingly realistic means of dispatching the foe.
Too much telling instead of showing through the writing can disengage the reader and also represent missed opportunities for the writer to show something important. I think a writer can use telling in small doses. Perhaps when wanting a link between scenes.
One or two typos are not going to get in the way of your manuscript reading. A couple of inconsistencies won’t either. However, lots of typos and mis-spellings will mount up over time to give a negative impression, as will bad grammar and sloppy writing.
This didn’t happen too often or it did but in different ways. Firstly, the writing was so dense and obscure that I had a hard time trying to read it. I’m not sure how to describe it. Obviously the writer knew what they were trying to say but I didn’t get it. I might be warned about this when the writer says something along the lines of “I wrote this novel to challenge the reader.”
So what works for me as a reader
Firstly the absence of those issues discussed above. Sometimes it is difficult to analyse why you like one MS over another. This indefinable quality is something like having your head caressed. You start reading and next thing you know you are at chapter five and wanting to read the whole MS. Generally, to grab the reader, I think there needs to be a balance of scene setting, character and action and…
Clear narrative line
This is what I’m calling it. It may also be the writer’s voice but I’m not so sure. I guess what a clear narrative line is the absence of the above. The writer has a clear voice. The words means what they say. They evoke a positive response in the reader (or the desired response). That is they want to keep reading.
Pace is where there is a string of tension pulling the reader through the story. Pace can be intellectual as well as action-based. It can be fast and it can be slow. A good writer can control the pace through the rhythm and structure of their writing in the same way a piece of music has a particular beat. Basically, there are things happening in the story that keeps the reader interested. This can be the events unfolding or the quality of the writing. Eliminating some of the issues mentioned above may assist in developing pace.
This is a subset of the pace. Tension is about the intensity of the story, which includes things like the subject matter, the substance of the character, the importance of the events they are facing. For example, the character needs to make a really big life or death decision quickly and the consequences are horrible. This situation can put the reader on the edge of their seats.
As I’ve already mentioned in previous post, things exotic appeal to me. Really clever ideas excellently executed will grab. There were heaps of great ideas in the submissions pile. Sadly, a lot of them were not well executed or the MS was not there yet. Not there yet means that they had promise but there was stuff to be done. For example, ironing out details, polishing the prose, fixing dialogue, the pace, style etc.
So many stories, plots, ideas have been done before and done to death. If you are submitting a first person detective story featuring vampires, then I swear so did fifty to one hundred other people. However, if you’ve done something different, like ‘no vampires’ or the detective is different (not human, vampire, magician or werewolf) and the setting is amazingly different and well executed and you have action, pace and tension then it will stand out and I would have wanted to read it.
I’d say angels were another type of story I saw a lot of. Don’t get me wrong, I did request a couple of these but they had been well executed and the idea was remarkable.
I also saw a lot of life after death stories, with variations on the theme. I picked a couple that had something new or appealing on this angle.
So you can use an idea that’s been done to death but if you do it has to be very, very good. (I’ll talk more on marketing through the query letter and synopsis in the next post).
Setting can be the subset of the idea of your story. When you think about it there is so much scope out there with regard to setting. You can have alternative pasts, alternative futures, paranormal past and present, fantasy world settings, outer space, space ships, asteroids. You name it you can make it a setting. Describing the setting without info dumping or backstory can prove to be the trick. However, a really good setting (world-building) can really be a grab for a reader.
These are the things you really should not do if you want put the reader in the right frame of mind to read your MS. Basically it comes under the heading of follow the guidelines but I’ll elaborate.
The formatting of the document is really important. The smoother and easier it is for the reader to read your MS the better the experience is for them and hence for you. Format the manuscript like a manuscript. Look at a novel to check if you aren’t sure. Though if you google standard manuscript format you’ll find examples and advice. Here is a link to William Shunn, here but there are heaps. However, always check the publishers website. Some publishers don’t like Courier font.
This blog post is written in block paragraphs, that is non-indented. A fiction manuscript is not formatted in block paragraphs unless it is specifically asked for, say for publishing on a website.
Blocks and no paragraphs
Blocks of text and no paragraphs at all. This helps make the manuscript impenetrable. The reader will not try to format your ms for you. It is up to you to make it readable and legible.
Fancy fonts, all capital fonts and weird graphics in an ms make the thing damn hard to read. I had two manuscripts in all capital hollow style font, which nearly made my eyes fall out of my head. I could not read it. I tried. I was tempted to do a global change but I didn’t. This goes for other fancy things people do, which draws attention to your inability to look up what a standard manuscript format is. When I see stuff that is not standard, I just think of the work that needs to be done to standardise it and shake my head. When I am assessing an MS I shouldn’t have to think about that.
Non-standard dialogue formatting
There were quite a few variations on this. I’m a stickler for the normal approach to dialogue formatting. If in doubt check a few novels and you’ll find it is pretty standard. “Hark!” she cried. “I’d love a comma or two before breakfast.”
Some mss and the chapter headings had large fancy headings, which again draw the reader from assessing your work and your story and your skill. Sadly it also advertises the fact that the person is a beginner and didn’t read the guidelines or bother to look up standard manuscript format.
Yes, there was at least one graphic banner through out an MS, which I thought was slightly bizarre.
Bright red headings
There were also red headings, which is also strange as well.
I had one MS with graphics, that is photos within the synopsis. That was strange too, but it didn’t affect their MS assessment. It just stuck in my mind.
Guidelines are there for a reason and that you should follow them to make the reading of your ms easier for the reader and so that it can be assessed on its merits. You want the work to stand out because it is a great idea and well executed and not because you put this crazy-arse font on it and whacked a big heading on it. You want to point people to your story and not the trappings that surround it.
Also, the common issues I found may pertain to you. If you had a typo then that isn’t likely to be the reason your MS wasn’t requested. It is likely there were a number of the above issues that combined. Or as I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t suitable for Angry Robot Books as I saw it .
Did I read all partial submissions to the end? No, some I gave up before chapter five, particularly when the issues were prevalent in the writing and not just one off mistakes. The more I read, the faster I was able to detect these issues. If there was a particularly ordinary prologue, I read the first chapter and then the second until I was pretty certain on my views.
One bit of advice, which I find works is reading my MS aloud (yes, I mean the whole thing!). You pick up all kinds of little errors that are easily missed on a quick read through. Even then you are likely to miss something. Also, a spell check doesn’t hurt either.
My next post I put some thoughts together on synopsis and query letters I encountered and how I reacted to them.