Congratulations Submission #6!

For the next contest, submit your manuscript by Friday, November 9!

This week’s winner is a manuscript for middle-grade readers. To ensure the author’s anonymity, I have replaced each character name with a pseudonym.

Congratulations Submission #6!

Image

Synopsis:

Sam is four years old when he first feels it—a humming in his stomach that happens when he reads books. As he grows older, the grumblings occur more frequently, and he finally confides in his mother when he is six. Smiling, she hands him a cookbook, and tells Sam to ask the book a question—and to Sam’s surprise, he can feel the book’s reply humming in his stomach. With the help of his mother, Sam learns he inherited her ability to communicate with books. When Sam is nine, his mother mysteriously disappears. Three and a half years later, Sam’s father has exiled himself to the bedroom, leaving Sam to take care of the house.  But one day, when Sam’s library card is stolen by a strange man who vanishes into a cloud at the local library, he is led into the world of the Book District, where librarians protect alchemists like his mother from “collectors” who covet books and don’t share them with anyone. With the help of a drunk, ex-library police officer who was responsible for protecting his mother, Sam tries to find his mother before it’s too late.

Gold Stars:

We all love magic (or at least I do, and I blame fairytales and Disney movies) but I’m sure I won’t be the first to admit that I’m tired of genre fiction about vampires, werewolves, and wizards. One of the most successful things about this manuscript is that it channels the irresistible energy of a secret magic world that exists just beyond our perception with originality and creative wit. The author reveals that all libraries are built on portals that lead to the Well of imagination, books “speak to your core” if you listen, and that a battle is raging between alchemists and collectors that most people are completely ignorant of. The fact that this manuscript layers the conflicts of the Book District’s world on top of reality instead of completely displacing it will harness the imagination of young readers, challenging their perspective and engaging them beyond the space of the book. This tactic is seen with Harry Potter, which allows young readers to suspend the belief that Hogwarts really does exist, even if they know it’s not true.

I was very impressed with how well the author crafted the opening of this manuscript. One of the most common mistakes authors make with novels is overloading the beginning with information. Especially with an entirely fictitious world, this manuscript has a lot of back story to cover, but the author does an excellent job at ensuring it unfolds slowly. With the dexterity of someone who acknowledges the show-not-tell golden principle of writing, the author immediately drops readers into the action without revealing all of the answers. In the third paragraph, the author implicitly references the primary mystery of the manuscript—why Sam and his mother can communicate with books—stating:

On the positive side, the cookbook spoke English. The problem, however, was the book’s thick, haughty French accent, which made keeping up with the instructions challenging.

This is especially effective because the author does not simply say that Sam can hear books, but shows the reader by sharing Sam’s present frustration with the book’s accent.

In the fourth paragraph, the author references the conflict of Sam’s mother’s disappearance indirectly, explaining:

There were still reminders of his mother throughout their house, mostly in the form of green crystals that delicately sat on the sills on the front door, back door, and the door leading to the garage. They’re also above all of the windows and on the fireplace mantle, securing every entrance that someone could invade their home.

These green crystals were supposed to keep Mrs. Jones safe. And they did for many years. Nine wonderful years.

The author then immediately moves onto a past recollection instead of further explaining what exactly happened to Sam’s mother. These indirect references build suspense, and the delayed gratification successfully hooks the reader and leaves them wanting more.

To Revise:

I would encourage the author to focus on creating stronger characterization throughout the revision process. The author should not assume that the reader cares about Sam as much as he does—in order for the reader to react strongly to the conflicts of the plot, the stakes must be high, and readers must truly be invested in Sam’s fate. Although, as a reader, I was both sympathetic to Sam and intrigued by his special abilities, I did not feel like I knew him.

Paul Sweeney said, “You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend,” and in order for the readers to know Sam, the author must get to know him a little better, too. I would encourage the author to spend time interviewing Sam with this questionnaire. Knowing everything about Sam, even the mundane facts that will most likely never be incorporated in the manuscript, will make his character come alive. Knowing more about your characters than you will put in the book will deepen their personalities, which will be implied through dialogue and actions. The author must know exactly what makes Sam tick in order to communicate this with the readers.

Because of the personal and emotional upheaval that accompanies the transition from childhood to becoming a young adult, the most successful middle-grade novels incorporate an internal conflict, as well as an external one. Although this manuscript enjoys a strong plot, the characters must serve as the driving force throughout the novel. I would encourage the author to incorporate certain aspects of a coming-of-age story, and consider what exactly Sam wants. Naturally, he wants his mother to return safely (external conflict), but he also desperately wants to be normal and fit in (internal conflict). I would recommend that the author introduces this internal tension into the story.

I would encourage the author to spend time interviewing not only Sam, but the supporting characters, as well. Sam’s best friend Max should be a round character with specific and identifiable personality traits and his own compelling complexities and internal conflicts that manifest throughout the manuscript. While the author communicates that Max is interested in soccer, he remains largely one-dimensional. Penny, a popular girl who used to be friends with Sam but now bullies him, canalso be further developed.

A vital aspect of characterization is voice, and especially in middle-grade books, an authentic voice is extremely important. One way to further develop this is to use a writing exercise where the author writes himself letters from Sam’s perspective.

I would also recommend that the author raises the tension whenever possible to increase the suspense and adventure of this manuscript. One area where this can be developed is in the period after the stranger steals Sam’s library card and before he disappears in an explosion. The author should develop a sense of foreboding in this scene, maybe having Sam catch a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of his eye, behind a stack of books, but dismiss it thinking it was his fear playing tricks on him. I would also like to see Sam’s mothers cookbooks aware of his mother’s abduction through lines like “Sometimes Sam would catch the books whispering…” It would be nice to see a little more humor in this manuscript, as well.

Marketing:

I believe that the cover art will directly affect book sales, and when the author decides to publish I would strongly recommend that he hires a professional designer. Like with most fiction books, the back cover copy will also be very important, and I would suggest that the author begins to play around with his synopsis and elevator speech.

A word:

Lately, young adult fiction has lost its stigma of being exclusively for children, and many adult readers have come out as closeted YA-book readers. I believe that more writers should experiment with young adult and middle-grade fiction, not only because it is currently enjoying a blossoming market, but because encouraging young people to read is an admirable cause that goes beyond having a story inside you. And besides—you’re bound to get more fan mail from young readers than adult ones!

Thanks to Wise, Ink. for this opportunity!

Advertisements

Response from Winner #1

It was so wonderful to get this response from Winner #1 when I emailed her with the review. I had hoped to contribute something valuable to the writing community, but offering encouragement to not give up on your manuscript and always chase down your dreams was a natural extension, and so much more rewarding than any developmental help I could offer. I was positively beaming, and actually printed it out to hang on my cubicle wall!

Submissions for the next contest will be accepted until this Friday at 6:00 p.m. Please submit, and spread the word!

Image

 

Hanna,

 
Wow!! Thank you so much! Such a positive review! I have been so hard on myself, convinced that it was terrible!! The positive reinforcement is amazing!! Thank you so much. I have been struggling with both Sarah and Jay’s voices. Still not sure how better to differentiate them. I would welcome ideas…
 
Loving this contest. Such a good idea. I don’t have any more comments about the contest at the moment, other than to offer my heartiest thanks. I am a FAN!
 
Thanks again

Contest: Free Editorial Feedback Winner #1

Well, here we are! I would like to genuinely thank everyone for submitting their work. It was an absolute pleasure to read the manuscripts, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in a field with so many talented, passionate people. I am accepting submissions until October 26 for the next editorial feedback contest at writewithhanna@gmail.com!

To ensure the author’s anonymity, I have used only the first initial of the character’s names.

Congratulations Submission #8!

Synopsis:

This manuscript opens in Pompeii, when J— stumbles over the crouched body of S—, a woman he hasn’t seen for ten years, and whom he has loved since he was a boy. She was bending down, caressing the ruts of the ancient road, tracing the grooves of history in the “city-sized graveyard.” Years later, they are married with a seven-year-old son when J— drives his car over a cliff. Readers follow J—’s narrative voice through afterlife “therapy” where he alternates between revisiting scenes from his past and watching his family struggle through their present grief.

Gold Stars:

I was immediately attracted to this manuscript because the author writes like an artist. Her work is compelling not only by the strength of the plot, but in the way she challenges traditional perspective, drawing readers to notice life in unanticipated ways. I loved that J—’s wife is a visual artist, fascinated by “myopic details,” and how her obsession with texture is the first image of the text:

[She] crouched in the middle of a shimmering hot road. Sweaty tourists, cameras slung around their necks like giant all-seeing necklaces, limped past her as she caressed the warm, smooth ruts in the ancient Pompeian street. She might have been rubbing a copper pot in hopes of releasing a genie, her touch gentle and tentative, as if frightened of the magic she might release and the consequences of her discovery.  

S— then points out “small, sparkly, inch-square tile[s] embedded in the stone” called “cats eyes,” whose reflections in the moon’s light were used to guide nighttime travelers. Later that day, J— and S— jump from a cliff side into the “huge swells” of the ocean and swim into a grotto. When they return, J— describes:

The sun seemed to have shifted, emitting a slightly different range of color, as if the Earth had begun spinning in a new direction during our time inside the grotto.

For me, the artistic elongation of these evanescent moments is what made the manuscript. There are authors who are storytellers, and there are others who are artists—and one of the marks of a good artist is to change the way that people experience different elements of life.  Days after reading this manuscript, I found myself unusually aware of the sensation of wood beneath my fingertips, stemming from S—’s description of her grief:

I touch wood obsessively against my bizarre thoughts of doom…. Falling asleep, or in those precious moments before waking, an image or feeling comes – a car crash, a kidnapping, a fire. Some unnamed disaster, fuzzy at the edges of sleep, waking me in panic, heart ferociously trying to escape my chest, like a trapped bird. I reach to the bedside table as if a tiny stroke of its slick, cherry wood surface might calm the chaos wracking my mind.

The author’s ability to create descriptions that linger beyond the space of the page is one of the greatest strengths of this manuscript. I would encourage the author to emphasize these moments in the revision process.

To Revise:

While this manuscript comes to us in strong shape, I would encourage the author to focus specifically on dialogue while revising. There are some moments when S—’s dialogue feels stiff and artificial, and I would like to see her conversations embedded with the same artistic sensibilities that her actions are. Examples include:

“J—? Ohmygod! What are you doing here?” and “Ooh! I just love Pompeii!”

Although I understand that phrases like “ohmygod” and exclamations like “ooh” are common in modern vernacular, they seemed unnatural juxtaposed against the spirited potency of S—’s character.

As a reader, I also wanted more detail about the physicality and tone of the speakers, especially in S—’s first few lines. In communication, it has been found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only), 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds), and 55 percent nonverbal. Including details such as eye movement, shifting weight, facial expressions, and gestures will bring energy into the dialogue. Using J—’s narrative voice to study S—’s facial reactions, and really pay attention to her, is also a way to reveal how she captivates him.

J—’s first conversation with his afterlife therapist offers a thought-provoking perspective of life and death as a cycle, where J—has “been [t]here many times before.” It was a good structural choice. J— will explore the past through the therapy sessions, stimulating the reader by continuously transitioning from past to present. However, although it is important to communicate the facts, I would encourage the author to revise the dialogue, and maybe ease in with the details, leaving more to be revealed in later sessions. I would also encourage the author to focus on emphasizing the therapist’s “grandmotherly” characteristics instead of relaying the necessary facts—sometimes it’s okay to keep the reader guessing a little while longer!

The author should consider revising the first sentence, and completely removing any mention of the phrase “boyhood crush.”

She My boyhood crush crouched in the middle of a shimmering hot road.

Although the reader is only able to witness J—and S— ’s relationship for a brief time, it feels like a deep, adult love that the phrase “boyhood crush” undercuts. Every time it is mentioned it leaves me with a sense of a juvenile, puppy-dog affection, and I believe the story would benefit if the author uses a consistent tone emphasizing that their love was mature and passionate. Readers will have much more empathy for J—’s struggle observing from the afterlife as S— dates her old boyfriend if he is presented as one of S—’s true loves.

Marketing:

From a marketing standpoint, the author has pre-established channels to sell her book, which offers a huge advantage. Her first book was published a few years ago and is a memoir illustrating her own experience as a widow, a “testament to finding the silver lining of grief and loss, to discovering the defibrillator effect of trauma and its power to awaken us into really living.” She also has a blog centered on the same topic, an author’s website, and has spoken about grief and loss. I believe that this fiction manuscript would be a seamless addition to her author platform. Focusing on the same niche audience will expand her reach and establish her in the community. Also, a series of books on similar topics affects sales—because the author is a strong writer, many people who read her first book will most likely be interested in her second.

A word:

As a reader, this manuscript moved me. Utilizing structure strategically can be difficult, but the author used the moon as a central image in her title as well as throughout the text. The moon serves as a good metaphor for the book—because of the moon’s otherworldly quality and the author’s unique way of imagining death through the vehicle of the moon, this manuscript seems like it’s bathed in a metaphoric moonlight, and the romanticized view of life is inspirational. The author’s attention to detail and ability to re-imagine life with fresh eyes elevates this story to the level of art, and allows the reader a glimpse into the narrator’s revelation, “I had sleepwalked through my whole life, only now waking up as a dead man.”

Well done! Keep writing—I’ll be looking to pick up my own copy after publication!

Thanks to Wise, Ink. for this opportunity!

Contest: Free Editorial Feedback Winner #1