|Mary Connealy with Charlene Patterson and Lauraine Snelling|
7 Tips for a Manuscript
That Will Impress an Acquisitions Editor
Bethany House Editor Charlene Patterson
I’ve been involved in acquiring books for publishers for about sixteen years now, and for the past eleven years, I’ve acquired Christian fiction for Bethany House. In that time, I think I’ve encountered nearly every subgenre, every type of character, and every type of setting, and I’ll be honest: it’s hard to impress me. So today I’m going to let you in on my tips toward creating a story that will catch the eye of the AE at your desired publishing house.
Write in genre-Publishing companies are businesses first and foremost. We love publishing great books, but almost every decision is weighed on how it affects the bottom line. When we’re deciding whether to publish a book, we say things like, “This will succeed because [this similar book] was a success.” “This is worth publishing because it appeals to the same readership as [this author].” Know your genre, know what readers in that genre are looking for, and write with those things in mind. You can still be super creative with your voice, plots, settings, and characters, but stay within a definable, marketable genre, one the AE and the Marketing Dept. will recognize. Read bestselling and award-winning books in your genre of choice and consider what’s working about those stories. Examples of genres are romantic suspense, Biblical fiction, contemporary romance, historical romance, dystopian, legal thriller, etc.
Start off with a bang-A well-thought-out proposal is great, but almost every AE I know only glances at the proposal and then skips to the writing sample. We usually have a big stack of proposals on our desks, so you get only a few pages to pull us in. Make sure your story starts off in a really exciting way. Get past your first ideas to something more original—I get so tired of stories that start with a character arriving on a train or stagecoach, or returning to her hometown, or receiving an inheritance. Think of a more original situation, and make that situation as engaging as possible so I’m excited to keep reading. I very quickly want to know what obstacles the characters are going to have to overcome, and why overcoming those obstacles is going to be difficult but worth it. By the end of Ch. 2, I’d like to be able to form this statement about your book: “If [the main character] doesn’t accomplish [this] by [this deadline], [this bad thing] will happen.”
Create likable, realistic characters-Note that I didn’t say perfect, super sweet, innocent characters. It’s just as hard to like someone who is sweetly boring or perfect than someone mean. If your hero doesn’t seem like he could possibly exist in the real world, I’m not interested. And don’t mistake things like clumsiness, trying too hard to serve others, or feistiness as “flaws.” Make your characters real, honest people—someone who might live on your block or might be in your family tree. Make them people we can root for because they are facing difficult circumstances but are still persevering.
Flesh out the world-I’ve heard a lot of editors say it’s the secondary things that make or break a story—the secondary characters, the secondary plotlines, the secondary romance, the descriptions between the dialogue. If those things are done well, the book shines. So make the “world” of your story come to life. Describe it--make me feel like I’m there, seeing it, hearing it, smelling it. Create fleshed-out secondary characters and secondary plotlines. Who are the extras you’d hire if this was a movie? What do they look like, and what do they do all day? How do they interact with the hero and heroine? What’s going on in history at this time? What makes the town they live in unique? What are your characters’ backstories and how does that influence who they are today? Where are they in the birth order of their siblings? How much schooling did they have access to? What was their favorite subject? Who is their best friend? Bonus tip: Don’t isolate your characters, if you can avoid it. It’s hard to create a riveting story with only a couple people living far away from everyone else.
Put big obstacles in the characters’ way-Editors read tons of books, so we’re looking for a story that sucks us in, something we don’t want to put down even when five o’clock rolls around. That means we’re looking for conflict, action, adventure, and situations that have us on the edge of our seat. Why are the Biblical stories of Noah, Esther, Joseph and his brothers, and Jonah the ones we retell to this day? Because they were in crazy-impossible situations that still capture our imagination. Always be making things worse for your characters. Escalate. Be MEAN to your characters. Make them want something they can’t have, dream something that’s nearly impossible, have a plan that’s about to go absolutely haywire, love someone who doesn’t love them back. Put big obstacles in their way every chance you get.
Find your voice-You hate this advice, right? Because everybody says it and nobody really knows what it means. I think one of the reasons it keeps getting said is because so many manuscripts sort of sound alike. The characters and places are sort of interchangeable with other things I’ve read, and the prose is rather bland. I mentioned you should write in genre, but you still want your story to stand out because of its unique flavor. You want the AE to think, “Hey, we should acquire this author because he or she brings something new and fresh to the genre, something we don’t already have among our current authors.”
If I gave you three unidentified pieces of fiction and told you to guess which was from Janette Oke, Tamera Alexander, and Mary Connealy, I bet you wouldn’t have much trouble telling me which was which. That’s voice.
So how do you find your voice? Ask others what stands out about your writing to them, and then build on your strengths. Figure out how you naturally use words, lay out scenes, let the reader in on details about your characters. How do people know they are reading a book by you? Will they laugh? Cry? Feel like they are living in 1865? Fall in love with the hero? Fear the bad guy? Even when you write in third person, think about how your characters would write if they did so in first person, and try to bring that out in the writing style. Think about who your narrator is, how he or she would talk if telling this story aloud, and try to bring that out in the writing.
Cut 5,000 words-This one might be the toughest of all because those words reflect hard work--your blood, sweat, and tears as you tried to accomplish all the things I listed above. But stick with me here. A large portion of the manuscripts I turn down aren’t bad, per se; they’re just boring. Your manuscript has unnecessary words. Lots of them. Whole unnecessary scenes, even. So go back and be ruthless. Cut out all the unnecessary stuff, all the boring stuff, any time the action or tension lags for more than a couple paragraphs, or the characters have long stretches of dialogue or interior thought, or times when their life is too happy and easy to be interesting. A breather now and then in a story is fine, but never let your characters dwell on any one thing for too long, and don’t let them get too content or settled until the very end. Trimming that kind of stuff will make your manuscript more engaging and more polished. Every word will count.
As a bonus, here are my 7 things NOT to do in your manuscript:
Give your hero or heroine a weird hair or eye color.
That’s not a good way to make them interesting or attractive, and it looks strange on the cover.
Strong romantic feelings too early in the story.
Let the relationship between your hero and heroine develop slowly and naturally. It takes all the fun out of it when they are too in love too soon. I know they’re going to fall in love by the end of the book. You know they’re going to fall in love by the end of the book. But your job is to convince me, for several chapters, that there’s no possible way they’ll have their happy ending.
Write 3 good chapters and 17 bad ones.
You’re going to polish those first three chapters a lot because they’ll be the ones you submit to contests, submit for critique, and put in your proposal. But I can’t tell you how many times the first three chapters have been great while the rest of the manuscript was terrible. So polish those first three chapters, but make sure the rest of the manuscript lives up to that promise. I think the hardest part of a story to make interesting is the middle, so watch that part carefully. That might be a good place to add in something new, something unexpected, up the stakes a little.
Have the characters step into a church one time or read the Bible one time and it changes their life.
Also be very careful about God speaking to characters directly.
Characters who dwell on the same thing over and over.
It’s good to be aware of your characters’ internal motivations, tensions, and conflicts, but you don’t need to remind the reader of them in every chapter. Remember those 5,000 words you’re going to cut? Start with any time the characters ponder things internally for more than a paragraph.
Money or love solve all their problems.
To be satisfying, the denouement of the book needs to have some basis in real life, or at least be realistic in the world you’ve created.
Never write it.
Get those ideas on paper and see what they become. Some won’t work—and I warn you, you may not discover they aren’t working until you’re in Chapter 14, which is why you’d better start now. You have to write in order to create a manuscript, and you have to create a manuscript in order to edit it and make it awesome.
Thanks for letting me guest post on Seekerville!
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