Thursday, September 4, 2014

"It's Not Quite There."

In response to a manuscript I once submitted to an agent, I received the following reply: "It's not quite there." The agent was polite. The note was even handwritten, which I appreciated. However, as I sat and reread those words, I wondered what my story needed to be "all the way there" instead of not quite there. The problem was, I'd already spent so many hours with my characters and their predicament that I could no longer view my own pages objectively.

After that experience, another writer requested that I take a look at part of a manuscript and give some frank feedback. (By the way, only frank feedback is helpful. Feedback that praises the writer when the quality is lacking actually hurts the writer by instilling false confidence and misleading him or her.) As I read the pages, I truly wanted to tell my acquaintance, "This is great. Keep up the good work!" Instead, the words that came to mind were "It's not quite there." And I understood what the agent meant about my own story.

You see, the draft I was reading simply lacked polish. At times the heroine did things that didn't make sense based on what the story revealed about her. She was also a bit of a cardboard cutout rather than coming across like a real person. For the most part, the grammar and punctuation were okay even if not stellar. Yet, sentence by sentence the story simply unfolded in a straightforward way from Point A to Point Z. There were no clever plays on words. No irony. No red herrings to keep the reader intrigued. The setting descriptions also lacked pizazz. Sure, there were descriptions of locale, so I knew where the heroine was. But those locations didn't come alive. There were sights and sounds, but little or no sense of smell, of taste, or touch.

In other words, as I proofed this manuscript, it certainly was complete as far solving the mystery and uniting the boy and girl. But was the tale polished to the point where a publisher would say, "We'll offer you a contract for this"? Regrettably, no. The story wasn't quite there.

With the input of a professional writing coach, I attacked my story with hammer and chisel. I knocked off rough portions I'd left in the story, injected fresh elements where needed, then grabbed sandpaper and started polishing. The end result is an improved manuscript that caught the eye of a literary agent. Now she is shopping that story to publishers.

What's my point? Try to scrutinize your own words with a professional eye, not with your author's eyes. Step back. Be objective. Compare your style, your phrasing, your everything to the writing of your favorite authors. When you can see why your story is "not quite there," you will have taken the first step toward improving it!


  1. Excellent post, Rick. We get so buried in our writing it's hard to see what is and isn't working sometimes. I had some beta readers for my first book and most of the feedback was "I like it." Nice, but not helpful at all!

    1. Thanks Tom. It can be scary--or discouraging--to compare our own written words to the prose of pros. But it can be a helpful eye-opener too. We can set the bar too low if we don't.