I subscribe to author David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants newsletter. Today’s topic was about editors and what they look for in the manuscripts they get. He has a lot of great things to say so I will post the ones I think are the best. If you would like to receive his daily newsletter go to his website and create an account: http://www.davidfarland.net/members/
When I open your manuscript to evaluate it, I have three questions that I have to ask.
1) Can you write? By this I mean, can you as a storyteller convey information clearly, succinctly, beautifully? Does the writer know how to write prose?
Every author has his or her own voice, and even an intelligent, well educated person can’t write beautiful prose.
Some authors convey information so poorly that it becomes obvious—maybe in the space of an opening sentence—that to read further is a waste of time. In fact, most stories get rejected within the space of a page or two simply because of clumsy prose or obvious errors, such as omissions of important descriptions.
But I can’t always reject a story after the first page.
Many authors choose a workmanlike style that lacks ostentation yet conveys information smoothly. Many of our bestselling writers, people like John Grisham, fit into this category, and for an editor, these people can be difficult to judge. It means that I must judge them on the quality of their story, not just on the power of their prose. In short, I can’t in good conscience reject a workmanlike writer after only a page or two. I must read on, sometimes through the entire manuscript, judging each scene as it comes.
Other writers are more ostentatious in their writing or simply have a sensitivity to language that leaps off the page. Their style becomes a powerful draw, so that in the space of a few words I know: I must read on!
The answer to whether a story is well written isn’t always easy to spot. For example, in the classic “Flowers for Algernon,” the author relates a tale told by an idiot. There isn’t anything flashy or brilliant in that opening prose—just a character that we quickly love with a tremendous problem. It’s a wonderful story. So it’s difficult to discern at first just how beautifully the author writes.
And of course, even a budding stylist may be uneven in his or her writing.
2) Is your story worth telling? Many new authors write very simple tales, the kind that I’ve seen a thousand times. A writer may be a gorgeous stylist and still have only a trite tale.
For example, let’s say that you write a story about a young girl who thinks that she sees a fairy in the woods, and eventually discovers that for sure, “The fey are real.” Is it worth reading? Is it too cliché? Even if it is told beautifully, is it worth a reader’s time?
You’d be surprised at how many clichés there are. Every time that I pick up a story where someone is waking up, not knowing who, where, or what they are, I groan inside. Spaceship captains are almost always awakened, either from a cryo tank or thrown physically out of bed, when their ship has a problem.
The number of stories that I see about vampires and zombies and ghosts and UFOs and military sci-fi expeditions is astonishing. Sometimes we see cycles in our writing. In this last few months, I’ve had a wealth of stories about global power shutdowns. Last year, it was journeys to the earth’s core. One quarter while reading for Writers of the Future, I got two dozen stories about sperm making heroic swims.
Sometimes as an editor, if I suspect that I’ve got an entire story that is cliché, I will skip ahead to the last two or three pages to see if I’m right. If the answer is, “Yes, Amanda, the fey are real!” I know that I may be able to save time by not reading much further. If the zombie ends up killing his lover, or the guy who is stalking the girl in the bar turns out to be a vampire, I usually saw it coming from page 1.
Other stories aren’t cliché, they’re simply trite. Let’s say that I pick up a story about a man who has a robotic dog that has been a friend since childhood. It’s a warm, fuzzy tale that we can all relate to. The question may become, “How powerful is this tale when compared to similar stories of its kind?”
What I’m looking for of course is a story with some original ideas, some well-developed characters, a fabulous setting, or a powerful theme that the author touches upon—something that sets it apart from other tales that I’ve read.
In the end, I often have to make value judgments. I might say to myself, “This is a story about a child who learns that his parents have betrayed his trust. How does it stack up to other stories that I’ve seen on this same theme?” Or maybe, “I have five good ghost stories that could be finalists for this quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest. Which one of them is the best?” In the end, I have to make a judgment call, deciding just how important this story is.
3) Is the story told well? The answer to this question can only be found by reading an entire story. I may have to look first at the title, then to the opening hook, to the way that characters and settings are evoked, and then to each individual scene. I ask myself, how well was each element handled? Did the story surprise me? Did it hold my interest? Did the author’s choice of words or metaphors excite me? Did the story move me to tears or spark new ideas?
Often, a writer may tell a story well up until the very final scene, where suddenly it falls flat.
Ultimately, I’m looking for stories that convince me in the opening lines that the writer’s facility with language demands that I read on for many, many more pages. I want to know for sure: This author creates delicious prose!
Next, I want to see original ideas, characters, and themes that convince me: This story deserves to be told.
Finally, on the last line, I want to feel that I’ve met someone who knows how to create the complete package. I don’t want to merely enjoy the story, I want to feel that I know and love the writer as a person. I want to feel elated, knowing that this tale is beautiful.
If as an editor I can answer “yes” to all three of my questions, I know that I’ve got a winning piece of fiction.