I Was A Freelance Manuscript Reader

Thea Devine here, with a true confession:  Long ago in a publishing landscape far away (and over the course of the next twenty-five years),  I read manuscripts for several mass market publishing houses, back before electronic transmissions, back when we were writing 500 pp. books on real paper.

I read historical and contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women’s fiction, mysteries, sagas, fiction for reprint, and non-fiction, agented and slush.  And I assure you every proposal was looked at, no matter what form it arrived in — single spaced, cursive font, unchaptered, block paragraphs, handwritten, buried in popcorn. strangled in rubber bands.

And there were always manuscripts;  just the number of conferences across the country on a weekly basis assured that.  But after National — the deluge.

During those years, I never had an editor tell me what to look for, what they didn’t want to see.  Nothing was culled before it landed on the reader’s shelf.

But really — it was always about the story.  Those grab and go opening pages still grab editors..  And they really do know it when they see it..

But what the editor told me when she hired me was, don’t be afraid to be wrong.

Think about that.   Don’t be afraid to be wrong.  Because what if you passed up another Gone With The Wind or DaVInci Code?  What if the manuscript you loved was shot down and rejected by the editor and then became a best-seller for another publisher? (It happened).  What  if … in the fragile world of publishing as it was then, and is now, so dependent on the subjective opinion of reader and editor.

Don’t be afraid of rejection.  Because the editor could be wrong.  And if the editor could be wrong, then a rejection doesn’t t mean you wrote the worst book ever.  It just means this book didn’t move the editor or it didn’t fit into a particular marketing slot.

That still holds true.  The market itself will judge a book, in this new publishing milieu, if not an editor in a publishing house.   All you can do is write.

Some writing secrets from the reader:

It’s the story. It’s always been the story.  It’s how you get into the story.  Get your characters moving.  Make sure the inciting incident is critical, grabs the reader, and requires your characters to do something.

Conflict.   Your protagonists can’t want the same things (his family stole her family’s business;  she wants to get it back; he wants to give it back), even though they can want the same thing (an object of desire — like the Grail in Indy 3).

Pile it on.  The more obstructions, obstacles and problems you present your protagonists, the harder it will be for an editor — or reader — to put your manuscript down.

Grammar counts.  Sorry.  No dangling participles.  Subject and verb must agree.  A line edit takes forever on a manuscript that needs a lot of work.

Motivation.  Why exactly did your heroine go into the burning mine when everyone specifically cautioned her not to?  There are always reasons why your characters do what they do. Make sure your reader buys into it.

Make sure the ending holds up after all the build up.

Have you ever been rejected?  How did you handle it?  Do you think a publisher using readers is a good thing or bad?

13 thoughts on “I Was A Freelance Manuscript Reader”

  1. All excellent advice, Thea. You have so much writing wisdom and you really know how to impart those nuggets that every writer should know. Thank you so much. As for rejection, I never took it personally, but I won’t repeatedly engage in something that isn’t working. After fifty or so rejections, I analysed the feedback, improved on the skills that were lacking, and realized that my stories would never “quite fit” what A/E were looking for. I could have altered my writing style and changed my stories to fit the traditional model, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to be true to myself if I did that. So I trusted my gut, and when I felt the work was ready, I self-published. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. When I sarted writing toward publication, my goal was to be published in five years. I gave it six and then made it happen:-)

    1. That’s one of the joys of self/e-publishing — a place for the didn’t quite fit story. One thing you learn as you keep writing is how to get from here to there in more streamlined and economical ways. And you learn to love what you write, and as you said, trust your gut. This is good advice as well. Some authors never analyze what isn’t working. My hat is off to you for understanding that, regrouping, and ultimately reaching your goal.


  2. Oh, I was rejected plenty! I assure you…it wasn’t because of my grammar, Thea! I’m guessing my rejections fell into the “it just doesn’t move me” category. Another truth of publishing, however, is that it only takes one acceptance. : )

    1. And the other truth of traditional publishing is, whether or not an editor likes a proposal is so subjective, and tempered by what’s selling, what she thinks will sell, and what the profit and loss statement tells them.. All things an author can do nothing about. And in no way quantifiable.

      So take joy in what you’re doing, because we are among the very few who CAN do it.


  3. Awesome article, Thea. So true. When I got my first rejection I didn’t cry, well almost. I just thought of Stephen King and his 1,000 rejections and kept writing; with a little help, well a lot of help from you and my RWA buddies I got that acceptance letter. Thanks, Marian

  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Thea, all useful, wonderful advice.

    I find that an innate stubbornness–although I never before thought of it as a virtue–keeps me going in spite of rejections. There is a Hungarian word that captures this more sublime form of stubbornness–csakazertis!–which means, loosely translated, in spite of everything. I seem to have it in an overflowing amount.

    Of course, when my daughters and grandchildren exhibit this same characteristic, it’s just stubbornness …

    A touch of arrogance also helps when receiving a rejection, a sense of: “What do they know! I know better.”And, every now and then, at a particularly hurtful message of No, thanks! the response: Idiot! comes to mind. Just for a moment, of course.Then I go on and write even better than before.
    See what I mean about “csakazertis”?


    1. Absolutely, ZsuZsa. When I get rejected, I’m absolutely certain the editor is wrong. You have to have huge doses of confidence and belief in your talent — in spite of everything. I don’t think persistance even covers it. There are so many variables. The only to do is get back to work.


  5. Hi Thea,
    Thanks for sharing. When I got my first rejection letter, I felt bad for one day and then decided to query elsewhere. After a while I realized I was simply looking for the right fit for my book. I kept writing and kept sending out submissions. When I got a rejection letter, I just looked at it as one publisher who didn’t recognize the next best seller. I kept looking and finally, I got the call!

  6. Thea, Thanks for the great post. I can’t wait to get rejected. I need to finish my manuscript in order to be rejected. If I could only finish the darn thing and stop rewriting. And for what? Do I know what I am doing? When I get those rejections, I will be one step closer to being a righter writer. I think the negative is more important than the positive. I love a wise critique. Critiques do come with the rejections, don’t they? Encouragement, I get lots of encouragement from my pals at CTRWA. Great group of people. Thanks for the well put points. Although so many workshop leaders have said the book is about the characters. The characters keep the story moving, right? So, what do you mean, “it is all about the story?”

    1. Gail!!! Stop dithering, rewriting and make your word count! You can make changes later. It’s all about the story in that the characters have to have something to do. If they’re sitting there and staring at each other, if there’s no reason for them to be on the page, there’s no story, who they are won’t matter, why they’re there won’t make a reader want to follow them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.