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Knowing A Good Novel Manuscript From A Bad One, by Phillipa Fioretti

I entered the manuscript for The Book of Love in the 2008 Hachette/QWC Manuscript Development Program. You could submit as many manuscripts as you liked, so I also entered another.  One got through, the other didn’t. Why?

The Hachette publisher later told me that, although the characters were strong, ‘she knew what was going to happen’ in the unsuccessful manuscript. I put that manuscript away and got on with developing and publishing The Book of Love.

I recently revisited the unsuccessful manuscript and I can see a lot of problems. It reads as a string of scenes, one scene meanders on to the next with no tension building within each scene, within each chapter or within the story overall. The characters are predictable in every respect and, while this manuscript had its fans among friends and beta readers, it’s so far from being publishable it may not be worth the effort of developing it.

What distinguished the successful manuscript from the unsuccesful one was better structure, more mystery and elements of uncertainty, characters with both external and internal conflict and a general overall tightness. The key difference, to my eyes, is that with the succesful manuscript, the reader is plunged into mystery and conflict in the first three pages and the strong characters, unwillingly thrown together, take it from there.

Unknown factors and sheer dumb luck all play a part in getting a manuscript to the starting gate, but good strong beginnings help. Dumping backstory in those first chapters is a turn off. A steady drip of backstory over the first half of the novel is better. In genre fiction it’s action, dialogue and atmosphere, not exposition, monologues, ponderings and general slabs of word that slow the narrative down where you don’t want it to be slow. Now I find when editing that if I’m skimming an area in the manuscript because it’s a little tedious although necessary, then the reader is going to skim it too and I’ve lost them.

The middle of a novel is a bleak minefield full of menace, you can’t sit back and think your strong beginning and brilliant ending is going to suffice. Keep the action, the tension and the uncertainty. Raise the stakes for your characters. Chuck a few more obstacles at them and keep that reader in bed turning the pages. Above all, be ruthless. Don’t fret about losing twenty thousand of your lovely words. If they don’t work, they don’t work. Cut, cut and cut again. Words are very easily thrown away and all writing is practise, even if it never becomes product.

To have a chance of getting through the publishing eye of the needle you have to pay attention, be rigorous in all matters structural while making it look elegant and natural, and learn to love your delete button. Most importantly you have to imagine a reader with a thousand other claims on their time, and set about structuring an intriguing story that will keep them where you want them – in bed with your book turning pages, eyes wide, biscuit halfway to their mouth and, in their mind, a fervent wish that the book will never end.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Stillwater CreekRotten GodsWings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia


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