by Ramona Richards
Senior Acquisitions Editor, Fiction
When asked what they look for in a manuscript, editors often answer, “A unique voice,” a frustrating answer to any writer. “A unique voice” is hard to define, hard to develop, hard to spot. It borders on trying to define what you like about a particular painting or why you prefer George Clooney to Gerard Butler.
After 30 years in the business, I find myself looking for the manuscript that is not just a unique voice but also surprises me.
Abingdon publishes 20-25 books each year, and I receive at least ten times that many submissions. Competition is stiff, and I read a lot of submissions that are good, that will work in the market, and that have a unique voice. But what makes a manuscript truly shine falls into one of three main categories:
• A distinct approach to a common theme, giving the book an exceptional marketing angle.
• A first page that grabs me by the throat and won’t let go. In other words, once I start reading, I can’t stop.
• A thorough, professional presentation that includes synopsis, marketing plan, comparative titles, bio, etc., which demonstrates that the author views this as a business as well as storytelling opportunity.
And a book that has all three will bounce out of the slush pile as if it were made of helium.
I recently acquired such a book, which looks to be a “sleeper hit” for us. It’s a women’s fiction novel, which deals with grief, loss, and alienation from God. Not a unique theme at all. The voice is first person, laced with humor and a bit snarky. Again, well done, but not unusual.
But the title got my attention, the presentation held it, and the first page grabbed me immediately. The manuscript was finished, which meant I didn’t have to wonder if the author could successfully complete the story. The result was that I contracted The Dog That Talked to God faster than I have any other book. And we had to go back to press on it before its publication date due to the number of back orders.
But, you may ask, how do you make a book distinctive if you’re writing a genre that has stricter guidelines? I buy a lot of those: romantic comedies, romantic suspense, western and historical romances are on the top of my wish list right now.
One way is to make a genre tale stand out is to create characters who are engaging and likeable. Flawed but strong. Someone the reader will want to be like or be friends with. Because plots can be redirected, historical inaccuracies edited, grammar corrected. But if your characters are flat and without merit, no editor in the world will want to spend the time to fix them.
So…surprise me with a character I can root for and enjoy spending time with for the next few days, in a story that hasn’t really been told before, in a way that is truly your own. Then wait for The Call.