How I Write a Manuscript Critique | An Editor’s Rant About Debut Novels

I’m writing this post to explain how I, as a developmental editor, go about reading a book and writing a manuscript critique so prospective clients will know what they’re getting, but I also have some thoughts that might be of interest to writers in general, including my take on what’s required of a debut novel in the publishing industry today.

My manuscript critiques come in two parts: chapter by chapter commentary as I read along, followed by my final analysis, which includes editorial notes concerning big picture issues such as character development, plot, pacing, structure, voice, genre appropriateness, subtext, and problems unique to any given story that can’t easily be categorized. The chapter commentary serves as a live reader reaction, which means I don’t go back and edit the notes before I send them to you. This gives you insight into what I’m thinking as I read, if I’m confused about something that shouldn’t be confusing, or whether or not I’m predicting an outcome too easily.

I approach a book as a reader first and foremost. When something makes me stop reading, I try to figure out what happened. Sometimes the cause is obvious and other times it requires some digging, but once I pinpoint the issue, I make a note to the author. If I see a potential solution, I include it as a recommendation–but the recommended change merely serves as an example of how the author might go about correcting the problem. There’s a fine line between an editor suggesting a logical revision and an editor arbitrarily inserting their own ideas into the work.

Sometimes the author will acknowledge that the problem exists but then come up with a better solution than the one I proposed. Once in a while, the manuscript is so close to perfect that when a problem does crop up, the solution is crystal clear, inevitable–even revelatory. The author’s unconscious mind has created four out of five points in a structural or metaphorical pyramid, and when I propose the missing piece to the puzzle, they agree it was meant to be this way. The closer a novel is to complete, the easier it is to see the flaws, and the more likely we, author and editor, will instantly agree on the solution.

However, when a manuscript is nowhere close to ready, revisions can take the story in a variety of potential directions, because right now the story lacks direction. The author needs to invest more time in it. Develop more passion for the story. Sit with it. Study it. Imagine how the plot can be made more complex. How the character can be made more real, relatable, believable, entertaining–take your pick.

If your narrative is slow, thinly plotted, and ultimately underwhelming, you should ask yourself some basic questions: Have you provided consistency throughout the book? Consistency in the quality of the narrative flow? Consistency in how much imagery you offer to paint the portrait of your world scene by scene? Consistency in your emotional and intellectual commitment to executing every chapter, every scene, every sentence, every line of dialogue as perfectly as you can?

You know if you started out strong but rushed to get to the ending. Read your book again. Absorb it. Memorize it. Then use your imagination to fix what you know is wrong. The most common problem? There’s not enough there. Not enough character development. Not enough subplotting. Not enough imagery. Not enough insight. Not enough innovation.

I’ve read books written by authors who’ve spent a decade on that one book. I’ve also read books written by authors who start the next book before the ink dries on the one they just finished. And I would recommend they have coffee together so each can be horrified by the other’s habits.

If you want to make it in publishing, chances are you have to write more than one book. Also if you want to make it in publishing, you have to write more than one draft of any given book. Even if you land an agent who tells you your manuscript is magically submission-ready, the editor they’ll sell it to is called an editor for a reason. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, and there’s no such thing as a traditionally published novel that wasn’t revised with editorial input several times over.

If you send me a book you’ve been tweaking for a decade, you’re probably in a position to only accept the most miniscule of feedback. You’re probably not prepared to make big, sweeping changes. And you don’t want to rely on a single manuscript to launch your career. Agents and editors are all about concept, concept, concept. Your premise needs to be sparkly and shiny and easy to pitch in a query letter, and this might not be the one.

[I offer affordable query letter critiques as part of my editing services.]

I recently watched an agent interview in which the agent was asked to explain what “high concept” means. She mentioned The Martian by Andy Weir and described it as, “Castaway on Mars.”

Three words. That’s it. Three little words and you know exactly what the book is about. You know it’s familiar enough to appeal to an existing readership but different enough to stand out as unique. Familiar: a guy is stranded in a remote area like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Different: the remote area is Mars.

So maybe that book you’ve been perfecting for a decade will make a great sophomore novel, but for now you need to write something fresh, something you’re willing to revise with editorial input from beta readers, something to which you’re not so attached. You might have the character development, the subplots, the imagery, the insight, and the innovation, but the story still might not resonate with agents.

On the other hand, if you’ve written ten books in the past five years, you might have the opposite problem: not spending enough time with any given book. You need to pick the one you love the most–not the one you think is most marketable–and reread it, reimagine it, and rewrite it. Make it more complex. Make the prose prettier. Make things harder on your characters.

The writer who’s been stuck on the same book for a decade is more likely to have the passion and the quality of prose but lack the right idea. The prolific writer who pens a first draft and never looks back is more likely to have the right idea but lack the passion and the quality of prose.

Be open to revision. Be open to new ideas. And be openin’ a blank document so you can start that next book or that next draft.

With love,

Tory

I am a freelance editor who specializes in manuscript critiques, developmental editing, and prepping query letters, synopses, and sample pages for submission to literary agents. You can find my full list of affordable editing services, as well as client testimonials, here.

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