Thursday, September 30, 2010


I heard the other day that only one manuscript in ten thousand gets picked up by a publisher and turned into a book. That's a whole lot of doomed aspiration (and, alas, a whole lot of crappy manuscripts), and it got me thinking: what sets the winning effort apart from the 9,999 also-rans?

As it happened, I had just finished up judging my share of a writing contest, and the answer lay right before me.

Entry 1 was neat and tidy and grammatically correct (more or less). Set in a familiar time period, it featured a cynical alpha hero and a feisty young heroine. They squabble, they bicker, they play petty tricks on each other, all in an attempt to disguise Their True Feelings. All the appropriate mechanics are in place: the laws of point-of-view are obeyed with religious fervor, the five senses are celebrated with due consideration, the backstory emerges in well-judged snippets of dialogue. I really, really wanted to like Entry 1.

There was just one problem. It was boring.

Entry 2, on the other hand, was a mess. It dared to take place in a wholly unapproved time and place, and mentioned icky things like God. The hero and heroine hailed from non-European cultures. Grammar and punctuation took a romp on the wild side. The author once -- oh, the horror -- switched her point-of-view character IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE!

I loved it.

So what gives? What made me scribble enthusiastic comments all over the last page of Entry 2, and bite my metaphorical pencil with the effort of bucking up Entry 1? What makes a good read a good read?

For the purposes of a digestible blog post, I'll narrow it down to two things: voice and conflict.

1) Voice. While Entry 1 read smoothly, with serviceable prose and suspenseful scene-endings, it just felt...flat. No wit, no zing, no originality. The usual phrases evoked the usual emotions. I'd read this story a thousand times before, and this one had nothing new to say, as if the author's personality had been smothered under the collective weight of a thousand well-meaning critique groups.

Entry 2, on the other hand, vibrated with energy and humor and wisdom, and breathed genuine life into what might have been a generic character pairing. The author's love for the period and culture burst through all those awkward sentence structures and grammatical miscues, and her use of image and metaphor was occasionally brilliant. Could the manuscript have used another pair of eyes, preferably ones attached to an English major's brain? Sure. But that's not what I mean by voice.

2) Conflict. Entry 1 takes place in a time of war and opens with a fight scene, so you'd think the story would rattle with conflict. You'd be wrong. Good romance feasts on the meat of the forces keeping our couple apart, and in this story, every possible external factor ENCOURAGES them to unite. So why don't they leap straight before the altar and into bed? Oh, blah blah need to be true to myself blah. You know, stuff that plagues the minds of pre-Enlightenment couples during the throes of war. I'm being a little harsh, of course, in order to make a point: Nothing's at stake. These two are just going to keep on bickering for a few hundred pages, denying Their True Feelings and junk, and then get married. A writer with a really brilliant voice could make this interesting, but...see #1 above.

The author of Entry 2, on the other hand, puts all kinds of barriers between her protagonists. They're from different cultures, different classes, different regions. Their goals lie far apart. In order to come together, one or both of them will have to give up everything. Who will it be? How will it come about? I want to know.

Now, I'm not saying that Entry 2 is ready to be shelved in your local bookstore. But if I had to lay my money on one of these two manuscripts to beat the ten-thousand-to-one odds of publication, I'd pick the second.

At least, that's the one I'm rooting for.


  1. I could not agree more with your post! I have judged upwards of 20 contests and have repeatedly encountered just this situation. Where the entry is letter perfect. But dry as dust and lacking in any individuality or, particularly, clear, interesting, unique VOICE. I agree, too, that following all THE RULES can really stifle an author. I've read some great fun entries where the author made mistakes, but captivated me with terrific characters and "life". And I would hazard a guess that editors and agents don't read submissions with a red pen and a Strunk & White by their side. I would bet they are looking for (and their comments usually bear this out) a new and exciting voice who works within the genre tradition but takes some chances!

  2. That's so true, Lise! Mechanics are important, of course, but in the end it's the story that matters.