Why Wasn't I Chosen?: An Open Edit Letter (Part VII)
Dear Swoon Readers,
We’re thrilled to announce our next Swoon Reads list! We were so excited to expand to publishing all genres of YA this fall, and we were over the moon to see so many great new manuscripts of all types—historical, fantasy, action, and more!—submitted to the site. You gave us a great batch of manuscripts to read and we’re extremely excited about the new Season 9 books!
Why did some manuscripts not get chosen this time around? I’ve outlined some possible reasons below. The new year is a great time to dive into revision, and we hope these points will guide you as you see how your manuscript can get better (and it always can!).
For the reader to feel grounded in your story, they have to have a clear sense of when things are happening in the book. Stories that go between past and present quickly can be hard to follow and confusing for the reader. For example, if you start your book in the year 2016 and then immediately flash back to 2007, and then jump back to 2016, then switch to a scene in 2009, the reader will get the book equivalent of whiplash. Especially in the beginning of a book, stick to one time period so that the reader can feel grounded in the world you’ve set up. This is the point in your novel when the reader is still getting familiar with your characters and your world, so adding time jumps can make this harder for the reader to immerse themselves in your book.
Whether you’re writing about a relationship, be it friendship or romance, it can be tempting to develop this relationship quickly so that we can move on to the rest of the plot. Avoid this temptation! For the reader to feel invested in your characters and plot, they needs to see these relationships develop on the page. If your characters meet at a coffee shop on page 1, we shouldn’t see them moving in together on page 10. Just like in real life, these relationships need to develop naturally over a period of time, and we need to see them grow and change over the course of the manuscript so that we can care about them. Even if you’re into insta-love, we need to see what triggers this relationship.
Characters in YA fiction often have a lot of feelings, which is part of what makes this genre of fiction appealing to readers. Giving your characters strong emotions is great, but make sure that you’re showing us why the characters have those feelings. For example, if your main character is feels stressed out in one scene, we need to see why she’s stressed out. Family stuff? Big paper due? Her crush is ignoring her? Let us in on where these emotions are coming from. Characters whose emotions come out of left field are harder for readers to understand.
New Elements at the End
You’ve reached the end of your book. You’ve tied together all of the loose plot threads. You’ve given your character a complete character arc. The book is over. But wait! Maybe there’s not enough going on. Maybe the ending feels flat. Maybe your main character isn’t actually a human after all—maybe she’s a werewolf! Press the pause button here. Although it can be tempting to spice up your ending with a final twist, resist this urge. Introducing something totally new at the end of your manuscript will make your reader feel like they’ve been cheated of a satisfying conclusion.
Too Many Characters
It can be fun to introduce a lot of characters in your book, especially if you’re the type of writer who always has characters swimming around in your head. However, crowding your book with a lot of characters can draw attention away from the core elements of your story. If you find yourself following characters whose actions don’t contribute to the main plot or to our understanding of the main character, pull back and ask yourself if removing these characters will let the other elements of your plot shine through more. You can always repurpose these characters for future books!
Unclear Character Motivations
This may sound obvious, but the backbone of any plot is characters doing stuff. That stuff could be going to the store, starring in a play, building a robot, or taking over the world, but no matter what the “stuff” is, it needs to be motivated by something the character wants or needs. The reader needs to know and understand these motivations to care about your story. So if your character is taking over the world, we need to know why they’re doing this rather than just see them do it. If we see the characters doing stuff without understanding why they’re doing stuff, we won’t feel invested in your story.
Most TV sitcoms have a fairly standard structure. There’s an A-plot, which is the main story we’ll follow, the B-plot, which is a secondary and less prominent story, and sometimes a C-plot, which will have the most minor role. Novels work in a similar way; you can (and should!) have more than one thing happening in your story, but these plots should be prioritized so that the small plots don’t overtake the large ones. If you introduce a lot of side stories, your reader will lose focus on your main plot, and it’ll be even more difficult to tie up all of your plot threads to deliver a satisfying ending.
Characters Without Flaws
Your characters should be multidimensional. What does that mean? It means that your characters should have good and bad qualities. We often see characters, especially love interests, who have no flaws—they get good grades, they’re gorgeous, and they’re the nicest person around. Making your character flawless will not make a reader fall in love with your character faster; in fact, it’s harder to know and love a character who is perfect. Show us the good and the bad sides of your characters, and we’re more likely to swoon for them because they’ll remind us of the (flawed) people we love in real life.
Let’s clarify something upfront with this one. There’s a big difference between unlikeable characters and unsympathetic characters. Unlikeable characters can be really interesting to explore in fiction; they give you an opportunity to tackle difficult topics and write the challenging and often compelling voice of someone you may not like. However, beware making your characters unsympathetic. Even if your character isn’t likable, we should be able to sympathize with and understand their decisions so that they hold our attention and keep us reading.
We hope that all of this food for thought will make a nice feast for your next revision. You have the power to make your story amazing—now go wow us in Season 10!
Earlier Open Edit Letters can be found through the following links: