Why Wasn't I Chosen?: An Open Edit Letter (Part IV)
Dear Swoon Writers,
As we finish up one set of exciting announcements and before I dive headfirst into another round of reading, I wanted to take this time to thank you all SO MUCH for sharing your work with us. All of us here at Swoon Reads LOVE the editorial board process, and the chance to gather around a table and really talk about your novels, what we loved, what wasn’t working, what was fixable, and what (sadly) needs to be fixed before we can acquire something… no matter HOW much promise it has. I wish you could all attend, because I feel like the conversations there are amazing and valuable.
But since you can’t, I’m going to try and do the next best thing, and share a few of the issues that kept some of our favorite potential titles from being acquired. Again, EVERYTHING we looked at during our board meeting had potential for publication (your help as readers and all your ratings and comments are invaluable at helping us choose which books to look at!), but some manuscripts need just a little more work from your end before they are ready to be acquired and published.
Finish Your Story:
There were a LOT of manuscripts this round that had wonderful characters and interesting worlds and so much potential, but we got to the end of the manuscript and we only had half of the story… occasionally we felt as if the story had barely started and we had NO IDEA where the characters were going. And we can’t – we just can’t – publish a book that only has a piece of the story.
This is NOT to say that we won’t acquire books that are meant to be series openers. We have in the past and I’m sure we will again. HOWEVER, this is a huge risk for us as a publisher, since we have no guarantee that you will be able to finish the second book, or that the story you are telling there will pay off for us. Thus, all of the books that we have acquired planning for them to be the first in a series had a complete story arc in the FIRST BOOK. Reading the first book was a satisfying experience that felt complete and gave the reader a sense of emotional catharsis. Sure, there have also been a couple of really terrible cliffhangers to lead you to the next book, but the main issue or threat or plotline of that book had been resolved.
I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again later, but you can NOT save all of your story for Book 2, because if a reader is not satisfied with Book 1, there will not BE a Book 2. Finish the story you are telling, and THEN worry about the next book. The manuscript you put up on site must stand on its own, not merely be a promise for more awesome things to come later.
Please Don’t Lecture Me:
When I’m reading a book, I’m there for the characters and the story. I want to fall in love with new worlds and/or look at the world we live in through a new perspective. Every single book shares a new outlook on the world with its readers. It’s why reading books generally makes people more accepting and open-minded, because readers are used to experiencing the world through other characters' eyes, whether you agree with them or not. This is why it is almost always COMPLETELY unnecessary to stop the action and forward momentum for philosophical musings on the nature of life, the universe, and everything. Not only does it break my suspension of disbelief and destroy the pacing of your novel, but no one likes to be talked down to. Teenage readers do not want to be lectured by an adult author and adult readers will usually not be inclined to trust any lecture delivered by a teen character, because they know nothing (... Jon Snow).
Show Me You Care:
While we understand that no one is perfect and that there comes a time when you’ve looked at a manuscript so often that you can no longer see the mistakes, excessive typos are very off-putting for readers. While we don’t expect your writing or grammar to be perfectly polished, we do expect that you will have put enough time into your writing that you will have at least run spell check to catch basic spelling and grammar mistakes. Ideally, you will have already gone through the manuscript a few times and made revisions, so that the version you’ve shared with Swoon Reads is your best work.
As you know from my giant editorial blog series there is a LOT of editorial work between acquiring a manuscript and having a final printed version in hand. If you want us to love your book enough that we invest our time and money and effort and enthusiasm into it, then we need to know that you also care enough about your work to do the same.
Up the Stakes:
A successful story, one that really makes people care, usually involves some pretty high stakes. It doesn’t always have to be the end of life as we know it (although that’s a perfectly valid plotline), but there needs to be something at risk for the characters, something that we, as readers, want them to get or keep. Something that they can’t afford to lose. The idea that everything could go wrong and the character’s whole world could implode is what keeps the reader invested and on the edge of their seats. If the tension isn’t high enough then the reader is going to get bored and wander off.
I started reading several promising books this season, only to stop once I realized that both of the characters were obviously in love with each other, and the only way they weren’t eventually going to end up with each other was if one of them got hit by a car and died. And even then, their souls would probably connect in heaven. Make sure that there is a real source of tension and uncertainty in your story, something that could legitimately ruin everything. If you are writing a romance and the only thing keeping your characters apart is that you, as the author, aren’t ready for the book to be over, then that’s a BIG problem.
Keep it Fresh:
Be careful of repeating yourself. You can only use the same scenario so many times before your audience knows what’s coming and it loses its impact. You have to switch things up and keep it different and new. If you are using the same scenario over and over again, then each iteration has to have some kind of new twist or approach.
Let’s say that your characters first meet by literally bumping into each other and dropping everything they are holding. This is a fairly standard meet-cute trope, but there’s a lot you can do with it to make it your own. But if they crash into each other the second time, it becomes a pattern. Which means that readers will EXPECT them to crash into each other again for a third time, probably at the climax. It’s just how these things work. But if they crash into each other a fourth time, the writer runs the risk of having the reader become bored with the scenario and wander off. After all, they’ve seen this same scene happen again and again and again and AGAIN. And unless there has been significant change and character growth to differentiate each of these scenes, they will eventually start blurring together, and the reader will stop caring about them and start skimming ahead.
But Be Consistent:
It’s normal for a character to evolve over the course of a story. In fact, it’s usually one of the driving forces of the novel. Characters, especially protagonists, grow and change and become better than they were at the beginning of the book. However, this evolution has to make sense to the reader. The reason that truth is stranger than fiction is because fiction is required to make sense to the reader. We need to be able to understand and follow the characters' choices, so we need them to be consistent in their growth and changes. If you introduce your character as a quiet and timid wallflower, and then suddenly they reveal that they are a deadly ninja filled to the brim with quippy comebacks and oneliners, I’m going to be very, very thrown by this change. I’m not saying it’s not possible to turn a wallflower into an awesome action heroine. I’m just saying that you have to do it gradually, and you have to give me as a reader a catalyst for each stage of the change. People don’t just suddenly become a different person. In fact, most people are fairly resistant to change. There has to be a trigger for each change and it generally needs to happen in small steps. OR the catalyst has to be extraordinary, some kind of hugely traumatic event that could legitimately change a person’s entire worldview and make them rise from the ashes. But either way, both the catalyst and its effect on the character must be clearly shown to the reader, so that they can follow the progression.
If the character just changes suddenly without some kind of catalyst in place, then it feels as if the author made a mistake or decided to take the character in a new direction halfway through, and didn’t go back and revise. Make sure that you know who your character is at the beginning, middle, and end of the book and that you can chart their arc in a way that makes sense for the reader.
Be Mindful of Your Audience:
Remember that Swoon Reads only publishes Young Adult fiction. That means that your main characters need to be teenagers, and they need to be dealing with issues and themes that are relevant to teenagers. So even if your character is technically a teenager, if they are in a scenario that feels very middle school or very adult then Swoon Reads is probably not the right publisher for your novel. See our posts on what makes a teen novel, and the difference between YA, New Adult, and Adult novels for more information.
Finally, Revise, Revise, Revise:
Remember that the heart of Swoon Reads is the crowdsourcing. We only look at the books that you, the Swoon Reads community, recommend to us through your ratings, reviews, and comments. So if you as a writer aren’t getting a lot of traction for your manuscript, you might want to look at your cover and descriptive copy on the site. Is there some way you could make it more appealing to the community? We know that describing your book in a limited space is hard, but it’s IMPORTANT. Your book could be the most amazing thing in the world, but if no one tells us that it’s awesome, we aren’t going to know that.
So, if you don’t have a lot of ratings or reviews, try revising the way you are presenting it. And, most importantly, if you ARE getting ratings and reviews, but you still haven’t been chosen, then you might want to look at your feedback (and these edit letters) and see if they spark any ideas for revisions. Know that if you do post a revision of a manuscript, we WILL look at it again with fresh eyes. We really want Swoon Reads to be a place that nurtures authors and helps writers to learn and succeed, so if your first draft or manuscript isn’t chosen, please try again.
I’m really looking forward to seeing what you can do!