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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Evaluating a Fiction Manuscript

Here are some basic criteria that editors use in evaluating fiction:

l) Voice: Does the author have a distinctive, unique voice that captures your attention, or is her writing bland, colorless. Do you want to spend the next several hours with this author? Note that Voice is not the same thing as Style. Think of a thriller writer who might not be a particularly felicitous prose stylist, but keeps you on the edge of your seat with his breathless, perhaps even melodramatic voice.

2) Pace: The test here is quite simple. After finishing one page, do you want to go on to the next page? In fact, are you compelled to do so? That is, is it a page-turner? A good thriller writer, of course, must have an unerring sense of pace. But the pace of literary writing, drawing you deeper and deeper into ideas and feelings, is also irresistible.

3) Character: While you might think plot should precede character, the fact is that the best plots emerge from characters in conflict. So the question here is whether you are compelled by the characters and are you involved in what is happening to them? Do they come alive on the page? Do they surprise you with their complexity?

4) Plot: Whether the plot comes out of the characters' development or not--a good thriller writer might have one-dimensional characters, but that doesn't matter if his story is riveting--we're looking for a story that keeps us reading because we want to know what happens next. And if what happens is surprising--not just arbitrary but convincing--that's all the better.

5) Style: As already mentioned, here we're talking about the quality of the writing. And while we all probably respond to a beautiful style, and it may impel us to keep reading, yet in the end if the author says nothing, reveals nothing, creates no strong effect on us with her story and characters, then we're left unsatisfied. What the reader asks of the author is: Astonish me!

6) Verisimilitude: By this I mean not so much accuracy or true-to-life details as convincing invention. If the author can convince you that something is true, it really doesn't matter whether it's true or not.

Finally, you must ask yourself--and this applies to both fiction and nonfiction--whether the author has accomplished what he set out to do. You could think of this as the combined effect of all the elements, but it's a crucial question to ask. You can't evaluate a manuscript on the basis of what you want it to be.


  1. Really clear and helpful post, Arnold.

    I'd like to add one more element specifically for the middle-grade and YA writers out there: Age-group. There's a difference between fiction appropriate for middle-grade readers and that which will appeal to teens. (I'm going to do a full post on this). The age of your intended readership will affect everything Arnold details above and is a critical factor in assessing a manuscript submission.

  2. Yes, very clear and helpful, Arnold. Thanks. You mention that it's important that an author have a voice that a reader wants to spend time with. I frequently make the same observation and extend it to saying that the protagonist (almost always) has to be someone with whom a reader wants to spend hours and hours. There are genuinely unlikable protagonists in successful books, of course, but this is hard to pull off. Better, and easier, to create characters with whom readers want to spend time.

  3. I have a question that maybe all of you can help me with. Speaking of plot. I had a comment about my current novel building out and not up. I understand (or at least I think I do) what that means and am trying to correct it. I think the problem is that I keep finding new problems/conflicts to throw at the MC, but I'm not sure they all relate to the main problem. I seem to wander and I'm not a good plotter. Even when I do plot, I tend to stray because my mind just keeps throwing me new ideas. Do you have suggestions of a good way for me to evaluate if a plot element is building out or up? Thanks for any suggestions.

  4. You pose a tough problem--that is, it's hard to tell you how to avoid letting your mind wander. In fact, that's not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I think it's important to keep your mind open to new ideas. But it seems to me that what you have to do is examine each new plot idea in terms of a) whether it really grows out of the character, and b) whether it takes the plot where you want it to go. That's a crucial test.

  5. Thanks so much. I think that if I keep asking myself the question, "is this taking my plot where I want it to go?" then I will more likely stay on a path that builds up. It is great to be open to new ideas. Sometimes, though I wish my creative mind, had more structure and that I had the ability to see a novel from start to finish before I begin writing. Instead, I get an idea and I just start writing and I can't ask the question "is this where I want to go?", because I don't know the answer yet. I have to discover it. After many drafts, re-writes, etc. I finally see the 'real story'. Thanks again.

  6. Loretta--

    this probably isn't going to help you discipline your creative mind but you'd probably enjoy reading a great novel by Muriel Spark called The Comforters. It's about characters in a novel who find out they're characters in a novel and try to do something different from what the author wants them to do--with all kinds of problematic results.

  7. Ha! Judy that sounds hillarious and exactly what happens with my characters. I will absolutely pick it up and read it. Thanks for the suggestion:)

  8. Loretta, In the early stages of working on a novel, it's good to be expansive in your thinking. My experience is that initially most people don't know exactly where every plot twist and turn is going to take them. After you've finished a first draft, though, you're in a much better position to evaluate the success of a plot development because you can see how your ideas have played out. And you can see how your ideas relate to and support your theme -- or not.

    In the best of all possible worlds, plot development and character development are so closely interwoven that it should be hard to separate them. After your first draft, it's time to go back and do what Arnold suggests: Make sure that the plot events grow out of character -- or a character's choices -- and make sure they help lead the characters to the climax of the action. If they don't do both of those things, then they're not serving you.

  9. Hi again,

    Thanks to all of you. I have told all my writing friends to check out your blog. You offer a writer not just help, but hope. It's difficult to understand what an editor/agent means by comments they make unless you have guidance. It's hard to know what to with your plot or how to do it. It's like cooking without a recipe and even with a recipe you still need a master chef, it's like dancing without an instructor or acting without a director. Certainly there are Master writers out there who can write in isolation and be brilliant. I am not one of them. PS.. I received The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. Brilliant:) I have a countdown on my live journal 131 days to finish this draft of my novel. I'm on my way.