Monday, December 21, 2015

Agency Lessons: What makes a good manuscript

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today's post comes from the mail bag. Don't forget, if you have questions for me, you can submit them here.

Q: "What is the most important thing you look for in a manuscript?"
 
Well, this is a bit like asking for the magical compound in unicorn blood. But then again, it's not. Because the number one, most important thing I look for when evaluating a manuscript is a good story that I want to read from start to finish.
 
Before I start thinking about market position, genre comparisons, and fit, I want to be told a great story. This means a cohesive plot, with strong, fully developed characters, and comprehensive world-building.
 
But I have a feeling this reader was looking for something a little more concrete, so let's give this a try. Instead of a list of must-haves, which I think is not as useful, here's a list of things I don't want to see in manuscripts.
 
1. Distancing narration
This is one of those little details I look for that usually tells me if someone has taken the time to really study the craft of writing. Distance is created with the use of filtering phrases such as I heard, she saw, he felt, I knew, etc. This is the difference between I hope he knows what he's doing and Please, let him know what he's doing.
 
Here's another example: She felt the cool wind against her sun burned skin. Versus. A cool wind provided a small relief to her sun burned skin. 
 
It's a small difference in wording, but it makes a huge difference in how connected your reader is to your story.
 
2. Telling
I feel like this has been beaten to death and then kicked around for fun, but telling is a story killer. There are tons of resources for telling out there that give better information than I can put into a paragraph. You can find a few great articles here, here and here.
 
I will say one thing about telling. It isn't always bad. There are times when telling is exactly what a scene needs. It's mostly a judgement call, but knowing the right and wrong time takes your manuscript to the next level.  

3. Convenience
Sometimes, our life problems can be solved by convenience, but that doesn't make for an interesting story. Convenience in stories comes in many forms. It can be the handy gun on a table right when the MC needs to get away from the bad guy or even a skill set the MC needs that we've never heard of before.

For an example of this, I recently read a book where one of the characters needed to do a lot of sneaking around in order to gather info. The character pretty much says "good thing I'm so good at sneaking around'. This was a second book in the series and at no point prior to this had we been given any indication that the character was skilled in this way. But she needed to be right then, so the author made her skilled. That's convenient. And I won't be reading any more of this series (this was only one issue that makes me want to stop).

To avoid creating a convenient situation for your characters, you have to seed your story. The gun on the table isn't convenient if another character who is known for being forgetful and easily distracted was given the task to put the gun away last chapter. Because you seeded the story with a reasonable explanation for the gun's location. The great news with writing is that if you discover you need a character to have a certain skill halfway through, you can go back into the earlier parts and seed that skill in so it isn't a surprise. 

4. Weak motivations
This can come in many forms, but where I see it the most is with the villain. Which means that the whole story can fall apart. If your bad guy is after world domination via enslaving everyone, he needs to have a strong motivation. So, not just because he's a bad person. In essence, what is your bad guy's end game?

Here's a secret for you when it comes to bad guys. Bad guys don't see themselves as bad guys. The very best ones honestly think they are doing the right thing. They can be motivated by the same principles guiding your MC: helping the people around them, fulfilling their purpose, honoring their morality/religion. They just interpret this differently. 

5. Too close for comfort
They say that you could give five authors the exact same story idea and end up with five completely different stories. And there is a lot of truth to that. But there is also a point where two stories can be just too similar to both be viable. This is tricky, because you have to give readers of your genre what they are expecting from that type of book, but still keep your story original. 

The only way to know if you story is too similar to others is by reading widely. Read in your genre. Read outside your genre. Read stories you love. Read stories that make you want to hurl the book at the wall. READ. And before you say that you don't have time to read, let's have chat with my good buddy, Stephen King. Yo, Stevo! What are your thoughts on writers making time to read?
There you have it. Are you really going to argue with Stephen King? Look, Mr. King and I aren't suggesting you need a seven book a week habit. But you need to read. If you need a number, let's go with one new release a month. And by new release, I mean something published in the last two years. By all means, read older books, but you can't know what's on the market right now unless you are reading new books. 

Well, that's it. I hope this helps to at least give you a few ideas of areas of your own manuscript to take a hard look at before sending it off to agents/editors. What do you guys think is crucial for a good novel? What are your big turn offs?

2 comments:

  1. The two things that are almost always guaranteed to make me want to pitch my kindle against the wall are:
    Female protagonists who need to be saved repeatedly. (I specify female because I've yet to see the same things done with male MCs.) I'll give a character thrown into a new and dangerous situation once--maybe twice. If, after that, she hasn't started to learn to either stay out of trouble or at least participate in her own rescue, I quit reading.
    Withholding. Don't have a first-person narrator know something critical to the situation and not even think about it. I've read some really horrible examples of this. Some of them, inexplicably, have good ratings on Goodreads. This one will make me not trust the author to tell a good story ever again.

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  2. I only started querying about 4 or 5 years ago and I can't believe how things have changed. It went from people studying craft religiously and getting a bang-up crit group going to make sure they had the best possible chance to snag an agent -- to people self-publishing crap right and left, and most writers I know aren't even interested in getting an agent. Even more horrific is I see books with "big picture" and technical flaws all over the place (seriously, I know someone whose new book came out from a small press and among other things they wrote "chauffer" all the way through the book. I guess it got past both content editor and proofer that way. And why not? Any idiot can hang out a sign saying they're a publisher or an editor now) -- and I see the crap is selling. Apparently the general reading public wants a story, like you, only they don't care how badly it's written. Grr. Rant over.

    Have a very Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year! :)

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