Friday, August 01, 2008

Evaluate Your Manuscript

Somewhere deep in my files, I found a letter the title of which is Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating a Fiction Manuscript or a Partial. It’s a list that I use when training an assistant or a reader and I thought it might be valuable for those writers who are having a hard time figuring out what to look for in their manuscripts. If it does or does not help, please comment either way.

Hook—is it real or fake? For those who don’t know, your hook is actually your first few paragraphs. Be honest here. Try to imagine yourself in a bookstore or library trying to find something to read and you’re browsing through the racks, randomly scanning openings (the first few lines of a book) to find something that grabs you. Does your opening grab you? How long does it take? Fake hooks are forced, added to make a person think they’ll like the book—then the story falls flat a page into itself.

Opening—is something happening? Obviously, this would be beyond the hook. Some novels don’t need a very strong hook as they use other devices with which to build interest. However, something should be happening in those opening pages. Is something happening in your story early on or does your reader have to wade through miles and miles of verbiage before getting to the meat of the story?

Setting—time and place. Do you know when and where your story is being played out? Is it obvious to your reader? Time and place are important so make sure your reader knows these vital facts. Cities, countries or even open spaces have personalities all their own. If you can, you might even make the setting a character in its own right. Doing this can add needed depth to your story, so try it.

Cadence—the timing and music of language. Oh my gosh, not only do I have to write a book but also some music too? Yes and no. The written word also has a rhythm in the way that language flows. Some writers do this naturally while others need help. One easy way to create timing in our writing is by varying sentence length—short, medium, long then medium, short, long and so forth. One way to check for rhythmic timing is to read your book aloud. If certain areas are hard to read, they probably are awkwardly written and therefore lack rhythm. Try rewriting, rearranging your sentence structure, then read and rewrite until the passage flows and is easy to read. Think of your words as brain music.

Dialogue. Is conversation between characters natural or forced? Dialogue is difficult. A great study in dialogue is to listen to people and how they talk—I mean just listen, really listen, and when you do you will find that each person has his or her own unique way of speaking. You can close your eyes and picture whose speaking without seeing them. Your dialogue should be this way and it can be if you practice. As I said, each person has his or her unique way of speaking and listening will teach you that difference. Some people talk fast and others slow. Some mumble while others’ speech is clear and distinct. Some sound educated; others use plain language with no frills. Some swear, some use cliché and some leave out words. Make your speakers distinct by writing each person’s dialogue differently—the educated, the one who stumbles, the one who mumbles and the one who uses profanity. If you do this, your writing will become natural and natural dialogue doesn’t need tags.

Voice (point of view)—who is the narrator? If you cannot readily identify a narrator, it’s probably the author and the author cannot be in the story. Many times authors are not aware that they have suddenly become the narrator. So it’s imperative that you, as the writer of your story, stay out of the story. The author’s voice becomes very obvious when everyone is asleep and yet someone is narrating the story. Or someone is somehow narrating in an empty house, in an empty field or empty planet even. Some authors try to use the excuse that they are writing omnisciently and so are to be perceived as God. No, you’re the author and you’re not supposed to be in the story. Omniscient POV used to be the standard, but now it should be used sparingly, if at all. And not at all if you don’t know how to use it.

A character must be present and awake when narration is going on. Also, there are things that only one character can know, like what he’s thinking, seeing, smelling, hearing or touching. When that character is the narrator, he cannot know what others are thinking or seeing or hearing. He can see what others are touching or possibly smelling. He can also kind of know what they are seeing but he has no way of knowing what they are thinking, what they are really seeing, or know anything about any of their other senses. Only the author knows and if he reports on it, the author is in the story.

Uniqueness, originality—forced or natural? Is your story unique or is it like everything else out there? For instance, is your fantasy another Harry Potter or have you put an entirely different twist on the clumsy kid with magic powers who is destined to rule the world—the unlikely hero? This concept is as old at it gets, but putting an original take on it is what a writer must do.

When you finished reading your novel, did you find yourself wanting to read more? This is a hard question for an author. Of course, you want to read more. Are you kidding me? You wrote it and you love it. But would a reader want to read more? The only way to know that is to have someone else read your book and this is where a good beta reader comes into play. See Critique Two here for information on betas.

Marketing—is there a market for this book? This is a tough call. Every writer likes to think that he or she has writing the next best-seller and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in reality we know that the odds are very high that we might not be able to find a market for what you’ve written. So what is marketable and what’s not? That’s a good question that at times defies an answer. Supposedly, everything that’s well written has a market and that might be so. Yes, there are usually markets for just about any kind of writing if it’s well written. However, those markets might not be with a huge publisher who is going to make you very wealthy by publishing your book. I would advise every writer, first of all, to define his/her reason for writing. If you’re writing to become rich, now is the time to put aside your keyboard and not delude yourself any longer. The odds are astronomical that you will even be published, let alone be rich. So write for the love of writing. If you don’t enjoy it, then don’t write, but don’t write for the wrong reasons.


Josephine Damian said...

Great post. I especially liked "Voice (point of view)—who is the narrator?"

When I read published books or a friend's MS, I ask myself: Who is the main character? If the answer isn't obvious early on, then warning bells go off. I also see a lot of author intrusion - author's telling the story in a heavy- handed manner instead of letting the character show me the story.

When my blog hiatus ends on 9/1, I'll be sure to give the W-M blog a plug. Lots of great advice here.

pagecrazy said...

I am a little confused on the Author issue. My MS is about me, so I am the author, narrator, and main character. How do I change that effectively without taking away from the reality?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Pagecrazy: First you have to decide what your book really is. If the story is about you and you are the main character in the story, it should be a non-fiction autobiography or memoir. If, however, it is a fictionalized version of your life with you as the main character, you, as its author, should still not be in the story. Fiction has a fictionalized narrator and even if it's based on fact, it's still fiction and you still have to respect your main character's individuality. So, your first step is to decide what your book will be and consider your goals for it. That dictates most everything else.

Anonymous said...

Is there any such thing as a character having too much voice? In my mind if the main character is telling the story then the reader should know what she's thinking, feeling and desiring all throughout the story. I feel that as long as the story is still being told in a tasteful manner there shouldn't be a problem. So, what does is mean when I get a critique saying my character has TOO MUCH of a voice? To me, it just makes no sense. Have you ever said that? Why?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

A character having too much voice-- Sharene and I have discussed this and we have no idea what this means. The only possible meaning we could attach to this would be that there is too much characterization and not enough story. Many editors want plot driven stories (plot controls the story rather than character)and that being the case would object to a purely character- driven story. However, to be sure, you might ask the person who critiqued your work what he or she meant by this comment. It is hard to speculate what someone else might have meant when I don't know the full context in which it was presented.

As far as I know, no one at WMLA has ever rejected a work for a character having "too much voice." Hope this helps.

A Beautyful Soul said...

This was actually very helpful. It was confusing to digest at first, but only because it made me second guess my MS. Then I read anonymous's comment. I think you're right when it comes to character's having too much voice. It must mean that the story isn't being told. There's nothing wrong with character's having a strong voice, otherwise. Details are our friends!

Scott Jensen said...

I think the opening hook should be the crux of the entire novel. "Who is John Galt?" Why is Harry Potter special? Who killed the jogger? Who was the jogger? Anything less and I would classify that as a fake hook.

I think the reason why many books start strong but quickly fall flat is that the authors try to answer opening questions too soon. That and they don't add another question when answering an old one. Some of the most engaging books were basically a series of questions. Personally, I think that's what each chapter should do. Answer a pressing question and ask another pressing one. Some of the books I have enjoyed the most ended each chapter with at least one question and then the author answered at least one question in the next chapter. I am almost tempted to title the chapters of my next novel with at least one of the questions I ended the last one with or at least allude to the question in the chapter's title.

As for openings, I wholeheartedly agree that the story should start when the action has started. Why do authors think they have to "set the scene"? Explain things later. Get things hopping and explain along the way. Watch the original Terminator. The first bit of exposition was during a rough-and-tumble car chase. It could have been done with a narrator at the start or, even worse, the main characters talking over a cup of herbal tea at a cafe.

As for dialogue, I like it when I feel each has their own agendas. Note the plural. There should be overt and hidden agendas. The conflict between different agendas of the speakers makes some of the best dialogue. And if you do have someone that is just there to give exposition, make them interesting. Make them opinionated and colorful. Don't make them politically correct. If they're bland, I fall asleep.

As for wanting to read more, if it is a series, I want to learn more about the characters. Tie up all the plots and sub-plots but don't tell all about the characters. Leave me wanting to learn more about them. If the characters are set (don't change from one novel to the next), I should want to learn more about what makes them unique and interesting. If they do change, I want to know how their relationships change with other characters AND I want to find this out. Does Mr. X and Ms. Y hook up? The story is complete, but not the characters. That and you have made me care about the main character. S/he is real to me. I have bonded to them. I want to continue my relationship with them in the next novel in the series.

Merc said...

Excellent post, thank you, WMLA! This is a fantastic list and I pretty much agree with all your points. ;)

It also really helps to have a list to reference, a way to check things off when going over a MS to make sure it really, truly is ready to be sent out.

I'll be checking back to your blog often.


Katherine said...

This was very interesting and helpful to me.
I was surprised to find that I seem to do a lot of these points naturally when I am writing... perhaps I am not as bad as I keep thinking I am!
Very helpful and insightful anyway thanks.