Thoughts from the Intern Slush Pile: Common Issues

Photo credit: Klaus M on Flickr
So as some of you who follow me on Twitter know, I semi-recently became an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. Yay! The experience has been completely wonderful so far and I’m loving it.

What most of you don’t know is this is actually my second internship. My first was at a literary agency, and that was awesome. My job during both internships has been basically the same: reading and evaluating submitted manuscripts or partials and writing up reports for each.

Both internships have been wonderful experiences and I’ve learned a lot from each—particularly about what makes a good opening.

I’ve found that 75% of the time, I can tell within the first fifty pages whether I’m going to recommend a rejection, R&R or acceptance. There have been a couple instances where I was able to tell within the first ten pages, but I always read the first fifty just in case.

So all of that said, here are five common issues I’ve seen that tend to lead to my putting the manuscript down after the first fifty pages:
  1. Too much telling. I see this all the time. All. The. Time. And I get why—it can be pretty tough to learn how to spot and fix overtelling. But 9/10 times, when I see an overabundance of telling, the MS also has other issues that are a sign of a new writer or manuscript that needs more work.

  2. Too much (or not enough) explaining. The thing with backstory, is there has to be a balance. Too much backstory and the plot drags and the readers become overwhelmed—too little and we don’t understand what’s going on or why things or important or what all these terms mean, etc. Both are problematic.

  3. Flat voice/characters. Like many aspects of writing, this one is pretty subjective. To me, a flat voice or character is one that doesn’t stand out. If I don’t find a voice or protagonist memorable, it’s not necessarily an insta-killer, but combined with other issues and I’m likely to put it down. Conversely, if a manuscript has a fantastic voice or really interesting protagonist, but also has other issues, I’m more likely to fight for it.

    Related to this is a voice that doesn’t sound right for it’s age group. I read a lot of YA submissions, so this commonly means a voice that doesn’t sound like a teenager, but like an adult trying to sound like a teenager—and this is more likely to be a killer than a less than memorable protagonist. The best remedy for this, is to read a lot of YA. Loads and loads of it. It’ll help, I promise.

  4. Stiff/unrealistic dialogue. Bad dialogue makes me cringe, which isn’t really a reaction I want to be having while reading. Like part of the last point, this isn’t an insta-rejection point (unless it’s consistently really not good), but combined with other issues and it definitely factors in. (Related: here's a post on writing realistic dialogue). 

  5. Not enough happening. Unfortunately plot issues like this are a big deal. If I reach page fifty and I still don’t know where the story is going, it’s an enormous red flag. In an average manuscript, fifty pages is around 20% of a novel, give or take. By 20%, the inciting incident should have definitely happened, and the point of no return should be hinted at, if not already passed.

    For me, page fifty is my evaluation point. It’s when I take stock of my reactions of the manuscript thus far and decide what decision I’m leaning towards. If nothing significant has happened by then, chances are I’m going to be leaning toward a rejection, which makes everyone (including me) sad.
So what can you do to make sure these aren’t issues in your manuscript? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—find excellent critique partners and beta readers. Evaluating your own manuscript is tough, and outside feedback can definitely help point you in the right direction when time comes to edit.

So those are my interning observations, now I want to hear from you: what makes you put a book down when reading? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Editorial intern @Ava_Jae shares some common issues seen in the slush pile. #pubtip (Click to tweet
Intern @Ava_Jae talks the importance of the first 50 pages & common issues. Do you have these problems in your MS? (Click to tweet)


Leandra said...

These are good things to know, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Flat characters make me put a book down the quickest, I think. I want to either be smiling at something they've said, or be angry on their behalf, or be feeling sad for them at what they're going through. If none of that is happening, it makes it hard for me to continue on.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Leandra! Flat characters are definitely a major issue. If you don't connect with the characters, why would you want to read 200+ pages about them?

Mara Delgado said...

Great post! I agree with you on all counts. Flat characters pull me out. And that last point too; I usually start looking for the place where the book should start. Another thing that drives me nuts is over description. Does the exact number of dust bunnies in your room add to the plot? No? Then cut it. It slows the story down and the reader wants to be involved.

P.J. Bergman said...

Really interesting article. It's often difficult to spot these things in your own writing, even if they are really obvious to others. I've just posted the first chapter of my novel The Locked Room - if you have the time would you be kind enough to see if any of these points appear in the first page or two? It would be hugely useful and really appreciated. If not no worries.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Mara! That's a great point about finding the right place to start—it can be difficult to figure out, but starting in the wrong place can definitely throw off a manuscript.

Over-describing or flowery language (which often comes with over-describing) can definitely weigh down the writing, too.

Ava Jae said...

Hello, PJ! Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to look over your work (though I wish I could!), but I do have some suggestions.

You're totally right that it's difficult to spot those issues in your own writing, which is why critique partners are so very important. If you don't already have some, here's a post on 5 places to find them.

Optionally, today there's an auction I donated a query + first five page critique on this blog. All proceeds go to RAINN, which is a wonderful organization. The auction only runs today, though.

Finally, I may be running more Fixing the First Page critiques, in which case if you keep an eye on the blog, I'll have giveaways in the future for the first 250 words to be critiqued publicly.

I hope this helps and I wish you all the best with your writing!

Tricia said...

Great post. Thanks Ava
Jae for pointing these things out. I often find some of these problems in my
work and so I'm glad you brought it up. I was writing a YA fiction about 2
years ago that had problem 5 which is probably why I kind of let it sit and simmer.
I've been writing more and trying to read more though. I hope that helps,
especially since I'm working on a new project these days.

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