Your first pages – 5 manuscripts critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @AgentPete @AJ_Dickenson and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson, ITV reporter and YA author.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission.

This week’s edition had a range of genres. Speculative fiction, fantasy, sweet romance, contemporary and – a new one on me – Martini-flavoured spy thriller in a grounded steampunk world.

Have you heard of that? I hadn’t. But it turned out to be an accurate description.

As always, the manuscripts had many strengths. They were fluently written and thoroughly realised. The authors often had solid track records in other areas of writing. But how did they do as novelists, and were these submissions ready to wow an agent or publisher?

There were several issues we discussed.

Titles – Some titles suggested the wrong genre. Or weren’t memorable enough. Or didn’t catch the spirit of the text. Some hit exactly the right notes, but even so, the chatroom audience still had questions, worrying about whether the word order could be switched for more oomph.

Blurbs – Blurb-writing is a dark art of its own, and mostly loathed, but whenever you present a manuscript, you have to write a short summary. Some blurbs hit just the right notes, promising plenty of the kind of action that would appeal to readers of that genre. Some gave too much, so the reader was confused by the end. Some gave far too little – a vivid moment from the action, but no indication of the overall trajectory of the book, whether it would be personal essays that dwelt in the moment or a bigger arc, perhaps of tragedy, perhaps of healing. It’s so interesting to learn what the reader needs from that one, agonising paragraph.

Beats of action – one of the openings had an interesting incident, but was cluttered by another incident that took too much of our attention before switching to the important character. At the start of a novel, the reader is so adrift, they are easily overloaded.

Purpose and lack of purpose – one of the manuscripts had a vivid setting with one character observing another. But somehow the narrative lacked purpose – we didn’t know what the protagonist was there to do. This made the narrative hard to understand.

Starting at the wrong moment – two of the manuscripts were trying to front-load a lot of explanation and back story, but had done it in scenes that were not intrinsically interesting.

Developing a writing voice – this wasn’t a problem in any of the manuscripts we examined. All flowed beautifully in styles that seemed natural to the writer and suitable for their chosen genre. But Peter, as an agent, and also as Head Lit of Litopia, sees a lot of manuscripts that lack these qualities, so we spent one segment of the show discussing the elusive ‘it’ factor – how do you find your own writing voice?

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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