Manuscript critique services
The three primary reasons you want to hire a book editor for a manuscript critique and evaluation:
You want to know:
1) Is it salable?
2) Is it good enough to offer to a literary agent or publisher?
3) Should you go through the expense of a line edit?
What I study in a manuscript evaluation / book critique
No critique can ensure a sale, that an agent or traditional publisher will contract it, nor if readers will like the story.
The object of a critique is to turn up the issues in a manuscript that could make readers or agents reject it, and what should be done to fix those.
A manuscript evaluation or critique points out the right direction to take that will make the story solid, with all the writing craft conventions working as they should, which gives the author confidence in going forward.
Evaluator as cost guide
Evaluations/critiques often result in the writer rewriting many small or lengthy portions of the story, which can add or reduce the cost of a per-word line edit.
It is very possible a critique will uncover serious flaws that should be addressed before you move forward with the manuscript.
The editor doing the manuscript evaluation will know your writing style and will be the best person to help you make a decision for a full line edit. I will tell you when I don’t think you should spend the money.
Being a beta reader for my writers
I approach book evaluations/critiques much like beta readers or post-publication readers, I might know a little more about what I’m going to read than what’s in the book description or jacket copy, but not much.
I don’t want to know any more than anyone else who will be reading it for the first time, otherwise, I’ll assume the data is in the book, and miss the fact it’s not.
The big difference with me doing a manuscript evaluation, as opposed to beta readers, is that I know specifically what to look for to make the story show off the way you “read” it in your head.
The 6 major subjects considered in an evaluation—structure, flow, plot, characters, POV, and words
Not every manuscript has issues with all of these. Most have two or three, though.
I have “borrowed” Larry Brooks’ “4 Parts of a Story” in Story Engineering, and my own understanding of structure to come up with a mathematical breakdown (by word count) of many of the manuscripts that come to me to read, either as standalone critiques or as part of the line-editing job (which in my case includes a critique).
The end result is to make sure the story’s high points and its data points “hit their marks” at the right places, or within reason of the right places, where the 4 Parts break in the manuscript.
The breakdown shows me immediately if chapters have roughly even word counts or are all over the place—which doesn’t generally make for good comprehension. Readers can get comfortable with short chapters, then get anxious when chapters seem unending, then are startled when a little one throws off the pace again.
Does the author have enough chapters for the book’s word count? A comfortable length for a chapter is between 2500-3500 words. If the total word count is around 120K, and there are only eight chapters, I will be on the lookout for places to create more chapter breaks; conversely, if it has seventy-five chapters, I’ll probably be thinking of putting several together.
I can do both computations with word count in my mathematical guide before I begin the read.
If I find there are long word-count chapters in the middle, chances are the story is bogged down, wandering, full of unnecessary data, and tension has disappeared. Not always, of course, but it’s what I’ll be prepared for.
Genres and structure
This breakdown is simply a guide. No manuscript is the same as another; genres play a part in word count, structure, and flow. If the story is a long, leisurely stroll through the Old South with low-hanging live oaks and cotton fields as the background for a romance, chapters can be slow, and word count longer, too. If the story is a fast-draw Western shoot-’em-up or a punchy PI sleuth, short, tense chapters with fewer words work better.
Flow is about the timing of the chapters. Most books are written in a chronological way, beginning to end. There are the occasional stories that need to go out of that sequence to go backward or forward in time, but it’s clear when there’s a purpose for that.
I’ve come across many manuscripts in which the author seems to have written the chapters as little standalone stories with no relation to anything else going on until much later in the book. Sometimes this is because the author is introducing new characters; that’s fine at the beginning, but not, generally, in the middle and then plunked in at any old place that seems to feel good to the author.
I’ve more than once had to physically lay out chapters on my desk to “see” which chapters go where and then reshuffle them to get them all into a reasonable chapter flow (and of course discussed this with the author).
Dialogue and action per character must go together. Flow (and comprehension) is destroyed if you start a paragraph with Pete saying something and it’s John’s action that follows in the same paragraph.
You also need to know when dialogue ends and narrative begins. Usually not in the same paragraph.
Long, drawn-out, never-ending paragraphs also mess up flow.
Plot has many definitions, as I’m sure you’d find if you look it up on Google, or any good book on writing.
Just a hint with me: If the opening of the book is all “tell,” I’m going to be miserable. If it opens with all action and no chance to know why someone is shooting someone else dead, I might lose interest very fast.
The Goldilocks opening for me is something happening to a character at that moment in the character’s life that blossoms into braids of backstory and plenty of forward movement.
To me, every time I read a manuscript, I start with the question: “Why am I reading this?” Which needs to change soon (as in the first quarter) to “Ah, this is why I’m reading this; this is the problem that will need to be answered/solved.”
This is the goal: Solve the problem. What are the stakes for the protagonist/main character if s/he fails to solve it? I need to have a solid hint of the problem at least by the end of the first quarter or I’ll already know the book will need a lot of work.
And, at the end: “So, was that a good solution to the problem?”
The plot, to me, is made up of the facts and scenes (which include plot points) you’ve put the facts in, in the world you created to make your story. I pay attention to the facts of both the real world and the story world.
If a “real world” story messes up, bends, or ignores real-world facts, it won’t work. Examples: The CIA is not chartered to work in the USA. One’s hero cannot get from Austin, TX via horseback to Dallas, TX in four hours. There have been no 10.0 on-the-Richter-scale earthquakes anywhere (not that this wouldn’t make an exciting “future” story). A full moon does not happen at any old time during a month.
If your story takes place in an imaginary world and the facts are created just when needed—such as a character suddenly developing a magical ability not seen or heard before—it’s a plot device (deus ex machina) I’ll flag. If the ending has a “twist” that comes out of the blue with no relationship to what’s gone before, or a new character is suddenly introduced at the 11th hour to make the twist work, it’ll be the first thing I’ll tell the writer about in the critique report as a no-no.
Why facts are important
If facts are missing I’ll be confused, and I’ll search through the entire document, keying on certain words until I know where they are missing and where new data should be inserted.
If facts come too late, this creates an issue with improper flow; not just paragraphs, but sometimes whole chapters will need to be rearranged, which I’ll work with you to get straight.
A manuscript critique is not just about what’s wrong, but how to make it right, too.
I look for layered/multiple plots, but as they are the most complicated to carry out, few writers take them on. Some stories don’t lend themselves to it; coming-of-age studies, for instance, as those are usually severely restricted point-of-view (POV) works.
Science fiction and fantasy, though, are rich flower beds for growing three, four, or five plots, but there always has to be one central issue kept at the forefront and if it isn’t solved at the end, even if the story is a series, the story will need to be reworked.
The protagonist’s role
Last but not least regarding the plot, if your protagonist/main character/hero(ine) is not the one who saves the day the ending should be rewritten.
Two issues with incorrect use of protagonists
If the protagonist turns out to do nothing in the story (and you’d be surprised how many don’t), the book must have an overhaul; there’s more wrong with it than that.
How does that happen? One of two things could be going on: The author has his main character directing/orchestrating what everyone does to foil the antagonist but doesn’t get his/her own hands dirty, as it were.
The main character can take credit for figuring out the good guys need to be at the burning barn, but doesn’t physically do much beyond “think” it up; another character runs into the burning barn to save the damsel inside. That character is the hero, hence the need for a rewrite.
The author has two stories going in one: One has the main character trying to figure out what the antagonist is up to and, at the same time, is showing the reader what the antagonist is up to.
This looks deceivingly full. What the author does not realize is that, if all the chapters devoted to showing what the bad guys are doing are removed, we can see that the protagonist never learns anything, never solves anything, and has to rely on someone else to bring an end to the antagonist’s plan.
There is more latitude with characters than with structure, flow, and plots. They are purely the author’s creations. The important thing is that the author has taken the time to know them, right down to what color socks the guy would wear, and why a woman might take a big dislike to a man who’s shorter than she is. Don’t over-complicate them and don’t allow them to be dull, is my rule of thumb as I read.
I can and have taken a dislike to characters, ones I am not necessarily supposed to, so be careful of going too far astray with any of them. Your readers should want the antagonist booted out of the picture, but not the protagonist. For instance, when the good-guy cop protagonist happens to harbor a simmering dislike of women. (Yes, true example. Author didn’t know that was showing.)
Characters’ bad habits and reasons-for-being
I often point out that a character has a bad habit of doing x or x or x, which is something the author hasn’t noticed; he or she has simply gotten repetitive in description or dialogue.
Find names that fit the character; don’t name a girl in a wheelchair Willow, or name a hateful serial killer Rosie. Names matter.
Make sure there’s a reason for every character in your story. Each one must do something to move the plot, or there’s no reason for him or her or it (the weather, a house, an animal, a car, a river or lake, a supernatural being . . . .).
Characters who visit
It’s true that characters drop in and say hello to authors and ask to be put into their stories. The authors don’t have to say yes, but some turn out to be great visitors who should stay.
Characters are only as real as they speak. An Irish barmaid is not going to sound the same as a New York City longshoreman. Ditto a Frenchman and a US New Englander. A mother driving her kids to soccer practice is not going to (normally, though of course can) cuss up a blue streak like street gangs in LA urging each other to a fight.
Men don’t think like women, so their conversation shouldn’t sound alike. This, in my opinion and experience, is one of the biggest mistakes writers make when it comes to dialogue: Men sound — and think, and act — too much like women; rarely is it the other way around.
Point of view
The big bogie when writing characters focuses on point of view, about which I’m not so open, nor do I give it much latitude. POV is critical. Deciding which one you write from makes no difference to me, as long as you stick to it and the writing conventions that pertain to it.
No, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too
There is a whole lot of laziness going on out in the world today when it comes to having your POVs any way you want them.
You want the personal immediacy of first-person POV, but can’t figure out how to know what the antagonist is up to? Well, hey, today, writers are just throwing in one, two, three more characters who have first-person POVs, and if that’s not enough, what’s the problem with creating third-person POV characters, too? All in the same book? It is certainly convenient. No confining silliness about making sure the “I” protagonist is actually anywhere near seeing, hearing, discovering, etc., all the information he or she needs to solve whatever mystery is in front of him or her.
I will fault a manuscript because of multiple first person POVs, and if an author is thinking to do this, I’d suggest that that’s why the conventions allow for “limited” omniscient third person POV, aka, deep POV. That gives readers the sense of intimacy and credibility, but there’s a wider view so more characters can know more of what’s going on, giving you more flexibility to the plot.
Control your POVs
A more common POV difficulty pertains to slipping in the odd thought from a character we shouldn’t hear at that point in the story. There has to be control of whose eyes we’re seeing the story through, even in wide-open God-like view.
If a chapter or mini-chapter opens with Jane speaking and thinking, we cannot know what Tom (or worse yet, Dick and Harry and Thelma and Louise) is thinking (especially in the same paragraph as one Jane is having thoughts in!) even if he’s in the scene, until we are in his/their sections.
A critique will reveal these problems; a line-edit will fix them.
It might sound absurdly obvious, but words can make or break a book. Just like characters (who have to exist for a reason), there has to be a reason for the words in your story. This is also called style or voice, but to me, it all adds up to words.
• Is the book bloated with ly adverbs?
• Do hundreds of sentences include “that” too much?
• Are there often more than three phrases separated by commas in successive sentences, making them overly convoluted?
• Are sentences passive-speak or action-oriented?
• Are there two thousand unnecessary taglines?
• Are there repetitive phrases or issues a character uses or gnaws on? Quirks are one thing, never-ending worrying is annoying. Captain Queeg’s constantly working the silver balls was a “tell”; a protagonist who laments over and over and over, “What should I do?” is boring.
Overwriting equals lines like this: “He nodded his head to show he was acquiescing to the agreement that his partner had just proposed.” How it should read? “He nodded.”
Make sure your words exist in the time period of the story, or can’t exist in the land of a story. If you’re writing a contemporary story taking place anywhere on Earth, you likely won’t have a problem with either.
If you’re writing a period piece that takes place in Rome, for instance, there are many words you can’t use as they hadn’t come into any language yet. Taking license is fine, but don’t throw in obvious impossible words like “okay,” just like you’re unlikely to dress your characters in bikinis or tuxedos.
If your story takes place on a totally different planet, remember: the dirt or land isn’t going to be called “earth.” And “okay” is out there, too.
How many words should a book have? The $64,000 question. Depends on the genre, of course, but: As many as it needs, lol. But not more.
And how do you know if it has more than it needs? When there isn’t any tension.
Tension is critical in any story and comes from the style of writing, which is affected by chapter length and correct paragraphing and precise verb use, and not overwriting, as I’ve said above.
Bogging down in the middle of the book? Tension’s probably sagging, too. Interest in reading is likely waning. Where’s the conflict in words that’re just words that don’t grab and hold attention, that are just going on and on and on, where the point seems to be missing?
Long passages that seem irrelevant to the plot probably are. “Filling out a character or a setting” isn’t a good enough reason to lose the focus of the story with extraneous words, words, words.
No two manuscripts are ever the same, nor is my response. I look forward to getting yours, whether standalone, or as an integral part of a line edit.
THEODORA BRYANT offers developmental editing for romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery novels. Her authors have won awards in science fiction, mystery, and romance categories.