Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
Ask the Book Doctor: What do Acquisitions Editors Really Mean?
Q: Recently a member of my writer's group got a letter back from an acquisitions editor saying that he liked her work but she needs to be careful with "stock romance imagery." We don't know what he means.
A: What a great tip! Without seeing the manuscript, I can only interpret the comment without being specific, but here's my take on it:
Romance novels in the past were famous for incorporating predictable language and images. All the women had slender waists and slender wrists; all the men had rippling muscles. The characters tended to be purely good or all evil. Certain images of the characters, settings, and events became clichés in the romance industry. Today's romance publishers want good novels with unique settings, characters, imagery, conflicts, and resolutions.
Perhaps the manuscript relied on scenes, characters, settings, conflicts, descriptions, or other elements that were once standard in the romance industry, and the publisher would like to see fresh ideas, rather than stale ones.
Q: I got a letter from an acquisitions editor. It's saying a lot, but it's not telling me anything. If you would tell me what you think of the letter below, I would appreciate it.
"It was so lovely to meet you, and I truly enjoyed having the chance to look at [title deleted]. You are a very promising writer, and I can see that you will continue to grow as you hone your craft. Unfortunately, however, I did not fall head over heels in love with the story and the characters in the way I had hoped. Therefore, it is with regret that I have to pass."
A: Most acquisitions editors try not to offend writers, and writers can be sensitive. I also would not want to offend anyone, but you need an honest answer. I could be wrong, but with my knowledge of acquisitions editors, I would interpret the letter sentence by sentence in the following way:
"It was so lovely to meet you, and I truly enjoyed having the chance to look at [title deleted]." = "I met you in person, so I will be more personal to you than I would to someone I have not met."
"You are a very promising writer, and I can see that you will continue to grow as you hone your craft." = "When I say promising, I mean you show promise, but your writing is not quite marketable, yet. You are not as bad as some of the writers I have seen, but you have more to learn, so keep educating yourself about writing."
"Unfortunately, however, I did not fall head over heels in love with the story and the characters in the way I had hoped." = "The story did not captivate me. It did not capture my attention. I did not hold my breath to find out where it might lead, and I did not identify with the characters. The plot must be stronger and more compelling, to make me care what happens next, and the characters need to be more developed, so I care what happens to them."
"Therefore, it is with regret that I have to pass." = "The manuscript does not meet my criteria."
Agents must absolutely love a manuscript to represent it. When agents are passionate about the manuscripts they represent, they have a much higher success rate. They get paid only when they sell a manuscript, so they represent only what they love and feel passionate about.
Sometimes a letter like the one above means only that the manuscript has not reached the right acquisitions editor or agent yet; and that the right person will, indeed, fall in love with the story and the characters. Here are your choices:
- You can take classes, read, learn, and practice developing characters and strengthening plots, after which you can rewrite the manuscript using your newly gained knowledge. Get feedback from peers and/or from a professional editor, give the manuscript a final polish, and submit it to the same acquisitions editor as well as others.
- You can take classes, read, learn, and practice developing characters and strengthening plots, put the first manuscript in a drawer, call it a learning experience, and begin a new manuscript incorporating all the new things you have learned about creative writing.
- You can decide you don't want to learn any more about the craft and simply send the manuscript as is to twenty or thirty other places and see if anyone else loves it.
- You can decide you don't want to learn more and put the manuscript in a drawer.
Because good writers never stop honing their craft, I suggest following one of the first two paths, rather than last two. Writing a book-length manuscript takes a long, long time, and once we finish, human nature makes us not want to go back and work more on a manuscript we thought was finished. We have other projects in mind and want to move on. Only you can decide if you have the stamina to go back and work on the first manuscript or chalk it up to experience and move on to a new one, incorporating all that you have learned. I have heard it said that our first novel is simply practice, and as we get better, we have a greater chance of selling our second and future manuscripts. I have heard that said, but I also hear of authors who sell their first manuscripts, too. Never give up!
-- Do you have a question for Bobbie Christmas, book doctor? For a personal response, e-mail Bobbie Christmas at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas is the author of Write in Style, the triple-award-winning textbook on creative writing and owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at http://zebraeditor.com/, or e-mail her at the address above. Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on "Free Newsletter."