Whew - I just finished doing critiques for a couple of critique partners, as well as a handful of contest entries. As always, I'm impressed, even awed, by some of the great work out there. It is amazing how creative people are in coming up with new story lines, wonderful characters and terrific plots, but it is humbling to realize how few will make it across the finish line and be published. I wish I could say I will be one of those who crawl across the finish line on hands and knees, bloody and winded...
Anyway, it is all so subjective...and yet...it's not.
Sometimes you look at published work and you think: how did that get published when these other great manuscripts can't? From what I've seen, although there are a lot of subjective elements, there are some things which the published manuscripts have and which often, the unpublished ones, don't.
A lot of unpublished manuscripts start out GREAT and then...slowly...crumble.
Here are a few of the flaws I've seen, although remember, this is subjective. However, I have heard editors and agents talk about these very things, so I really do think (subjective or not) that they may be show-stoppers.
The easy, obvious things are grammar and spelling. The details. Get them right. Enough said there.
More difficult problems:
1) Not identifying the protagonist's problem(s) right up front. Preferably in the first sentence. In a different blog, I talked about what elements could be found in the first sentences in Times-Best-Seller's-List books. They all pretty much stated in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, what the protagonist's circumstances were and what their problem was. Here is very memorable first line that really lays it out:
From Gun Monkeys
I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down.
In a lot of unpublished manuscripts, you read the first chapter, the second chapter, and even the third chapter before you finally get a glimpse of the hero or heroine's state of affairs and what their problems are. Unless you are writing literary fiction, you really can't wait that long. Get it out there. Sure, if you're already multi-published, you can take risks and take a leisurely stroll before you get down to business, but a newbie author? Think about it this way: a lot of agents and editors won't read past the first line or perhaps the first paragraph. There. I've warned you. Take it or leave it, but you can't say you weren't warned. If you can't grab your audience by the throat right away and NOT let go, you're done for, baby. Toasted.
2) Trying to eke out an entire novel with one small misunderstanding. You know what I mean. The heroine thought he was a junkie and he thought she was a hooker. That may be the initial, starter, conflict or problem, but that's only going to take you so far. A lot of writers try to eke out one small conflict that really can't give enough thrust to the book to take it through lift-off and into stage 2. Or stage 3. What I suggest is that you identify the starter conflict, and then, bim-bam-boom, your hero and heroine resolve that only to discover themselves in deeper doo-doo with a bigger, badder, bolder conflict. This is the real, meaty conflict/problem that they are going to spend the rest of the book resolving.
Sure, you can start out with the bigger, badder, bolder conflict, but the problem is, this often leads to reader aggravation because about half-way through, they're like: resolve this frickin' thing already! That's the beauty of the mini, starter conflict. About half-way through, you can resolve it (thereby ending any reader aggravation about this never-ending conflict that is getting on their nerves) only to plunger your characters into deeper trouble which will carry your readers, on the edge of their seat, through to the conclusion.
You know how people talk about "sagging middles" (not middle age, which we know causes sagging middles, but plots...well, you get my point)? The single biggest cause for a sagging middle is the false security of a big conflict that you introduce in the beginning with the disgustingly smug belief that it will carry you safely through the whole book. Not. Get over it.
I think I've made my point. You need at least two conflicts. A baby one to start you out, and the big one. You can, by the way, have more, I'm just saying you at least need two in a standard, single title manuscript (this is versus the shorter category length novels--I'm not going to explain that further--that's a subject for another blog).
3) Getting sidetracked. This can happen a number of ways, but the major way is to allow minor characters to take over the story. A good way to test for this is to write a synopsis for your manuscript. If you find yourself HAVING to include secondary characters--by name--then you need to take a step back because they may be TOO important and taking some of the power away from your main character (or hero and heroine). A classic example of this is in a romance where you have the hero, the heroine, and the evil bitch trying to take the hero away from the heroine. This is a thin plot and really more of a starter conflict, because here's the deal: if you have this evil bitch start taking "face time" away from the hero and heroine's interactions, and the evil bitch is around until the end (unless she's around because she's a dead body lying around somewhere) then you may have a problem. This is obviously for a romance, but that's another thing - you have to keep in mind what you are delivering. If you're delivering a romance, the story is BETWEEN THE HERO AND HEROINE. Not the hero and evil bitch, or heroine and evil bitch. It's the hero and heroine who have to resolve their problems.
If it's a mystery, then you are trying to resolve a murder and it is best if the hero or heroine resolves the murder. It's even better if they figure it out instead of just catching the murderer red-handed doing something like destroying evidence or trying to kill someone, but then, that could work, too...you just have to be careful about what kind of reading experience you are trying to give your audience. Sometimes you want your reader left slightly unsettled (literary fiction does this most of the time) or if you want your reader gloriously satisfied and happy (romances try to go for this gold standard). If you want gloriously happy, then you want to focus on your hero/heroine and make them actually and actively resolve their big, bad conflict (or murder).
That's three of the more acute things. I'll add more on another night, but it's getting late....