Why Wasn’t I Chosen?: An Open Edit Letter (Part II)
Last week, Holly West started her open edit to all of our wonderful Swoon Reads writers (click here if you missed it). Here’s the second half!
• Too many issues. I understand that issue books are now, and have always been, incredibly popular. The Fault in Our Stars has sold a gajillion copies. That said, there’s only so much room in any given novel, and any big issue is going to take up a lot of space. If you want to address an “issue,” like for instance cancer or mental illness or bullying or substance abuse, then you have to have done your research so that it feels believable and spend enough time on the issue so that your portrayal feels respectful of people dealing with these problems. Realistically, you can only fit one or two of these issues in any given novel. If you must address more than one, my rule of thumb is one per major character. If your main character is a pregnant teen with autism dating a bad boy who became hooked on drugs after his mother’s suicide, you might be overdoing it a little.
• All emotions, no action. It’s true that Swoon Reads is a romance imprint, so it’s important to explore the character’s emotional journeys… however, it’s also vital to remember that people don’t change and grow for no reason. If you want to examine your character’s emotional state, then you need to have some sort of inciting incident to cause the change. And, every emotional reaction has to be believable. You can’t have someone have a huge breakdown over a papercut, unless you’ve already established that this has been the most terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day on the face of the planet and that the paper cut is just the last straw. And then, you have to take the next step, what does that emotional breakdown accomplish? An emotional breakdown is a tool when writing a story, not a goal.
• Saving your backstory for a “big reveal.” Backstory is not plot. It’s history. It’s stuff that happened in the past, and it informs your characters’ actions, but doesn’t really impact the present, except to inform their choices. It’s not a mystery if everyone else knows—and it’s especially not a mystery if you are writing in first person! Obviously the main character whose head you are in would know the important elements from their own past (unless they are suffering from amnesia, and then the memories aren’t backstory, they are McGuffins—totally different). Thus, you can’t hide important backstory information and use it like it’s a huge secret. Readers need to be able to identify with characters and understand their motives to follow their emotional journey (even if they don’t agree with it), and hiding important information from the reader, especially if it’s something big that other characters in the story know, is just confusing and annoying.
• You are telling me that your characters are happy, sad, angry, or in love – not showing it. “Show, don’t tell” is an old piece of writing advice, but it’s true, especially when it comes to emotions. People are good at reading body language and understanding what is going on between the lines, and actions speak louder than words. You don’t need to tell me that a character is happy or in love, show me.
• I lost my suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is the ability that allows a reader to get lost in a book or movie – it’s most commonly used for fantasy worlds where you have to believe that people have superpowers or that cats can fly, etc., but it’s relevant for any genre. If I’m reading your historical novel and someone continually uses modern terminology, or behaves in a way that would have made them social outcasts, then it will strike me as wrong, and throw me out of the story. The same thing happens if your contemporary teens suddenly start talking like they are adults or don’t recognize things that EVERY modern teen is familiar with. A large part of a reader’s enjoyment of your novel is going to be based on their sense of immersion, how lost they can get in the world you have created, and if you are constantly breaking the rules you have set up (even if the rule is simply: this story takes place in modern day America) then the immersion is lost and so is the reader.
• There are no stakes, so the ending isn’t satisfying. Reading a novel is a huge investment in time, and in return, readers expect an emotionally satisfying conclusion. To create that emotional pay-off, it’s vital that your characters have things on the line. They need goals, and more importantly, there needs to be consequences—consequences that the characters, and thus the reader (who should be emotionally invested in the character) care about—to not realizing these goals. It’s not enough to have a happily ever after… your characters need to earn it.
• The side characters have taken over the story. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE side characters. A great best friend, a loyal sidekick, a kickass villain. They are, quite often, my favorite elements in any given story. However, it’s vital that they remain side characters. If you have a cast of thousands, and they are all quirky and funny and more interesting than your main character, so that you end up spending as much real estate on their goals, issues, and problems as on your central love story, then your novel is going to wander off the rails. Side characters and subplots are great! They are really important and often vital, as they keep your main characters from feeling like they exist in a vacuum. But, it’s imperative that you keep your focus on the main story, and make sure that it is always center stage. Don’t let your side characters take over the book, just let them add flavor and fun to this story, and save the bulk of their tale for when they can take center stage as main characters in their own right!
So, I know that this was a long list of issues, but I hope that this is helpful. And really, several of the manuscripts we looked at were so close to being ready, but they were suffering from a couple of these major issues, and they weren’t quite ready to be acquired. Which is not to say that most of those books couldn’t have been rescued! It’s just that the issues listed above were so major that they would have required a substantial re-write and re-envisioning of the story. But I’ve read into a lot of your work, and I have faith in you! Take a couple of months and really look at your work. Could any of the above issues apply to you? If so, brainstorm with some friends and writing buddies, and see if you can figure out how to fix them. There were many books here that we’d be happy to look at again if they had a substantial revision!
Or, maybe the idea of making that many changes is just too much to face right now, and if so, that’s okay! Jot down a few notes about what the problems are, learn from them, and move on to the next bright shiny new idea. Sometimes it’s easier just to start again, and I’d be happy to take a look at that new manuscript as well!