May 20 2011

Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20?

Published by at 5:24 pm under Getting Published,Writing Articles

Assuming your manuscript has survived to page 2, here are some thoughts about how to keep a publisher’s assistant reading to page 20. At a major novel publisher, the PA rejects ~995 out of each 1000 unsolicited manuscripts and sends on the rest to her boss.  PAs are under huge time constraints and have other job responsibilities (really!), so the only way for them to get through the slush pile is to stop reading manuscripts as soon as it’s clear they’re not among the very best. With that in mind, here are some of the shortcuts I would use to determine within 20 pages which manuscripts deserve more time and which don’t.


1.  As always, a manuscript with serious proofreading issues is dead on arrival. First, this is a generally reliable indicator that the story is not among the very best*.  Second, the more proofreading a manuscript needs, the more it will distract the editorial staff from their other duties (such as, umm, all of the other titles they’re working on).  If I were reviewing manuscripts for a publisher, I couldn’t envision any many circumstances where I would keep reading a submission with more than a few proofreading errors in the first 1000 words (~3 pages).  (Main exception: If the author is a celebrity or has a really interesting bio, such as experience as a Navy SEAL or SWAT officer, the publisher might be willing to put extra time into proofreading and/or ghostwriting).


*If you are an author that has gotten an unsolicited manuscript with more than ~10 typos professionally published, please let me know.  That must have been some story!


2.  I’d really like to see a main character quickly separate himself/herself from other protagonists in the genre. For example, he/she can do something that most other heroes in the genre wouldn’t do in the same circumstances.  If the main impression I get of the main character is “standard genre hero,” the character probably isn’t well-developed enough to hold my interest.  Relatedly, if the main character can be summed up in one word, I would regard that as a really bad sign.  If I’ve gotten through ~20 pages and the main character can be boiled down to “nerd” or “soldier” or “superhero” or “astro-ninja” or whatever, the characterization probably isn’t deep enough.  If I could use my own work as a positive example (even though I’m not a published author), I feel Agent Orange established himself as a lively, unusual sort of superhero.  Here’s what I did with 5 comic book pages in The Taxman Must Die (~200 words).  Given 20 novel pages (5000-6000 words), you can surely can do more.


3.  I’d really like to see the main character(s) doing interesting things as soon as possible. For example, if the story starts with a character waking up, I feel that’s a huge red flag unless the character’s morning routine is highly unusual and/or dramatic.  For example, if the character is woken up by artillery fire, that’s probably a good sign.  If the character has an ordinary morning leading into what seems to be an ordinary day of school, why not just skip to the interesting part?


4.  I would be concerned if I can’t identify at least one personality trait and a flaw of the main character within 20 pages. Some common problems on this front:

  • The main character isn’t consistently depicted.  He just sort of does whatever the author is feeling like at that moment, even though he doesn’t feel like the same person he was 5 or 10 pages ago.
  • The main character doesn’t have a personality.  The author decides how he acts by asking herself “What would be the best thing to do in this situation?”, rather than “How would this character act in this situation?”  By the way, it’s okay if your main characters act “wrong” and/or make their lives more difficult.   A character’s mistakes are usually more distinct and memorable than his “correct” choices.
  • The main character isn’t active enough.  The story just sort of happens around him.
  • The plot doesn’t give the protagonist enough chances to distinguish herself.  If the main character makes a series of choices that pretty much every protagonist in the genre would in the same circumstances, the character will probably not stick out much.  Likewise, if the character doesn’t do anything differently than I would in the same circumstances, I’d probably find her pretty boring.
  • The main character doesn’t have a flaw.  Need some ideas about how to fix that?


5.  If the main character hasn’t faced some sort of challenge or obstacle within the first 20 pages, the plot has probably stalled.


6.  If the story is set somewhere besides a modern First World country, I’d be concerned about the author’s worldbuilding skills if I can’t identify any ways in which it feels different than a modern First World country. Please let your imagination flow freely, especially if the story isn’t set on Earth.  Likewise, I would probably be annoyed if the story prominently used a nonhuman species that was pretty much indistinguishable from humans.

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20?”

  1. Contra Gloveon 20 May 2011 at 6:41 pm

    *reads post*

    Was number #6 aimed at me?

  2. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 May 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Huh, now that I think about it, I need more conflict in my first 20 pages. I don’t plan on publishing (I’ve said that ten times now on different articles XD Just assume I’m talking about the one I don’t plan to publish unless I say otherwise 😉 ) but I’m trying to practice, so I still need to follow along with this.

    In the first 20 pages, it’s mostly Character A being mad at Character B because B causes lots of trouble for A and deliberately makes his job difficult. I’m still on my first draft though, so I’ll just jot down some ideas for more conflict and write them in on my second draft.

    Also, I noticed something truly weird last night. My first draft is TERRIBLE and the sentences are all choppy, I don’t put enough description etc etc etc whine whinge grumble.

    But, after my friend mentioned watching Pride and Prejudice, I went on Youtube and looked up the trailer for the 1996 Jane Eyre movie (one of my favourites) and afterwards, my description got better, I was using longer sentences and metaphors, and I was drawing more comparisons between objects. I think watching that trailer put me in the mood to try harder. I guess what I learned from that is, when working on my next draft, I should break out the Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Bronte sisters boxsets. 😉

  3. B. Macon 20 May 2011 at 8:33 pm

    “Was number #6 aimed at me?” No. Although I thought it took a few rewrites to make the setting come physically alive, I thought that you had the culture and legal/political situation down right away.

    I think most of the truly disappointing settings I’ve read are fantasies where the only indication that the world is actually fantasy is that (half-assed) elves and dwarves have been interspersed with humans.

    The other setting issue I think comes to my mind most quickly is when fantasies feel like fan-fiction for LOTR or Dungeons and Dragons.

  4. ekimmakon 21 May 2011 at 5:12 am

    I often get ideas for things I can do, but generally they just simmer around in my head. One idea I had was a fantasy novel that focuses on the evil overlord as the main character, instead of the adventurers. Or more accurately, the Overlord’s daughter who inherits the title after his untimely demise.

  5. Contra Gloveon 21 May 2011 at 6:30 am

    Phew! Even though I think I’m doing a good job with worldbuilding, and I know I have to revise some things, it’s good to know that I’m on the right track.

    Even though the Record of Lodoss War series was born from someone’s roleplaying session (though not a Dungeons and Dragons session), I’d say it’s a good idea not to believe that you will meet similar success. The only way I can see this working is if you come up with an original setting yourself, then edited the replay so that it flows like a narrative.

    Still, though, it’s better that you come up with something whole cloth.

  6. ElJaleoon 25 May 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I don’t know about #2. How is it possible to create a character that’s NOT defined by 1/2 words?
    Here are some “classic” characters defined:

    Long John Silver?–Salty Pirate
    Indiana Jones?—Adventurer
    Hannibal Lector?—Psycho
    Harry Potter?—Unwilling Hero
    Luke Sky Walker?—Hippie (Just kidding, he’s another “unwilling hero” xD )

    So, could you possibly expand on this? What are some ways one can make their MC unique?
    What do you mean by: “For example, he/she can do something that most other heroes in the genre wouldn’t do in the same circumstances;” I am concerned about my protagonists either being an “Unwilling hero” type or the (infamous) “farm boy saves earth.”

  7. B. Macon 25 May 2011 at 9:02 pm

    If the character is sufficiently complex, I feel that trying to boil him down into one word will miss almost everything. For example, Hannibal is a psychotic cannibal, but I feel like he has significant traits that deepen him beyond a one-dimensional psycho. (For example, he’s brilliant, he’s recognized as a psychiatric authority even though he’s in an asylum, he has a bizarre sort of honor and class, he’s utterly driven, his voice is sometimes hilarious*, etc). In particular, I think the character’s brilliance and honor take him well beyond the usual.

    *(Paraphrased) “The last person that tried to test me was a census-taker. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

    “What are some ways one can make their MC unique? What do you mean by: “For example, he/she can do something that most other heroes in the genre wouldn’t do in the same circumstances.” In an action novel, most characters cut a more or less straight path of destruction from themselves to their enemies. IE: If the antagonist kidnaps the protagonist’s love interest, the protagonist will kill as many antagonists as necessary to rescue her. That’s typical. Hopefully your protagonist is NOT one-dimensionally typical!

    For example, the protagonist of Point of Impact is framed as a presidential assassin, and the bad guys (while breaking into his house to plant evidence) end up killing his dog. I think most action protagonists would rush off after the bad guys and say something like “This is for Sparky!” But POI’s protagonist is a lot more empathetic and honor-bound than that, perhaps suicidally so. He breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue where his dog’s body is being stored as evidence so that he can properly bury his dog.

    This was a really interesting choice for me because:
    1) Breaking into the morgue is frankly suicidal and most protagonists wouldn’t even think about it in the same circumstances. (Seriously, for a dog’s corpse?) But his relationship with his dog is so close that this decision feels believable for him.

    2) Although this detour doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot (shooting up the bad guys), I feel like it’s highly effective foreshadowing. If his dog matters enough to him that he’s willing to get himself shot up by the FBI to properly bury the corpse, what’s he going to do to the people that actually killed the dog?

    So, I’m not familiar with your characters, but what are some things that distinguish them from most other protagonists in their genres? What are some unusual choices they make that most of those other protagonists wouldn’t?

    PS: You thought Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter could both be boiled down into Unwilling Hero. Personally, I don’t think the two characters are interchangeable. (For example, both think they’ve been orphaned, but this seems to have weighed a lot harder on Harry than Luke). Also, I don’t think either is unwilling, but especially not Harry. He throws himself into saving the world even though the school authorities and sometimes his friends and classmates get in the way. I can’t remember any point at which other characters have to drag him into a heroic role. (With Luke, I vaguely remember that Ben has to cajole him a bit to get him to leave his family/farm, but I think he’s a more willing hero than, say, The Sentry. Or Han Solo! 🙂 ).

  8. ekimmakon 25 May 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Or Spider-man. Or Ben Grimm.

  9. ekimmakon 25 May 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Although, those two came to mind simply because of their feelings towards their powers (Spider-man sometimes wonders if he could choose not to have powers, would he? And Ben does not like being a couple tons of rock.

  10. ElJaleoon 26 May 2011 at 9:11 am

    Thanks B. Mac

    I’ve noticed that mainly, when I’m going to write a character, I have to have them more or less pinned down or else I’m unable to “see” them doing anything.

    For example, I have a character who is at first an antagonist, but later sides with the protaganist. I thought that I couldn’t make a believable turning point without first knowing exactly who this character was. So, I lamely tried to draw up a “character sketch sheet” (or whatever those things are called) -it turned out to be the longest one I’ve ever done. 20 pages later of answering stuff like “what has shaped this character’s relationship with their pet?” I still had no clue who my character was. Fortunatly, I discovered that since this character happened to be the “most complex” I simply needed to figure out his general mannerisms. After that, I just sort of gave him “free reign” in the scenes he was in-allowing him to sort of choose his own directoin while still remaining in character.
    I’m still not entirely happy with the character, but I’m coming closer to the mark.

  11. B. Macon 26 May 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Whenever I’ve used those character sketch sheets (i.e. hundreds of questions like “What’s in the character’s wallet?”), I’ve found them mostly unhelpful. Personally, I think it’s a lot more helpful to start with a few key traits and then fill in the details from there. For example, if you’re trying to show the character is totally paranoid, it’d be interesting if he had a switchblade or a cyanide pill or the key to a safehouse in his wallet. However, if you don’t know what you’re trying to show, then thinking about what’s in his wallet strikes me as mostly a waste of time.

    (Also, I think this plan is flexible enough to evolve with the character. For example, if you later decide that the paranoia isn’t quite working and you’d rather make the character cautious and careful instead, it’s easy enough to replace a cyanide pill with something more low-key like a fake ID).

    For more details on building characters, I’d recommend Characterization by Trait and How to Write Distinct Characters.

  12. Contra Gloveon 27 May 2011 at 9:02 am

    You said it. Those character questionnaires are a pain — more like filling out forms for some bureaucratic thing than creative writing.

  13. Contra Gloveon 30 May 2011 at 4:33 pm

    A bit off-topic, but I found a fun little site called “I write like” at; I tested it with all the Alien Frontier chapters I’ve written thus far, and it says I write like Stephen King. 🙂

  14. […] Superhero Nation asks Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20? […]

  15. […] Superhero Nation: how to write superhero novels, comic books and graphic novels » Will Your Manuscr…  “Assuming your manuscript has survived to page 2, here are some thoughts about how to keep a publisher’s assistant reading to page 20.” […]

  16. […] Great advice for writers who are sending out manuscripts. Here are some tips to give your work a fighting chance and keep the publisher’s assistant reading past page 20: […]

  17. Snowon 11 Aug 2011 at 11:40 am

    @Contra Glove:

    I’ve been to that site before, but I tried more than fifteen different writings of my own and got the same number of authors. Either my writing style is all over the place, or the site was glitching. Glad to know you got a definitive answer, though.

    @B. Mac:

    I must say, I find your responses to comments almost as helpful as the articles you write. I’ve only been poking around this site for a day or so, but I know I’ll be coming back here often.

  18. […] Superhero Nation asks Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20? […]

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