You’ve likely run across a few of these pieces before, advising prospective authors on what to do and what not to do, and most of them are very useful indeed! But we thought that instead of repeating what you might have already read, we’d try and think of a few slightly more particular things that you might not have thought about, which could help you before submitting to publishers.
This means that we’ll be glossing over some of the most obvious (but also the most important) things: perfect spelling and grammar; easy-to-read formatting; concise cover email and synopsis; meticulous revision; avid reading … You’ve heard all of these before, and for good reason. But taking all of that as read, let’s dive into some slightly less rudimentary tips that might help set your manuscript apart from the others.
1) FIND THE RIGHT BALANCE FOR YOUR MANUSCRIPT. This is one of the most common reasons we have for rejecting manuscripts that are sent to us, and that’s because it’s the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. Every book – fiction or non-fiction – has its own unique relationship between its plot and the language it uses to convey that plot. Finding the balance in which those things best complement one another is what makes great books feel as though they have been crafted rather than written. In basic terms, sometimes writers focus too much on making each individual sentence sound intricate and wonderful, when in fact there has to be more attention paid to building tension via the plot. Other times, manuscripts are plot-heavy, and in fact would benefit enormously if the author slowed down and found a better way to express their message through richer language. Now, we know what you’re thinking. How am I meant to know if my manuscript isn’t balanced properly, one way or the other? Well, no one said it was going to be easy; in fact, to tell the truth, it’s very bloody difficult! But hopefully our next tip can offer some guidance in that respect.
2) TREAT YOUR FINAL DRAFT LIKE A STRANGER’S. Notice we said final draft. Up to that point, this is probably not sage advice! Writing good early drafts requires belief and compassion and patience, and this is because as a writer you have to be willing to make thousands of micro-mistakes (and therefore thousands of micro-fixes). But when that magical day comes when you find that you have something like a final draft in front of you, this is the time to start looking at your work with the same healthy scepticism with which you would look at someone else’s book you happened to pick up. Reading in this way will help you keep an eye out for any hijinks that this ‘stranger’ might be trying to pull. This should hopefully help you to objectively find the best plot-language balance as mentioned above, among other things. But how can you look at your own manuscript as though it belongs to a stranger? An easy, simple, and cheap solution is to try physically engaging with your manuscript in a different way. If normally you stare at it on your laptop screen, then print it off, or read it on a tablet or on a phone, or send it to a different computer to read on. You could experiment with recording yourself reading the opening chapters and then listening to it (trying not to cringe too much at the sound of your own voice!). Even changing the font and the layout can help you see your writing through fresh eyes. The point is to try and disconnect yourself from the person who wrote the book in the first place, so that you can spot things you wouldn’t be able to spot otherwise. Of course, this disconnect can only go so far, and giving your manuscript to a real stranger – best of all, a professional editor – is simply the number one way of making sure your manuscript can be elevated to publication-standard. And we promise we’re not just saying that!
3) DON’T SUBMIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT UNTIL YOU TRULY BELIEVE IT’S READY. This might sound obvious, but here is another very common thing we see in manuscripts coming through our editorial service. As editors, authors who come to us want us to point out plot holes, loose ends, dips in tension, etc. Yet, when we do, often we are surprised to find that the author already knows exactly what we are talking about! Our feedback might be met with something like: ‘Ah, yes, I was wondering if you would notice that …’ Or: ‘I was hoping maybe I could get away with it, given what happens later …’ If only! It’s safe to say that if there is something about your manuscript that is gnawing away at you, and that you know deep down is causing discord with the rest of the text, then other readers are going to notice, and this is more often than not enough to see your book rejected.
4) WORLD-BUILD THROUGH YOUR CHARACTER’S EYES (this tip is probably geared more towards the fiction writers). Often when people think of spectacular examples of world-building, they immediately look to genres like fantasy and science-fiction. True, there are fabulous examples to be found here, but really, world-building is just as important in literary fiction as well. It has to feel authentic, whether it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a real-life suburban neighbourhood. Be warned, even some novels that are submitted to us that have found their unique sweet spot between plot and language end up getting rejected, if the story-world doesn’t feel authentic. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Perhaps the author has not put enough thought into the world around the story, even if they have effectively described the setting directly involved (it’s worth remembering that most world-building should not end up on the page). This lack of a surrounding world can create a sort of vagueness which is so often seen in weak writing. Other times, it can feel as though the minute details that bring a world to life aren’t there, or even if they are, they feel as though they have been thrown in to go alongside the rest of the story, rather than arising organically. Again, we’re not saying this is easy, and it takes time – most writing that feels as though it’s flowed out of someone organically hasn’t! However, one excellent method we can recommend and which almost all good authors utilise is looking at the world through their character’s eyes. This helps build a more vibrant and visceral world than can be achieved when merely examined from the writer’s perspective. Just as in real life, characters inhabit their story-worlds differently, and will do different things when presented with the same scene. Describing the particular ways in which a character chews her sandwich or gets out of her car or says goodbye to her grandma can do so much. These things might feel insignificant, but they really will vary depending on age, class, mood, health, race, gender, financial situation, political persuasion, relationship status, etc. What would your character do that another character might not? Even if you’re using a third- or second-person narrator, writing with the immediate detail of first-person can really bring a world to life.
5) HELP US MAKE MONEY! All publishers need to keep making money to stay afloat, but depending on their size, how they make money is different. Big publishers tend to publish hundreds of books a year and hope that a handful become bestsellers, whereas smaller publishers really need to make money with every book. If an author shows us that they have faith not only in their manuscript, but in how our business could profit from turning it into a book, then we’re on to a winner! At Blackwater we try and tailor our marketing for each book we publish, but if an author comes up with innovative ideas – even at submission stage – about how they could help successfully promote and sell their book, and prove to us that they would actively help us to make more money, this will ensure that us and any publisher look at their text more favourably. It’s the least romantic tip in this list, but it’s just as important as the others!
We hope that this was useful for all those authors working away on their manuscripts, and that at least some of it was fresh! We should caveat it all by adding that writing is a wide-ranging medium, and not all works will necessarily benefit from the same treatment. Even if they had the same word count, a short story by Alice Munro would be a wholly different experience to a short story by George Saunders, and likewise a novel by James Joyce would be incomparable to a novel by J.K. Rowling, and then again to George Orwell, and then again to Margaret Atwood. Yet all of these writers are considered great, which brings with it the welcome relief that there is a lot of room for idiosyncrasy in this field. Enjoy the process and good luck!