A deputy blogger here, filling in while my Mum’s enjoying the sun in Guernsey. (I’ve just checked the BBC weather site, and apparently it’s supposed to be sunny there today. Not particularly warm, but sunny.)
I’ve been reading manuscripts for Creme de la Crime for as long as there’ve been Creme de la Crime manuscripts to read, so that seemed the natural thing to write about. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to say what makes a bad submission than what makes a good one, so below are a few thoughts (offered with all the usual provisos about this being only one person’s opinion, etc. etc.) on things that are likely to send a manuscript towards the polite rejection pile.
Opening chapters crammed full of backstory
Some writers find it hard to introduce a new character without giving us a potted biography. The problem with this is that reading it tends to leave me feeling like I’m treading water while waiting for the real story to begin.
Characters’ backstory is often important, but we don’t need it all right at the beginning. I much prefer to plunge into the plot proper, and to be filled in gradually on the background detail as we go along. If it’s handled well, being aware that there’s something we don’t know about a character can add to the tension – and mean that when the revelation finally does come, the reaction is one of excitement at finding out, rather than boredom at more backstory. Readers – and readers of crime fiction in particular – don’t generally mind being kept in suspense and left to figure things out for themselves for a while.
Writers who tell rather than show
One of the reasons it’s so hard to make a gripping opening out of backstory is that it’s very difficult to deliver a lot of background detail without resorting to telling. The dictum ‘show, don’t tell’ has long been a mainstay of creative writing courses, and with good reason. Being told is like watching events unfold from a distance: being shown puts the reader right there in the middle of the action. If a writer has to tell me explicitly that Helen is quick tempered, or that Henry is a lecherous old goat, rather than letting the characters’ words and actions speak for themselves, that’s a sure sign something is missing.
Writers who seem to think I can’t count
Creme asks authors to send the first ten thousand words of their novel, plus a synopsis. I’ve read a lot of submissions over the years, and I have a pretty good idea of what ten thousand words looks like, even if variations in font size and margins mean that’s not always going to be the same number of pages. I’m not going to quibble if an author needs a few hundred extra words to reach a chapter end or another convenient break, but my hackles will start to rise if that few hundred creeps up to a few thousand.
In some cases, it’s fairly obvious that the writer has sneaked in an extra chapter or two because it takes that long to get to the first key plot point, or the first significant female character, or whatever else it is they’re anxious for me to see. Given that this indicates they realize it’s important for this to be included in the submission, this always makes me wonder why they couldn’t also see that maybe it needed to happen earlier. I’m reminded of a man I once met at a party who informed me that the problem with publishers only wanting to see the first ten thousand words was that his novel got better after that. To which I wish I’d replied ‘Well, improve the first ten thousand words, then!’
In brief: a manuscript has ten thousand words in which to impress, and every one of them needs to count. Pack in some strong writing, some sharply drawn characters, and the beginnings of an interesting plot that zips along at a decent pace, and... well, who knows what might happen?