May 20 2011
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.