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Why Wasn’t I Chosen?: An Open Edit Letter (Part III)

Dear Swoon Readers,

As excited as I am to announce our new list, part of me will always regret not being able to call every last person and say that we’ve selected your manuscript. Or at least talk to you a bit, give you some specific editorial advice, and tell you not to give up hope and to remember that just because your manuscript might not be quite ready for publication at Swoon Reads yet, that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless or can’t be fixed.  But, as we’ve noted before, there are a LOT of you, and only one of me, so in lieu of individual phone calls and edit letters, I’ve put together another list of reasons why we might have chosen not to publish a manuscript. My earlier open edit letters can be found here and here. But today I want to add a few new reasons to the list.

Here we go:

• Research: Nothing throws a reader out of a book faster than hitting something that they KNOW is wrong. So it is absolutely vital to do your research. For example, if a large part of your book involves med school, you need to have a) gone to med school yourself, b) had a friend that went, or c) done some extensive research on med school. You can’t have a character in med school who also gets 8 hours of sleep at night and gets to skip work with no consequences.

Similarly, if you have a historical novel, you need to make sure motivations, emotions and setting are all historically accurate. For example, if your book is set in England just after the Napoleonic Wars and your main character is French, a certain segment of the population will treat them badly because their brother or father or friend was just killed by someone who was also French. It might be uncomfortable to talk about stigmas, prejudices, and other parts of the past that we as a society are ashamed of now, but that is part of the price of having a historical setting.

• Serialization: I know that many of you posted your novels on Wattpad, A03 or other sites, before you submitted to Swoon Reads — places where you post your stories a chapter or section at time, as you write them. These are great places to hone your writing and voice and to get feedback about what’s working and what’s not. But, they often seem to have an effect on people’s writing style. A serialized work has a tendency to hit the beats in every chapter or to have several mini-arcs so that your readers get the same experience week after week. And that’s wonderful, but when you are talking about a novel that you sit down and read in one sitting, it can quickly become repetitive and I’ve noticed that occasionally the main plot line gets lost in the middle. It’s very understandable, since it’s such a different way of writing and reading (and it’s not bad!) but it’s really aimed at a different audience. To me, many of these novels feel like serialized TV shows. Shows like Friends, where you come back week after week just to hang out with these characters you love, but things tend to stay generally the same and if you miss a couple of episodes or chapters, that’s okay. But a good novel, the kind we are looking for here at Swoon Reads, should feel more like a movie, or a much more story-driven sort of show, where if you miss an episode/chapter, you are going to be completely lost. Every scene should be important in some way and each chapter should do something to drive the reader toward the ending.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to transition from a serialized work over to a novel (in fact, we are publishing Kiss Cam, which was originally serialized on Wattpad!), but I am saying that you need to take the time to read through your work and make sure that you have a solid plot line with tension and pacing that drags the reader through to the end and that your characters grow and change realistically, instead of resetting to the same default place every couple of chapters to keep the story going.

• Taking too long to get to the action: This is particularly common in books that are meant to be the first in a series. Often, when an author envisions their work as a trilogy, they will front load the first book with all of the world building, set-up, character introductions, and backstory, and will save all of the good stuff for later in the series. Often there’s so much set-up that we don’t actually get introduced to the main plot until the last few chapters of the first book. And that’s a BIG problem, mostly because if you don’t have a plot that hooks me early on in the book and a source of ongoing tension throughout, then I’m not going to stick around long enough to make it to the good bit at the end — let alone keep going to books two and three. See these blog posts on Sequels and Emotional Catharsis for more information.

• Character, Character, Character!: If I don’t fall in love with your characters, then I’m not going to fall in love with your book. Which is not to say that you can’t write a good novel with an untrustworthy or unlikeable character, but if you are trying for that vibe, then they need to be fascinating and compelling to read about. Bland characters are NOT going to hold a reader’s attention, (after all, do you like spending time with boring people?) and they are a death knell in a romance novel, since the WHOLE point of a romance novel is falling in love with them. One of these days I’m going to do a much longer post on characters, maybe even a series, but until then, here’s a few things to watch out for:

1) Being hot is not enough. Sure it’s great that your character is gorgeous, but is she likeable? You can put your character with the greatest romantic interest ever, but if she’s a terrible person or has the personality of a wet noodle, then I’m going to have a hard time believing that someone that fabulous would actually spend time with her, let alone fall in love.

2) Give your characters depth. People are three dimensional. They can think about more than one thing at a time and are NEVER perfect. Your characters should also be three dimensional. Give them flaws/interests/goals — things to talk and think about OTHER than their significant other.

3) Main characters should have agency. They should have a visible affect on the world around them. They should DO things and take action, and their actions should have consequences both for themselves and others. If they can’t do anything, and they don’t have agency, then why should I stick around to watch terrible things happening to them? Agency means your characters are moving and changing and that gives me as a reader hope that things might work out eventually. And hope will keep me invested in their story.

4) Introduce them to me quickly. People make snap judgements about each other ALL the time. You can’t help it. And while your opinions of people and characters will grow and change as you find more information, those initial impressions are important and lingering. Make sure that the first impression is both accurate and impactful. Because, if at the end of 3 chapters, I still don’t know who your character is, then I’m going to probably decide that they are boring and move on.

• Chemistry: Swoon Reads is a romance imprint, and one of the key elements of romance is the chemistry between the two characters. We as readers need to be able to see the connections between the characters even before they realize it. Think about why your characters like each other. Is it just because they are hot? If so, there needs to be more there. There should be shared experiences and moments where they see something attractive in the other’s personality and actions. Insta-love is bad. I need to BELIEVE in the love, and I won’t be able to do that unless I can see reasons why they might fall in love and have moments of chemistry on the page that I can swoon over. Attraction at first sight = yes, of course. Love at first sight = hard, and it must be backed up with actual interactions to prove and cement it..

• World building: Again, I’m probably going to do a longer post on this later, but for right now, here’s a quick one-line rule to keep in mind. You can do anything, anything at all, in your novel, (especially if it’s a fantasy or paranormal), but once you make a rule, you MUST FOLLOW IT! Breaking the rules breaks the story, which breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Remember, when you are writing a novel, every word you say is building a world inside the reader’s head. And if you start ignoring or breaking the rules you’ve set down, then the reader will stop trusting anything you say, and if you lose the reader’s trust, you’ve lost the reader.

• Don’t misrepresent your character: Please don’t tell me your character is something when they actually aren’t. For example, don’t tell me that your character is the nice one and then have her do horrible things (unless she has really good justification and feels terrible about them). Don’t tell me that your character is a party girl and then have her sitting at home acting judgmental about other characters instead of joining in the fun. Don’t tell me he is a bad boy and then write him as the sweetest most caring person ever. Show me he is bad, then let him grow and evolve into something better. In fact, don’t “tell” me anything about the characters. Show me who they are and I’ll label them myself.

• Introspective analysis: Building a bit off the last point, take a long second and ask yourself: How often do you just sit in a room and try to typecast yourself? Is it realistic for a character, especially a teenager, to be psychoanalyzing themselves? Wouldn’t they be busy with their lives? And really, it’s much more interesting for the reader to watch the character act and illustrate the point you are trying to make about their character through them trying to achieve some goal than it is to sit and listen to them think about themselves. Realistically, the only times when people are that introspective is a) when drunk b) after a breakup c) in philosophy class or d) awake at 2 a.m. chatting with friends.

• Perspective: This can be a bit tricky. Perspective is important. A scene or story changes dramatically depending on who is seeing it. And it can be interesting to tell a story through several different perspectives, instead of limiting yourself to ONLY what the main character knows. And sometimes it works (A Little Something Different, anyone?), but sometimes you can get lost… Like seriously lost, in time and space and emotions.

I need to know whose head I am in, what time I’m in, and where I am as a reader at all times. The story needs to flow, so I should be able to get a sense of how this scene relates to the one before it and after it. Thus, if you are doing something experimental in time/space/perspective, you must be very careful to be clear about what you are doing. You have to give the reader enough clues so that they can follow along without getting lost and frustrated, so generally, you can really only mess with one of those things at a time. If you are jumping around in time, you should probably stick to one or two narrators who are very clearly delineated so that you know instantly whose head you are in. But, if you are writing from fourteen different perspectives, then your story should probably be fairly linear with every scene following directly after the one before it. And I know that there are novels out there that break these rules and work, but it is very hard to do, and even then they are tagged very clearly to help the readers follow along.

• Voice: And as an added addendum to that… if you are doing multiple perspectives, I need to be able to tell the difference between them almost immediately. If two of your characters sound exactly the same (no matter how compelling that voice may be), then you don’t really have 2 characters… you have one character, playing two roles, and it’s going to be confusing for everyone!

And…. I think that’s it for now. Thank you all again so much for submitting to Swoon Reads and for sharing your work with us. We have a great time reading through your submissions and comments, and while I’m sad that I can’t talk to each of you individually, I hope that these posts are helpful.

I can’t wait to see what wonderful stories you’ll share with me next round!

Best,

Holly West

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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