I’m really grateful for my internship at Ice Cube Press. I’ve gained more experience from working here for the past few months than from most of the college classes I have taken for the past three years.
One of my duties is to read queries and manuscript submissions. When I’m reading manuscripts, I’m grading three components: the writing, the story, and the characters. Here are my thoughts on each one.
Here is my definition of good writing: good writing communicates effectively and clearly what the writer wants to say (to his or her target audience). Good writing flows, uses the right words and the right amount of words, uses correct grammar and sentence structure, and is organized. Good writing is full of life and has a strong or unique voice.
I’m sad to say that I see many grammar mistakes, poor sentence flow, tangents, wordiness (sometimes the opposite and a lack of needed descriptions and details), dry and boring voices, and poor organization in many submissions. These problems prevent the writer from communicating effectively and clearly to me what he or she is trying to say.
I sometimes feel that people are submitting us their rough draft work. Some people are so focused on being published that they hurry the writing and start submitting their manuscript the second they finish the rough draft. Writing is a process. Rough drafts are rough for a reason, and nobody’s first draft is perfect. Writing involves editing, rewriting, rediscovery, and effort. I don’t want to read a manuscript that is squeaky clean; I want a manuscript full of blood, sweat, and tears, thus effort.
If you don’t want to put in the effort to learn how to write well and how to make your book the best it can be, then publishers are not going to put in the effort to publish your book.
The reason readers pick up a book is to read the story. A good story will take me out of my world and into its world.
I honestly don’t know the difference between a good plot and a bad plot, and yes, readers and publishers want original ideas. Books, movies, TV shows, etc. use the same plots over and over again, but I don’t think readers care about what the plot is. I believe that people care about the struggle and how the characters overcome their struggles. It’s not about what the conflict is; we care about the how.
But even though we may use the same basic plots over and over, I want to know what makes your book different from the rest. For example, if your book is about a quest, how is your quest different from the other quest books? You should be able to tell any publisher or me how your book is different from the others like it. Your how has to be different.
So while I’m not very picky about the plot itself, I have seen a few problems that cause me to lose interest in the story. One occurring problem I’ve seen in many manuscripts is that the writer doesn’t describe the setting. I can’t be engaged with a story when I don’t know where the characters are. With no setting, characters are just wandering through empty spaces, and readers do not want to open a book just to enter a world of empty space. Plus, if the writer doesn’t tell me what the setting is, chances are that s/he will leave out other important information and description later on.
Another problem I see in manuscripts is this overload of “shock” factor. The writer gives out as little information as possible to keep the reader engaged with the story. Unfortunately, when writers restrain too much information about the plot and characters, I end up more frustrated than fascinated. The best writers know how much information to reveal to keep readers engaged.
Again, readers pick up a book to read the story. A good story is able to pull a reader out of his or her world and into the world of the story.
Characters drive the story.
Actually, let me rephrase that.
Developed characters drive the story.
Characters can strengthen or weaken a plot. I have read many books and manuscripts that have an interesting premise- and I stop reading them after fifty pages. Most of the time, I stop reading because I find the characters flat, uninteresting, and not relatable.
Just because a character is fictional doesn’t mean s/he can’t act like a real person. The best characters are so developed that you could mistake them for real people. A big reason why Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Percy Jackson, etc. have big fandoms is that the fans are really attached to the characters. Their fans care about the characters and their struggles, and the fans care because the characters are real to them.
Character development is very important to me. When the writer doesn’t describe the physical traits of the characters, that’s a red flag to me. I don’t need endless amount of description; I need enough to visualize them. And usually when the manuscript doesn’t have the physical descriptions of the characters, the characters are underdeveloped, and I don’t have a sense of who they are. Underdeveloped characters seem to go through the motions. They do things because the writer tells them to, not because they have any real motives.
Every writer should know his or her characters inside and out. You don’t need to know every little detail about them like their blood type or the name of their great, great grandfather, but you should know their personality, what drives them, why they act the way they do, how they will react in different situations, how they treat others, and why do they treat others in a certain way. If I were to give you a scenario for your character, you should be able to tell me how your character will behave in that situation, and if you can’t, then that’s a sign that you need to develop your character more.
What also make characters real are their flaws. Flaws are very important for character development and also help the reader relate to the character. Honestly, perfect characters are annoying. Perfect characters do not have struggles, and if there’s no struggle, then there’s no story. I feel that we relate to each other more through our flaws than our accomplishments. Readers want to be able to connect with the characters, even if the readers and characters have totally different personalities. Readers want to see the character struggle and make mistakes and then succeed. Struggle and mistakes are part of the story.
There are rare cases when an underdeveloped character works. If the character has very little personality, the reader can insert him/herself into that character’s place and pretend to be that character. I think this is one reason why Twilight is so popular among girls. Bella has so little personality that girls pretend that they are Bella and Edward is their boyfriend. But again, this scenario only works for a few books.
I am just a college student, so if you think my opinion is invalid, that’s fine. I could be wrong about everything, but if you are going to submit your manuscript to Ice Cube Press, you may want to keep what I’ve written in mind.