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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!