Why Wasn't I Chosen?: An Open Edit Letter (Part VIII)Kat Brzozowski
Dear Swoon Readers,
You gave us so many great manuscripts to choose from this season! Thank you for all of your reads, ratings, and comments which helped guide us to our Season 10 selected books. We’re excited to add four new authors to the Swoon Reads fold.
We’re often asked what goes into our decision for which manuscripts get chosen. You, our readers, are obviously a key ingredient, but there’s more to it. We don’t automatically select a manuscript just because it has the highest stats. We are looking for stories that resonate with readers on some unforgettable level. Once a manuscript catches our attention—whether through an interesting premise, a trending status, or a really in-depth comment from a reader—our editors, as well as an entire room of volunteers, review that manuscript internally to see if something sparkles. Sometimes we really do love something, but we aren’t sure that the problems with it can be fixed in that current draft. This could be because, despite the book’s obvious strengths and appeal, there’s one big problem that makes the whole project not work. Or, maybe there are just too many small- to medium-sized problems that add up. In those cases, we decide the author needs to take a second stab at it, try to clean up some of those issues and submit a revised draft. (By the way, we love it when you do that!)
So why didn’t some manuscripts get chosen this time? Below, I discuss some possible reasons. If your book wasn’t selected this time, don’t give up! It’s never too late to make your manuscript great, and our hope is that this open edit letter will help get you there. Take a look and, perhaps with the help of a trusted beta reader, go over your manuscript again with these factors in mind. You might just find some of these issues are lurking in your work.
Let’s do this!
Not Enough Worldbuilding
Part of what makes reading the best thing ever is that it allows readers to immerse themselves completely in a new world, whether that means introducing them to a secretive boarding school or showing them around the North End of Boston. But in order to immerse the reader, you as the writer need to first build a world that feels dynamic and compelling. When the worldbuilding is half-baked—if we don’t know why the upper class is in charge or how the various secret rooms of the castle work—then the reader is automatically distanced from your story.
What if this blog post ended right now—in the second section? You as the reader would probably feel disappointed. Likewise, manuscripts that end in a rush leave the reader feeling let down. You’ve spent 60,000 or more words showing us the world, introducing us to the characters, creating conflict and action, and making us feel invested in the book’s outcome, so if you wrap up all of these threads in 10 pages, your poor reader is bound to experience a bad case of literary whiplash. Take your time and deliver a satisfying ending; your reader deserves it!
Distracting Side Characters
Let’s just be straight with each other. Side characters are really fun to write. The hunky chemistry teacher, who makes your protagonist’s heart do a little flip every day in 2nd Period. The chatty barista, who knows your love interest’s coffee order. Your protagonist’s aunt, who knows more puns than Phil Dunphy. But when these characters start to encroach on pages that you need to develop your protagonists, it’s time to put your side characters on the back burner. Maybe you’ll even give the side characters their own books someday, like Kate Evangelista did in No Holding Back and No Second Chances.
Plot Showing Up Too Late
We all know that books need plot. As much fun as it can be to read about compelling characters, stuff needs to happen to make a book a book! But it’s also important stuff happens early. Just as it’s important to have plot happening on page one (which I touch on in this post), it’s important to sustain that forward momentum of plot throughout the whole book. Make sure that even if you’re setting up for a big moment in the manuscript’s second half, there’s still stuff happening in the first half. Otherwise, your reader may never make it to the action-packed part.
Unsupported Plot Twists
Certain movie directors can get away with plot twists that come out of left field. In general, though, plot twists can feel a lot like getting a bucket of cold water thrown on you—that is to say, jarring and unexpected. Before you introduce a big plot twist, ask yourself: Have you scattered virtual breadcrumbs so that a super-observant reader could figure out what’s coming? If not, your plot twist may make the reader feel cheated out of an ending that fits with the rest of the book. For more on acing plot twists, check out Holly’s post here.
As a writer, dialogue gives you a great opportunity to show the reader what your characters are thinking about, what they’re feeling, and how they express themselves. At the same time, it’s really hard to write dialogue that feels realistic and natural coming out of the mouths of your teenage characters. Look at things like word choice, sentence length, and grammar. Do they feel teen? We’re always looking for dialogue that feels natural because that dialogue is what draws us to characters and makes us feel like we really know them. For more on writing great dialogue, check out my post here.
In every book, your main character needs to want something. That “something” can vary widely, from kissing the quarterback to helping a friend beat an illness to saving the whole freaking world. No matter what your character wants, it’s key that the stakes are high. It’s easy to see how “saving the whole freaking world” is high stakes, but what’s at stake if your protagonist doesn’t kiss the quarterback, or ace her finals, or beat his best friend at chess? Even if you’re writing light, contemporary romance, make sure the stakes are high so that we care as much as the character does about their success.
Too Many Characters
Don’t get me wrong, Game of Thrones is totally awesome. But here’s the thing… If you inundate your reader with too many characters with all their different backstories, personalities, and goals for the book, they’re likely to get lost. As a reader, I’m not going to know who I’m supposed to care about, or I’m going to get names confused, or I’m going to forget who someone is the next time they pop up. So, don’t bite off more than your readers can chew. Think of it this way: There’s a very, very good reason why Marvel had five (FIVE!!!) whole standalone movies before they brought everyone together in The Avengers. All of these complex characters needed space to be introduced to new fans while also keeping all the great hallmarks that please old fans. And even then, Marvel had the advantage of most of their audience already having a basic knowledge of the characters from the many, many previous decades of comic books and earlier films. If you try to go the Avengers route off the bat in Book 1 of a completely unknown series, you run the risk of the plot getting clogged with all the setup needed to introduce everyone. And then suddenly you’re 200 pages in and it feels like nobody’s actually done anything.
We hope that this gives you lots of ideas for how to tackle your next revision. We can’t WAIT to see what you have for us in Season 11!
And before you go, be sure to check out our previous open edit letters if you haven’t already. Issues we’ve previously addressed can still crop up in new submissions, so we might have already talked about a reason why your manuscript wasn’t selected in one of our previous letters.
Earlier Open Edit Letters can be found through the following links: