Manuscript 4 went a bit more roughly for us than the previous three, largely because it had one foot in the door of fantasy, and the other in the erotica door, a genre in which we don’t have much experience. Despite this, we worked hard to give a strong, viable critique to our author. This was honestly more difficult than we’d expected, and we’ll dive into some of our reasoning below. None of this is to say that the manuscript is not salvageable, and we gave our author tips in this regard. As for the rest…well, you’ll see below. Before you dive in, I would like to issue a trigger warning regarding discussion of rape/sexual assault in broad strokes (no details or anything), something our editors had wished they’d had before diving in themselves.
My comments fall into two categories this time around.
Firstly, when working on a manuscript, be sure the events of your query can be reasonably foreseen in your first three chapters. Meaning, while I don’t expect the entire pitch of the query laid out in the nascent chapters of a novel, I want to be able to see the potential of it in the character and setting of the story. If I don’t get that, the promise of the query is not fulfilled, and I become completely unsure of the ability of the author to execute the story I thought I would be reading.
Which leads me to my second point.
When you’re working in the field of literary criticism, you have to keep an ear to what the industry is buzzing about. As an author, I feel this can help an author greatly. You start to hear about patterns emerging from stories, what agents and publishers are getting sick of, what is down in sales, etc.
As the industry begins (and it’s really just beginning) to turn its ear further toward diversity, we see the tastes of agents and publishers changing. Look at the manuscript wish list of most agents and you see requests for all different kinds of diversity. One of these types are growing requests for strong female protagonists in fantasy fiction. Why? Because more old school fantasy relied on some pretty heavily anti-feminist tropes. Largely, the damsel-in-distress fantasy narrative.
Most books like these do the following to their female character.
These tropes, strung together in this way, form a cliche, and the one thing we should always try to avoid as authors is cliche.
If a writer includes a rape/attempted rape scene in their story, they should ask themselves if there is a reason for it to be particularly that kind of attack that needs to be meted out on the character before proceeding. Especially if your audience is meant to be a female audience, because women do not particularly like reading about rape (kinks aside, naturally).
George R.R. Martin, when asked how he writes such interesting female characters, answered, “You know, I've always considered women to be people.” If you wouldn’t want a male character doing something, enduring something, because you would find it uninteresting or horrifying to the point where you might not want to read further, keep that in mind when building a female character.
As writers we fight a never ending battle to create something that is both sought after by the current market and original. It is a seemingly contradictory tightrope from which many writers have fallen. The key is to find that aspect of your story that is unique amid the genre that defines it. This is especially true with vital scenes, such as when we are introduced to an important character. We should strive to make characters that stand out and can exist apart from the genre, characters who are more than just tools to push the narrative forward.
Likewise, an original storyline is difficult to achieve in an age where all genres have been thoroughly explored. Despite how discouraging that can seem, the same principal applies. You can write a story in the same genre, using similar tropes and similar plots, so long as you have elements of it that are all yours.
I’ve said this before, but it merits revisiting: Descriptions are the anchors to which the reader attaches to the story. A good story needs to have good anchors to draw the reader in and to fully immerse the reader in that world. Especially when writing fantasy stories or any story where the setting is supposed to be vastly different from our own, how one describes the surroundings helps to establish the new world as much as the actions of the characters do. So, careful attention must be paid to making sure there are enough descriptive markers to properly establish your world, lest you confuse the reader as to what type of story they are reading.
For my section of the blog, I’m going to echo some of Justine’s points, but on a broader scale. In order to have a story, there needs to be a plot, an end goal, something that the main character is going to try and achieve. There are many ways to get there and every writer has the freedom to choose which way that is. The question that needs to be asked when adding an event to a story is: why am I putting this here? Is the main character developing? Is this going to foreshadow an idea I have later? Is this moving my story closer to its conclusion? If you can’t say yes to these questions, it may be time to consider why you are writing said scene.
Something critiqued a lot in the writing world is when a writer creates a scene that is obviously meant to cause drama. It falls out of step with their overall narrative or makes the reader question what is going on with the main character. It can even make interactions feel unnatural. The whole purpose of a plot is to have drama and excitement intuitively built into it. There’s the rising action, all of the events that are building with every page, the climax, which is the meat of the story, and the falling action, how the story comes to an end. Forcing tension or chaos ruins the progression of these events and in some cases can be detrimental to an audience. It can also go against what is new or wanted in the publishing world. If you are writing a graphic scene or one you feel is out of your comfort zone, a second opinion may help - even a sensitivity reader who can gauge your material and catch errors or assumptions you may not have found on your own.
The bottom line here is don’t push drama where it isn’t needed. Let your story create it.
My grammatical tip of the day is be careful of transitional words and phrases. These are words like ‘then’, ‘suddenly,’ ‘before’ etc. While they are useful in most cases, too many of these can clutter your story. It takes away from the prose and can read like an instruction manual. Don’t say, “Then this happened.” You can simply say ”They did this" or "They moved to do this." Find a variety of ways to show action. Simply starting a new sentence indicates a shifting of thought and often times, a shifting of action.
When it comes to words like ‘suddenly’, you very rarely need them. Writing involves being crafty and toying around with language. Don't tell your readers something is going to happen or it is going to happen fast. Show them. Throw your readers into the scene. Instead of "suddenly, she was punched," say "she was taken aback by knuckles colliding with her face." It creates tension. It comes with its own ‘suddenly’ implied. This will strengthen any fight scenes or plot twists you have in store. It'll create the desired effect of drawing a reaction from your reader.