So I have some lists for you. Several. I should perhaps make a list of them.
I have my own Checklist for Publication in Write to be Published. Mine is quite general because I'd spent the previous almost-200 pages explaining the details of what publishers want! But here's my list:
- A great idea, a hook which can be powerfully pitched in one or two sentences.
- A voice which engages the reader, is consistent and either feels wonderfully fresh, or is perfect for its genre.
- A book they can’t put down – “unputdownable” is a cliché but we all want it.
- Something which booksellers will find easy to sell, because of the clear hook or because it sits nicely in its pigeon-hole.
- A manuscript which displays great competence in all the elements that I've been talking about (ie in the previous almost-200 pages...).
- A manuscript which is not too far from being ready for publication.
- A writer who seems professional, sane and clued-up.
- A fascinating personal story or platform is an advantage but will not over-ride the quality of the book. Unless you are a plastic celebrity, in which case all bets are off.
Interestingly, my one-to-one sessions for the York Festival of Writing this coming weekend ask me to pose three questions:
- Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?
- Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent's interest?
- Does your opening chapter compel further reading?
Bear in mind that those questions are to be answered only from reading the pitch and Chapter One. When considering your whole manuscript, I'd add two more questions:
- What is at stake for the character and why should we care about it?
- How are the goals and obstacles structured so as to keep as reading - ideally reading faster and faster?
Bearing all this in mind, during my What's Wrong With Your Manuscript? workshop in Edinburgh TODAY (hooray!), I'll be picking out aspects of both Emma's and my lists and focusing on them in detail, under the overall structure of those three York Festival questions and my extra two.
Lots of ingredients go to make up those questions, though - sub-questions. The ones I will focus on in the workshop are those which, in my experience, almost all unpublished writers forget. They are crucial because if they are not tackled properly you may have a story but you will not have one worth reading. Or publishing.
Since only twelve people in the whole world can come to my workshop tomorrow, I thought I'd give the rest of you a potted version of what we'll look at. Free! (But you don't get chocolate, wine, food and a glorious goody bag. Sorry.)
Perhaps the most common reason for rejection, apart from an inability to write, is this: the writer has over-estimated completely how much the reader cares about this story. You must make the reader care because otherwise that reader will go and do one of the very many other much more fun things than reading your story.
And if that reader is an agent...
- Elevator pitch design - no wild, vague statements; no exaggerated description of brilliance; states core conflict
- Defines genre
- Has fellow pigeons
- What is the big conflict or problem posed at the start? Is it strong enough?
- Do we care about the MC - why?
- What does MC need? How difficult will it be to achieve? What will happen if she fails?
- What obstacles get in the way?
- How are obstacles structured to create increasing tension?
- Consistency and believability.
- Point of view - whose?
- Appropriate age for reader.
- Who is telling the story and why? Where and when are they telling it?
- Whose characters' minds are they in?
- Of central premise
- Of characters' motivation
- Voice slippages
- (What is it?)
- Whose voice?
- Mixed or single?
- Defined and controlled?
LANGUAGE - this will form the second half of the evening and we will look at these common faults:
- Telling too much instead of showing more.
- "Over-writing" - trying too hard to sound like a writer. This involves:
- Pointless similes.
- Too many adjectives, especially in the adj+noun pattern.
- Ditto with adverbs.
- Overdoing the action / loud verbs - too much skipping, hurling, striding, retorting, speed-walking.
- Not thinking about precise meaning and therefore being either unclear or not saying what you intend.
- Wrong order of action within a sentence.
- Unnecessary details which disrupt flow, meaning and action.
- Clunky sentences which need re-ordering.
- Poor dialogue - and dialogue tags.
- Monotonous sentence structure.
Think of us all workshopping hard this evening, won't you? I'll raise a glass to you.