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Sample: Manuscript Critique

Author of Adult, Young Adult, and Middle Grade Novels

Editorial Summary
Author/Title

General Impression: It’s a long book but it reads fast, first because of the pacing and also because of lots of dialogue, lots of action, and lots of white on the page, which readers like. It falls beautifully into the category that editors and publishers call the “boy books.”  By that they mean books by male authors targeting a primarily male audience that are often action-packed and fast-paced. That said, I think the book will appeal to women, too, and to a general audience, even young adults and teens. One of the major plusses about the book is that it crosses genres. You’ve managed to blend science fiction with mystery/crime/thriller, and books such as this one are what is doing well in today’s market. I see similarities to Dan Brown’s books, but your book is clearly different and not an imitation.

After I finished reading the book the first time, my general impression was of too many characters and also the lack of one main protagonist. I had to sit back and think and then come up with YYYYYY as probably the most central character in the book, other than XXXXXX, your antagonist, and my first thought was that some of the characters needed to be eliminated or consolidated. But after my second and third reading, the characters were much clearer in my mind, and I’m not sure you could cut any out without risking your authenticity. You move from Border Patrol to FBI and from Tucson to Atlanta and from physics to religion and consult many experts, and with a case of such magnitude, I imagine that there would be a host of people involved. So after much thought I don’t recommend changing the number of characters but instead suggest doing some things for differentiation, which I cover below in the character section of this assessment.
You had concerns about chapters, and I actually like the short, snappy chapters and thought that the ones near the end worked well.

Research: Excellent and rings true. Most of it you brought in via dialogue, which is the best way to avoid sounding didactic in your manuscript (ms.) The research and science behind the story reminds me of what Michael Crichton did with Jurassic Park, a book that made science fiction plausible and fascinating. From computer stuff to security to physics, your research is well done or maybe you just know these areas already. Either way, it’s great. Detail is one of the main things that make books come alive, and your book is rich with it.

Plot: Also really good. You have what editors are looking for: a big premise, an unusual hook that I don’t think has been done before. You have the “wow” factor. You also start with seemingly unrelated stories that you later start to intersect beautifully. For the most part, everything makes sense and comes to a satisfying conclusion. There are a few things I didn’t understand, which I’ll list below. Keep in mind, as you read these, that you might think you’ve covered these or you might actually have covered them in the book, but if I haven’t snapped after numerous readings, then your readers may be unclear about some things, too. In fiction, sometimes you can be too subtle (knowing so well, as you do, everything you intended), whereas you really have to spell things out more clearly, aka bonk them on the head with it. You’ve written a complex book, and you might need to spend just a little more time tying up some loose ends for your readers.

First, I never understood the importance of the couple who turned up at ZZZZZZZ’s office building sometimes speaking French. In the end, I know they were involved with TTTTTT and the church, but I don’t know what they were doing that day and why it was important.
Next, I don’t understand how the spirit ZZZZZZ contacted gave him the Swiss bank account numbers that he later gave to Nadine.  In the end, I know she transferred money that way from UUUUUU’s account, but I don’t know how she would know a spirit was going to give the numbers to ZZZZZZ. Are you saying the spirit was one of the bad guys? Even so, the church people don’t believe in contacting the afterlife, and no one in the office knew how ZZZZZZ contacted his spirits anyway.

Third, I have lots of questions about the chip, and most of these I asked in the body of the paper. I think it needs to be made a little clearer than (if this is the case) XXXXXX stole the chip off RRRRRR for the church in the first place, then came back and killed SSSSSSS to get it back, and then disappeared with it apparently in his possession again. Why did he kill SSSSSS anyway? Was it just a show of force or for sport? He could’ve retrieved the chip and not killed him. In the last scene with ZZZZZZZ and the agents, XXXXXX knows that there is only one copy of RRRRRR’s paper and that’s on the chip, but as far as I could tell, no one told him that.

Lastly, when WWWWWW and the agents enter UUUUUU’s office and discover her photo of the church, wouldn’t Alicia tell them then about ’s earlier weird call? And furthermore, if WWWWWW always knew UUUUUU was a member of that church, wouldn’t she have discussed RRRRRR’s call with her? Even out of curiosity? It might work better if she and the agents discover the photo tucked away somewhere in the office and if WWWWWW had never been aware that UUUUUU was so involved in that church.
At the ending, I did have a sense of wanting a little bit more. I do have some thoughts that you can either take or just let them float by:
(1) I wanted a little more about the future possibilities. The work would have had to come out eventually, and it will be duplicated, that sort of thing. Even the chip that XXXXXXX has will eventually lose its value. Especially since ZZZZZZZ was going to come out and tell how he contacted those in the afterlife now, the world was never going to be the same.
(2) I also think that more could be said about who or what was behind the church’s part, in other words, the bigger forces and what would they do next.
You mention both of these things, but I think they bear a little bit more emphasis. Both of these elements heighten the drama at the end and provide a sense of foreboding for the future, and I think they could be ramped up just a notch.
(3) Maybe this is just my female bias, but I wonder about including some kind of love interest for ZZZZZZ, without showing the reader who it is, e.g. have him gaze at a photograph that he kept on his desk and look forward to seeing that special woman soon privately, and then if you changed UUUUUU’s character a bit, you could have it turn out to be her in the end, this woman who also betrayed him. Then you would have another twist and could say something about the irony of it in the end, such as: “He had found a way to peer into the afterlife but hadn’t been able to see into the heart of a known, real, and living woman.” I just love irony and don’t know if anything such as this is necessary, especially in a so-called “boy book,” but just something to think about.
(4) I also think it would be nice to end up with a scene about PPPPPP, since we started with him, and we don’t learn what has happened to him. Especially in light of the death of his partner, I think the reader will want to know. Maybe there could be a final scene of him back in the desert where it all began and now that he knows all that transpired, he’s the one who wonders what will happen next, how the world will respond to what ZZZZZZZ reveals, etc.
(5) I felt that the first chapter (the second one in the book) about UUUUUU and ZZZZZZ made his whole operation seem tawdry, but very soon it is clear that it isn’t tawdry at all and is, in fact, very real. Maybe you could make some changes in that chapter (during the phone call from the client) so that it isn’t represented to be so sleazy.
(6) Some readers might want to know what happened to JJJJJJJ, if he was ever charged, etc.
In the body of the book, I have asked some other questions and asked for clarity in some of the plot points, but you will see these and answer them easily, I think.

Characters: Your descriptions are about the right length and depth, and everyone comes across as real. The dialogue is especially good, in particular the talk between all the law enforcement guys. At points in the book, you go back and give the reader a good amount of detail about a character’s past, but you have interspersed these well, and so they don’t become overwhelming.  The material is interesting, too. The only problem I had was keeping all the “men” straight. You have numerous white males in law enforcement of one kind or another, and for me, during the first read, they began to blur. Maybe having more than one character a female or one who had a distinctive and different way of speaking (a stutter or an accent?) or something else to make him or her stand out would help. Think about this for maybe even a couple of your characters. I also had trouble keeping ZZZZZZ’s office staff straight, especially as you introduced a body-guard type and a receptionist rather late in the game.  Think about consolidating a couple of those characters.

Dialogue: As I already mentioned, the dialogue rings true, and it’s crisp and smart and informative. It advances your story, as it should. My main suggestion is, as I mentioned before, to try to differentiate between the voices of some of the male characters so that they stand out more from each other. Another thing: In some parts of the book, your characters repeatedly address another character by name, especially UUUUU to ZZZZZZ, and I think you need to cut some of that out, because people don’t typically talk that way. I made lots of deletions, as you will see.

Voice and Tone: All good. I think the overall tone of the book is what it should be: direct, male-oriented, little internal dialogue, lots of action, humor, great use of scientific and other detail.

Timing/Pacing: This was a problem area for me, but it is such a small thing and easily corrected. I made notes in the body of the ms. that would remedy the issue. Basically I had a hard time telling how much time had passed. Other than that, the pace of the book works well. You have done a good job with flowing between high points and lower, slower points in the story. It moves well. No one will be bored.

Point of View: You’ve written your book with an omniscient point of view (POV), which means you as narrator are kind of like a God in that you can get inside any character’s head any time you want. This works great in the case of your story, and actually I don’t see how it could be told another way. The only problem comes with flowing from one character’s head to another. Most of the time it works. In the beginning, the POV character changed as chapters ended and began, but after a while there were much more rapid shifts within chapters. These work, too, provided you insert a page break in between them or at the very least, start a new paragraph. I’ve made changes in the body of the text related to this area.

Format: There are many different formats that agents and editors will read. The big stuff to be sure of is double-spacing and large margins (you could increase your top margin to 1.2 or 1.3, however, which would set your header apart from the text a bit more), and the rest is mostly a matter of taste. I do think you need to start each chapter on a new page about a third of the way down the page. All this space is what the editorial staff at a publishing house want so they can make notes on the ms. I went through the book and did eliminate a lot of page breaks, which are only necessary when you are changing scenes or going into the past, deep inside someone’s head, etc., and I also indented your paragraphs. I wrote the header the way I know that editors like it, but honestly you probably could get away with all the formatting the way it was originally. In my opinion, it looks more professional with the changes.

Setting: When you do address the setting, you do it well. I was able to see the desert before me, which is what you want your readers to be able to do. I didn’t have any problem with any of the other descriptions, except that a few were a little wordy and difficult to follow. I made notes of those in the ms.

Title: I personally like the title, ZZZZZZ, and I enjoy titles that are unclear at first and then are explained later in the book, but not everyone does. I had to change the title of my book, Dust of the Butterfly (to The Magic of Ordinary Days), because it was a metaphor, and my agent didn’t like it and couldn’t remember it. I have to confess that I had a hard time remembering ZZZZZZ. You might chose to stick with it, at least for now, but also try to think of some alternatives before one is forced upon you by an agent or publisher. One idea is that if you come up with something more unusual and descriptive for the device, MMMM, you could use that as a title. Everything in the book stems from the development of that device anyway. And yes, I’ve been told that the title of a first book is very important.

Grammar, Punctuation, Word Usage, etc.: This can by no means be considered a copyedit, and as I mentioned to you before, that will be done later by your publishing house. Perfection isn’t needed at this point, just as long as your writing isn’t irritating to read or isn’t so bad as to be offensive. But I did make numerous changes throughout the ms., based on what I do in my books. A lot of editing, even copyediting, is based on opinion and style, and so you may choose to take my suggestions or not.

The main problems I found were use of the passive voice (“he was introduced” vs. “so-and-so introduced him”), some problems with clarity, wordiness, and then some general punctuation issues, commas and semicolons in particular.  Another thing is consistency. If you spell okay one way in the book and then OK in another part, it will eventually be caught by a copyeditor, but these things are easy to fix, especially with Word’s find and replace feature. OK has been the choice of most copyeditors I’ve worked with. The same with all right and alright. Although not necessary, anything you can do, within reason, serves to make your book appear more professional.

I also tried to put in two spaces after the end of each sentence, which is customary. I might have missed some, but I think most are there. Colons are generally used when you are saying something is following. Semicolons separate what could be stand-alone sentences, but they are so related that a semicolon works better. Commas are used between two independent clauses (subject and verb) that could also be sentences but are separated by “and,” “or,” “but,” “because,” or some such. Commas are also used in lists and to set off participles. I also suggested the use of a dash at some points. All of this is pretty nitpicky, and I don’t think much of it will impact the way your book will be received. And as you know, good writing is not perfect and is often filled with run on sentences, sentence fragments and the like.

The other issue is grammar in dialogue. In several places, your character doesn’t speak with proper English usage (e.g. Can I help you? vs. May I help you?), and in some cases I’ve made a change or questioned it. But in real life most people don’t speak the King’s English, and of course you want your characters to sound real. So many of those little items are up to you, depending on how you think your character would speak.

You have changed the font in sections such as when you are writing text messages, phone messages, etc., and I think that’s okay. I do think that the size should be similar to the main body and the type should not be in bold. It’s a little jarring the way it is. I didn’t do anything with those sections, however. I thought maybe you could play with it and see what font works and what you like.

Final Words: This is your book, and one of the reasons we make changes in Track Changes format is so you can see all the changes made and decide which ones work for you. It’s your choice, of course, how much of this advice you want to use to make changes. I think the manuscript looks and reads a little more professional now, but I also think the book is good enough that it would’ve received some serious attention anyway. Congratulations on a job well-done.

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