Is Your Manuscript Fixable?

Back in June, I gave a presentation about revision at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Antonio. 

One of the questions was very interesting—when do you think there is no hope?

The answer is complex.  I don’t believe a manuscript is unfixable, though I am also a fan of putting one away for a while if you can’t get traction on it and moving on to the next one.  As I say to clients, every big name author I’ve ever heard interviewed has a drawer book.  An early novel that is in a drawer and has never seen the light of day. 
Sometimes those books come back out again once you have more experience writing and enough time has gone by, and sometimes they don’t. 

But as I thought about this question, I wondered if what this person was really asking is something closer to , “What are the mistakes you see in manuscripts over and over?”  

This question has a more concrete answer. Besides my work as a book reviewer and editor, I also review manuscripts for writers as part of coaching work that we do together when they are revising.  As you might suspect, there are patterns. 

Here are the top five mistakes I have seen in manuscripts and sometimes in published novels…

  1. Loss of Narrative Drive/Lack of tension
  2. No plot arc—just a series of events
  3. Starts in the Wrong Place
  4. Not enough conflict/stakes are not escalating, or even present
  5. Too many surprises thrown in to try to hide the fact that the story is sagging in the middle.

The good news is that these are all fixable, which gets us back to the original question.  It may not be an easy solution, and it will likely involve cutting swaths out of your manuscript and adding new scenes, plus a rearrangement of the whole thing, but it is possible to fix them.  🙂

Book Review: Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion is upmarket historical fiction at its best. Harris has taken an interesting event from the past, used real historical characters who disappeared from the record and made up others, to craft a story that is gripping and thought provoking. 
Edward Whalley and William Goffe were real officers for the Cromwell side during the English Civil War and both signed the death warrant of Charles I. After the Restoration, the pair fled to North America, where many Puritans were sympathetic to them and helped them survive and evade arrest.
Harris’s book fictionalizes the details and offers an interpretation of what might have happened.  He also ratchets up the tension by inventing a vengeful agent of the new king’s court, Richard Naylor, who is determined to capture and kill all the escaped regicides, Whalley and Goffe in particular.

For fans of historical fiction of the Early American period, this book is a treat, and for readers who enjoy a layered story that asks questions about the nature of freedom, this book is an excellent choice—you won’t be disappointed.
For writers, notice how the POV switching becomes more frequent as the pace speeds up and we approach a turning point/decision point.  Then Harris slows it back down after the turning point—masterful.
Harris delivers on the premise—take a peek for yourself!

If you decide to discuss this book with your book group, try this cake, a favorite of B&B guests back in the day and a nice English style treat for your tea.

ICYMI: my guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog

In my quest to help writers learn from what they read, imagine my joy at having a guest post on this topic accepted by Jane Friedman, a giant in the industry. I love her site, her ethos, and her advice, so it is with gratitude that I am associated with her in this tiny way.

Take a look, and please like, comment, and what have you. I would love to make her newsletter as a popular post. 🙂

Outlining is a valuable tool at any point in the writing process: just getting started, revising your novel, or writing your summary to query.

Get your free copy of the Beats of the Heroine’s Journey with examples here.

Title List for Fall Episodes of the Read Like a Writer Book Club

This season, we will discuss even more books!

We are exploring three elements that writers have questions about: Narrators, Agency and Power dynamics, and Secrets—how to keep and reveal them at just the right moment. Take a listen to the shorty episode for booktalks on the titles and get thee to a library or bookshop! New Episodes begin mid-September.

Book List for Fall 2023:

NarratorsThe Book Thief/Zusak and Nutshell/McEwan

Naughty GirlsVanity Fair/Thackeray and The Power/Alderman

SecretsThe Scarlet Pimpernel and The Dutch House/Patchett

Besides discussions of these titles, be sure to check for bonus episodes and author interviews.

Do you need more than a critique group?

Do you need accountability and some guidance  to have a breakthrough? 

Sometimes, just a little bit of positive peer pressure is a good thing.  Critique groups can provide this, but frequently they are more focused on “workshopping” pages for members.  Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t the kind of accountability that will spur you on to write and hit your goals.

Have you joined writing groups, but felt like they offered you harmful or unhelpful feedback?  

Some critique groups are great! And others, well, they aren’t.  The members pick on grammatical and spelling errors because they don’t really know what else to say.  The group members may not have read more than a few pages of your work in progress, because according to the group rules, there just isn’t time for you to get more pages in front of eyes.  The group may be stuck in a cycle of submitting revised pages of the opening chapter over and over and over again.  Maybe you get comments from one member about how to fix something that are contradicted by someone else.  Maybe they don’t have any more experience writing or editing than you do, so you wonder whether their advice is actually helpful or based on anything other than “feelings.”

Do you feel lost in large writing organizations or like they give conflicting advice, or advice that is out of date or doesn’t apply to you?

Writing organizations are wonderful!  They provide writers with resources, conferences, webinars, all kinds of really helpful things.  I am a member of several myself. But.  Sometimes large writing organizations are focused on what the largest percentage of members need, or what the loudest voices need, or they are working on a specific agenda for their organization that doesn’t address your needs. They cannot be everything to everybody, and that is okay.  They provide valuable insight and resources, but they are not a one stop shop for everything that you as a writer will ever need.

Sometimes you need more.

If you find yourself wondering what  “more” would look like, it might look like small group coaching in the Readerly Writing Circle.  The next enrollment period begins in November for a January start date.  The group is limited to ten writers—will you be one of them?

Book Review: My Mother’s Secret by Alina Adams

This followup novel to Nesting Dolls is basically strong, and the setting is a place that many American readers may not be familiar with, the Soviet attempt at creating an “autonomous” Jewish homeland.  

The novel opens with Regina, our heroine, on the train escaping from the Soviet secret police by traveling without papers to Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region set up by the Soviets.  The year is 1935 and Regina is a true believer.  She believes that the communist government has the people’s best interests at heart. She believes that the communists want to be fai. She believes that Birobidzhan will be a land flowing with milk and honey, as the propaganda promises.  
Adams does a good job setting up a naive heroine, while letting the reader in on what is really going on.  Regina’s parents, for instance, do not share her illusions. She also does a good job weaving in the backstory and giving the reader an emotional payoff, all well done.

Where the novel falters a little is in the heavy-handedness of Regina’s misbelief/insecurities and the message about trusting yourself to make choices.  While insecurity is fine as a motivation for a character, the delivery is a little blunt and telly.  Rather than let the reader figure it out, which by the way, they could have, because the story is very good, Adams chooses to hit us upside the head with it.  
Likewise the message.  A more subtle approach that respects the reader would have made the book more enjoyable.  When the daughter has to tell the reader through interiority that she is hitting her mother where it hurts by invoking her insecurity, I was annoyed.  Of course she does, that is what daughters do!  Trust the reader, trust the reader, trust the reader.  I promise you do not have to spell it out in every character’s thoughts and dialogue for us to get it.  Have the message in your mind and it will get to the page through the story, as it should.
The story and characters are well drawn, and the setting is impeccable—I could almost feel the mosquitoes biting me during the harvest.  It is unfortunate that it goes a little overboard on the message, otherwise, it is a wonderful novel.

How do you know if your novel starts in the right place?

One of the most common mistakes in an early draft is not starting the novel in the right place. It’s true, here are the most frequent culprits I have seen in my work on manuscripts, in no particular order:

  1. Starting with backstory
  2. Starting when nothing is happening
  3. Starting “in media res” but it is so much without context that the reader has no hope of understanding what is going on.
  4. Starting with quotidian details that are not important to the plot at any point
  5. Starting with an infodump

Take a quick look at your beginning—is yours one of these?  If it is, it’s okay, you can fix it! Here’s a hint for where to start your story. It seems simple, but think about it.

A story starts when something changes.
  1. I Have Some Questions for You starts when someone sends a video link to the protagonist that starts her down the path that changes everything.
  2. My Mother’s Secret starts when Regina goes on the run to escape the secret police.
  3. Act of Oblivion Starts when the father of the Gookin family brings two regicides home to Massachusetts to hide them in his family home.
  4. Mexican Gothic starts when Noemi’s father sends her to find and look after her cousin.
  5. Hamnet starts on the day he becomes ill.
Where does your story start?

Book Review: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

The cover of the edition I read enticingly promises that Carmilla inspired Dracula.  Reading it, one thinks this may be so!  If you are a fan of the Gothic, this book is for you.  If you like Vampire stories, this book is for you.  If you are looking for a novella that encapsulates the five point story structure, this book is for you, too.
The setting, as in all good Gothic novels, is in a remote castle in a Catholic country, in this case Austria.  So far, so good. There is the hint of the supernatural, but until the story really gets rolling, it is just a hint.  The story is told by the erstwhile victim of said vampire, who has, thankfully, escaped her clutches and so lived to tell the tale. She tells it looking back, a device which can be helpful, as the narrator can let the reader in on things that story characters don’t know. 

Here is the story in a nutshell (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW):

  1. Inciting incident—carriage accident that leaves a beautiful stranger (Carmilla) staying with our narrator.
  2. Complications—Mysterious illness afflicting Carmilla and narrator and they have a weird connection.
  3. Crisis—Family friend comes to visit and tells narrator’s father about his daughter’s death at the hand of a mysterious undead beautiful woman.
  4. Climax—They confront beautiful Carmilla in her coffin. (Gross factor—she is floating in blood, eeewwww…)
  5. Resolution—Carmilla is killed, grave destroyed, order restored, but narrator is sad.

This tiny little novel is great on many levels, but also just as an interesting story with a lot of discussion potential.  There are strange relationships, why are the predator and the prey both women?  Usually that is not the case? Why is the familiar of the female vampire a huge cat, rather than the wolves and bats we see in other vampire tales? Are we really supposed to believe that teeth make tiny puncture marks that look like they could have been made by needles?  What kind of teeth are those?  You see what I mean. 

If it takes your fancy, I would recommend it as worth your time.  

Guest Post: In the Querying Trenches

A wise book coach once advised that the query letter sells agents on reading the pitch. The pitch entices them to want more. 

When I first started pitching to agents, I had a few full MS requests. (Yay!) 


But I didn’t give up. A few months later, I attended a workshop by Jennie Nash and then met my tried-and-true book coach Robin Henry.

Here are some tips and a few things I have learned along the way to help you keep your  query out of the “no” pile. 

Research! Research! Research!

Before you do anything, make sure you know something about the agent you wish to pitch. This helps tremendously when it comes to writing your letter. (And it’s kind of fun!)

Do they have a podcast you enjoy? Check out their bio. Does their wish list include genres/topics that resonate with your book? Did they post something on social media that you enjoyed? 

Honestly, I think one reason agents have responded to my queries is that I only pitch agents I have researched. Find an authentic way to connect to them in one opening sentence. It’s friendly and shows that you genuinely want to reach out to them, not just any agent who will give you a chance. 

Check their Submission Guidelines

Every agent is different. Some want 20 pages, some want a chapter, and some want a query letter written in a specific manner. 

Follow their submission requirements and then double-check yourself. It shows that you’re a professional and not a rookie.

Some agents might have you fill out your query on Query Manager, which is nice because you can track your query.

Response Times

Grab a cup of coffee, cuddle your dog, or take a walk. You’ve sent your baby out into the world! Patience is your superpower.

The submission guidelines may tell you how much time to expect to wait for a response. If not, wait a few months and then consider sending a short checking-in email. 

Still nothing? Don’t sweat it. It might be a pass, but that means you haven’t met the right agent for you—yet. 


When I receive a rejection letter, I respond with a brief thank you and then hit the print button. 

If they provide any feedback, take what you can from that to make your book better. Feedback is gold. 

Then I have a little ritual that makes the rejection sting a little less: 

There’s a nail on my studio wall where my rejection letters hang like badges of honor. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I know that one day, I’m going to place a letter at the top of that pile from an agent that believes in my book as much as I do. 

I hope this helps, and good luck!  

This guest post was written by Tara Bradley Connell, a Readerly Writer currently pitching her book.

The Absence of African Europeans In Historical Fiction

Guest post by Tonya Briggs

My grandmother instilled a love of reading in her children and many of her grandchildren. In fact, two of us are librarians. Growing up, I had access to the personal libraries of my grandmother, aunt, uncle and mother.

In my aunt’s personal library, there were books with characters created by Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and James Baldwin who reminded me of relatives, friends or neighbors. My mother’s library included a lot of historical fiction. My mother and I continue to share an interest in reading about Elizabethan and Victorian history.

Reading my way through family libraries helped me realize how often Black people’s presence has been overlooked, especially the presence of Blacks who were not enslaved in American and European history. I knew people who look like me had to have been present in some way. I began to search for them and I found some of them thanks to some of the following books.

In November 2001 the Washington Post published an article about a portrait that at the time was thought to be of Guilia de’ Medici. The portrait was newsworthy because Guilia was of African descent and a Medici. Gabrielle Langdon’s Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal in the Court of Duke Cosimo I includes a chapter about the symbolism in the portrait and the most biographical information I could find about Guilia d’ Alessandro de’ Medici. Recently, the woman in the Allori portrait Langdon wrote about is no longer thought to be Guilia. But in a Pontormo Portrait of Maria Salviati and a child, Guilia has been identified as the child.

Guilia de’ Medici was the illegitimate daughter of the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. The biracial son of an African mother and Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Catherine Fletcher’s The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici is not as illuminating as I hoped it would be. After being murdered in 1537, a lot documentation about him has been erased from history by contemporary enemies and racism against Africans initiated in the 16th century to justify colonialism.

Black Africans in Renaissance Europe edited by Thomas F. Earle and Kate J. P. Lowe expanded my knowledge about noble, free and enslaved Africans in Portugal, Spain, Italy and England. Published in  2005, this book includes the first chapter length biography of Alessandro de’ Medici I read.

I was extremely pleased to read chapters about historical Black people in Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story. As Fletcher experienced when writing The Black Prince of Florence, Kaufmann had limited documentation for the biographies in her book. Renaissance art featuring Blacks has often led me to research the subject of the portrait as it did with Guilia de’ Medici. I was pleased that an image of trumpeter, John Blanke, featured in the Westminster Tournament Roll was included in Kaufmann’s book with her research about him. 

Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History does a great job of synthesizing the history of African and European relationships beginning in the classical period, the development of racism, the effects of colonialism and current struggles in an extremely readable history. Otele writes about Alessandro de’ Medici and Juan Latino in her chapter about the Renaissance. Her inclusion of the racial constructs of the historical period illuminates her research in an innovative way. In addition, all the books mentioned above except Langdon’s are included in Otele’s bibliography.

I have always enjoyed learning through reading. My hope is to synthesize what I have learned over the years about Blacks in the Renaissance into engaging historical fiction for my mother, aunt and others like us. In essence, I am writing what I enjoy reading with characters I can relate to.

Maybe one day, a reader of one of my novels will experience the same feeling of being seen that I did when I first read the books of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and James Baldwin.