Monday, August 6, 2012

Ask an Editor: What will get your manuscript rejected?

by Roseanna M. White, acquisitions editor for WhiteFire Publishing

Let's play a game--it's called Fix It or Nix It. The object of the game? To write a manuscript strong enough to get you to "I want to make you an offer!" avoiding, at all costs, those potholes that will get you rejected.


But it's a tricky game, I warn you now. After all, who among us hasn't looked at a problem in a manuscript and wondered if it's enough to get us rejected, or if an editor would deem it fixable? How in the world do you know the difference?

Writing is art, not science, so there are no firm answers here. But I thought it would be fun to examine what I've noticed from the editor's side of the table when it comes to a topic that always baffled me when my writing hat was on.

1. Typos

You've sent in a proposal to your dream editor. Then you get a late critique back or open it up again yourself. And what do you find? ACK! Typos! You used, gasp, "there" instead of "their." And were missing a "the" on page 6. Panicked, you're ready to email the editor begging for the chance to resubmit.




Well, what do you think the editor's going to say? For the amount of mistakes mentioned above, I say:


Typos slip by everyone. Typos are not problems. They're just . . . facts. In everything. Even the cleanest of manuscripts is going to arrive with a slew of typos, and that's fine. Don't worry about it. That really is what editors are for!

2. Grammatical Flaws


If typos are a thunderstorm, by grammatical flaws, I mean a tornado. These are the kinds of things you don't even know you're doing wrong. Not just putting comma-llamas in the wrong places, but writing in run-ons. Not knowing how to divide your paragraphs. Never getting quotation marks right. All things that an editor can change, right? Well, what say you?



This isn't just a typo, is it? It's a lot more serious. Which means a lot more work. For this, I vote:


Why? Because while I can go in and fix all this for you, I shouldn't have to. That will take weeks of my time, which means neglecting everything else. Um, no thanks. No handle on grammar means a painful read, and why would I want to put myself through that? I did it as a freelancer, when people were paying me per page. I'm not going to do it now when I have the leisure of only working with what I like.

3. Plot Issues


Your story begins in the wrong place. Or maybe it has a sagging middle. Could be you have a theme that's only mentioned once, at the end, but is the title of the book. Or perhaps your ending lacks umph. So . . . ?


This often comes down to opinion and preference, and I'll give some explanation below. But overall, I have chosen to:


Not always--and probably not if a manuscript has all the problems I list, LOL. But I pretty much always ask for a few changes. A moved scene so that it starts with action. A beefed-up ending. A girdle on that middle. ;-) These are things I can ask the author to do and trust them to deliver--which means I have to trust the author to make the fix, and if I can't, then I would give it a thumbs-down instead. This relies on the author otherwise knowing what they're doing, just being a bit blind to a certain problem. And it requires me loving the story enough to want to work with them on it.

4. Unoriginal or Overdone


You love a certain type of book. Maybe it's a quest. Maybe it's a returning-to-your-first-love. Maybe it's--well, you can fill in the blanks. And since there are only a handful of plots in the world, you obviously have to use those. So why in the world did a judge in that contest tell you it was unoriginal?

What do you guys think? Me, I'm going to:

While it's true that there's nothing new under the sun, there are always new ways to combine and use those age-old plots and devices. Most of all, there are new ways to present them with your writing. There are plenty of times when I read a familiar-sounding plot but am intrigued to read more, because they have an original hook. But there are times when a book has an unoriginal title paired with an overused plot and cliched characters, and nothing "new" to make me want to read what it feels like I've already read before. When one of these comes across my desk, I usually just share that I've read XYZ by Big Name Author that sounds almost identical and we don't want to try to compete with it. Which is true. What you can do as a writer is be very familiar with your genre so you can be sure not to echo any existing titles too closely. And then find a new twist or a quirky character to breathe fresh life into it.

5. Voice Schmoice

What's voice, anyway? And what does it have to do with anything? Obviously your work sounds like you--you wrote it! And obviously it's original, because there's never been another like you, right? Yet when your book comes across an editor's desk, they say it "lacks voice."


Voice is elusive, after all. So what do we do here? Well, sorry to say we:


Voice is elusive, but it's also that certain-something that sets a book apart. To me, if story is king, then voice is emperor. Plot issues I can fix--voice I cannot. Voice is you, how you write, how you take that story and make it your own. But if you sound like two thousand other writers I've read... [insert me shrugging.] There's no easy fix to this problem, hence while I'll pass. BUT--as your learn your craft and practice your skills, your voice is going to evolve. What sounds cliched right now could develop so much in the next year that then I'll be chomping at the bit to read more. So if you hear this, don't give up! Just write more. It's like singing--if you take a good, raw voice and teach the singer how to train and bridle it, they'll end up with something. The same goes for writers. You have raw talent--now turn it into skill.

And finally...

6. Shallow characterization

Your character doesn't quite go deep enough in a few places. His reactions are a bit stiff in this one place, but you're not sure how to fix it. Maybe your heroine is unlikeable. No sympathy is evoked on the part of the reader.


This is a big deal, right? Characters often drive a book after all. So what do you think? I tend to:


While it's a big problem to have shallow characterization, it's also a very fixable one if the story and writing are otherwise sound. In one of our books, we asked the author to start the story years after she originally did, and add in a yearning to help her village people improve their lot--which they resisted, but the good motive made the character seem likable. In another of our titles, it was a matter of looking a little deeper into her motives. And in yet another, just tweaking the hero's way of talking. Once you can pinpoint why a character isn't working, it's a very doable edit, and authors are usually really excited to dig into it once an editor has pointed out how.

So how did you do in the game? Or are you still not quite sure?

Here's the thing--it's hard for us to identify our own problems sometimes, and often not until someone points them out to us that we even realize we have them. Then we're not sure what to do about it. Do we try to fix them or give up? Do we submit anyway?

I've submitted stories with problems--everyone has. Some of them have gotten me rejected, and some of them were fixable. But like with any program for improvement, the first step is understanding where your problems with a manuscript lie and listening carefully to feedback from critique partners, contest judges, agents, and editors.

As an editor, if there are problems with a manuscript that are too big for me to tackle but I see promise shining through, I'll let you know what those problems are and invite you to resubmit at a later date once you've gotten a handle on them.

That's how we improve--by learning to identify our weaknesses and then fix them. And though it's still hard for me to always know what needs fixing in my own manuscript, editors are usually pretty quick at identifying what needs changed in other people's books. It's all just a matter of whether those problems scream


41 comments:

  1. A great post! Really opened my eyes a bit more to the editor's side of the story! :) But what about word counts? Can a thin story get a "fix" or does it get a "nix"? Are editors more likely to "fix" a thin or thick fantasy book?

    Thanks for the post Roseanne White! It was VERY helpful!!

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    1. Some houses are very strict on word count, but I'm usually not. We have a minimum, but I can usually see places in a "thin" story where it could be fattened up without adding fluff, and I would just ask the author if he/she would be willing to do that. Similarly, if it's too long, I would ask if they'd be willing to cut. So long as the author's willing on to work with us on that, it gets a "fix it" from me. =) There are houses, though, that will tell you your word count must be right before they'll look at it.

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    2. I have wondered the same thing. How long should my manuscript be before I send it in?

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    3. It depends on your genre and the house you're targeting. Historical romances, for example, tend to be around 100,000 words. Contemporaries, around 85K. Young Adult is usually 55-65K. But sometimes houses have their own set requirements, so that's where it helps to know who you'd like to see it placed with.

      What genre are you writing in? I can probably give you a better idea knowing that. =)

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    4. Roseanna,

      I've have seen lots of people using the term 'K' lately. (Ex. 85K, 55-65K) What exactly does 'K' mean?

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    5. "K" is just thousand. =) For those of us too lazy to write those three zeros every time, LOL. So 85,000 words, 55-65,000 words, etc.

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    6. Okay. I kind of thought that that's what it was, but I wasn't sure.

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  2. Awesome post Ms. White! Grammar is one of the things I probably need to work on. It's not that I don't know about quotations, periods, etc. etc, I just have a bit more time grasping all the other rules. And I possibly have too many run on sentences :P

    But this post is really helpful, and I'll be sure to remember it!

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    1. Bethany, given that your comments are readable, I daresay your grammar doesn't fall into the tornado realm. ;-) But when I can't even understand the query letter . . . that's when I don't bother glancing at the MS, LOL. That kind of bad grammar shows up in even the shortest written line. Yours seems leagues about that. =)

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  3. Great post! Thank you so much for this! I love hearing into the editor's side. I'll have to keep a very careful eye out for all these things in my manuscript!

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  4. Awesome post, Roseanna!
    I know I'm not very good at grammar and punctuation. At the moment I'm not to worried. Ive learned I do better if I only focus at learning one or two things at a time. Right now that focus is getting up word count in my WIP. Grammar is on the editing list and I'll study it more at that point :)

    On to things that can be fixed, do editors give ideas in how to fix it? Let's say it's a plot issue- would they say "id like thisnpart of the plot more suspenseful by A,B, or C" or is it simply "fix the plot". I love when they give constructive advice with guidance!

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    1. It depends a lot on the house and the situation, Tonya. Most big houses, if they're rejecting a book based on plot issues, don't often go into detail. They'll just say "It has plot weaknesses." LOL. Usually if they go into detail on a rejection, it's because they think it's very close.

      As a small press editor, I often give advice even with a refusal, though it depends on the circumstances even then. If the concept is excellent but the execution poor, I'll point out the flaws and really hope they keep working on it, inviting them to resubmit in the future once they've got a handle on it.

      If it's a case of they accept it, but want rewrites, then they give you direction, yes. For my LFY Annapolis, for instance, I was told, "These reactions in the beginning feel wrong. Make her parents in on the plan. Lark needs more internal monologue through chapter XYZ. The ending needs changed--it's not believable that she would be the one saying that." Plus my fabulous editor questioned specifics throughout that required rewriting, and asked that I add more about a secondary character. She didn't tell me HOW to make these changes, but offered to brainstorm with me if I needed some guidance.

      Flipping the coin, with a book I'm editing now, I had a phone call with the author to talk over potential ways to fix some of the issues. We went through the problem, a couple alternatives for fixing it, weighed the pros and cons together, and then I gave her free rein to have at it.

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  5. Thanks so much for this post. I really enjoyed it and feel like I was guided by it.

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  6. Cool post, Roseanna! That was really fun. And after I got off the phone with my editor too. lol

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  7. Ugh. I absolutely suck at grammar. Guess I'd better go look at that....

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    1. Try mastering a few things at a time. The biggies are paragraph breaking and ending sentences in the right places. When periods are tossed it helter-skelter and you have a four-page paragraph, edits won't even look at it. If you've got that down, then you're not so bad off. ;-) Make sure you've got a good handle on quotes after that. I did posts on the big things last year... Here: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2011/07/grammar-girl-to-rescue.html and http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2011/07/comma-llamas.html

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    2. paragraphs is what I have the biggest problem with. I never can seem to get those quite right.

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    3. The quickest rules of thumb are: New Though = New Paragraph. New Speaker = New Paragraph.

      And just remember that readers need white space to keep focused. So anytime a paragraph just LOOKS too long compared to the usual, try to break it up. Whenever you have a sentence of particular importance, try setting it off as its own paragraph.

      When I'm editing, I tend to make more new paragraphs in the author's writing than I do combine paragraphs. And when other editors look at my stuff, they've never once said "You have too many paragraphs!" Err on the side of short. ;-)

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    4. All right, thanks! That really helps and so did the posts you told me to look at! :D

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    5. Oh, good! And that was "New Thought = New Paragraph," not "new though." Yeah, I totally need to reread before I hit "publish," LOL.

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    6. :D It's funny I didn't even notice that. I guess it's just one of those things where your brain automatically supplies what you assume should be there.

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  8. I usually struggle with shallow characterization most out of those. Especially if it's a situation I can't relate to, which now that I think about it, might be the problem I have with my "WIP"....

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    1. That's always tricky! Even for veteran writers. Imagination is key there, and research can help too. Not with everything, but with a lot of things you can find articles and even books on certain experiences that give you enough to feed that imagination. (As an example, I just had to research extreme sleep deprivation and its effects.)

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    2. Lol, next time you need to do research on sleep, check the Hart household - we have members awake round the clock. Sorta like shifts, only sometimes it's not so voluntary :P
      Yeah, I need to do some serious research - oy vey!

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    3. LOL. I certainly have experience with sleep deprivation too, thanks to a kid who wouldn't sleep through the night until he was 4. ;-) Not quite as bad as poor Gwyneth, though, who went two months without more than a couple hours together at a time... The things we do to our characters, LOL.

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    4. RIMCL! (me-talk for rolling in my chair laughing)We writers do put our characters through some sticky situations, don't we? A devious group, I tell you! But then again, we end up being so darn amusing, everyone tends to overlook that devious part.
      Poor kid...

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  9. I know this isn't editing related, but does anyone have any suggestions for writing short stories? I have the hardest time writing a story around a thousand words from beginning to end!

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    1. I would love to offer advice, but I stink at that too. ;-)

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  10. When I saw the title, I was like, "Uh-oh." It sounded bad, but you presented it well. This was also very informational, so thanks. The thing is, I'm good at grammar and stuff. My problems are the bogger issues. In my first manuscript, I had plot issues and shallow characterization, but I had a voice and good grammar. This is fixable, but I don't know if I care enough about it to spend the time on it to turn it into something. Right now, I don't even know if I'd read it (if it wasn't mine, of course). I mean, I would, because I read literally anything there is printed, but that's not my point. I don't think anyone else would like it. I'm becoming more attached to my current MS, which I think will be way better. Thanks for the post!

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    1. I daresay we all have manuscripts like that, Katia! I know I have a few that I don't ever intend to waste the time working on, even though they're finished. Because, yeah, if YOU don't love it enough to want to fix the problems, then who else will? Sometimes it's best to just put those aside and funnel your energy into the more exciting projects.

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  11. Awesome post, Roseanna! Really informative and useful! Especially when editing is the last task on your to-do list! *grins*
    Hehe :)

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  12. I agree. If you don't love your story, it will come through in the writing and every editor can see that , too.

    This was an excellent article, btw. As always:)

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  13. Uh oh, I have a theme that's only mentioned once, at the end, but is the title of the book. O.o Haha, but I can fix it! Thanks for the post!

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    1. LOL. Usually that happens when things jump out at us at the end. =) Which is fine, but it's usually a good idea to go weave in a few hints throughout. Just a phrase or sentence here or there... really not a big deal. =)

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  14. Thank you so much for this, Roseanna! I love these Ask the Editor posts. And your answers in the comments are golden, too. :)

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    1. Why, thank you. The comments are my favorite part. =) So much easier to answer questions than to come up with topics, LOL.

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