By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

People often ask: Can you tell right away that a particular writer or a particular manuscript has “the right stuff” for success in the tough world of publishing? As a long-time professor of creative writing and also an editor, I would love to be able to shout an unequivocal Yes, Yes, Yes! I could save everyone time and angst if I had such clairvoyance. Heck, I could even monetize that gift, donning a sparkly outfit on my own TV show. I picture people waiting in line for hours in the rain, manuscripts clutched to their chests, eager for me to touch their foreheads and make my pronouncement. “You will earn an indie press publishing contract and 400 followers on Twitter. Next!” It would be like Antiques Road Show for writers.

There are too many wild cards to predict with accuracy what’s going to work for publishers. Sometimes a manuscript benefits from good timing. Maybe a press is
Kathy Flann
pivoting toward the purchase of this type of story for some reason right now. Perhaps the content and/or the writer’s identity dovetails with something in the zeitgeist. A manuscript might simply reach the right editor, and it moves her enough that she’ll fight for it with colleagues hellbent on steampunk historical novels with a dash of Fried Green Tomatoes.

What I can say with confidence, though, is that it’s possible to position a manuscript for its best chance at success with careful attention to the tenets of storytelling. Quite a few former students have gained entry to prestigious graduate programs or signed book deals based on stories they began in my courses. While diverse in terms of content and genre, these stories had in common that they arose from hard work and a lot of attention to craft.

A novel has what seems a simple enough duty to hold readers’ attention. People should be desperate to turn to the next page. However, eliciting that kind of response is one of the hardest things anyone can do. It’s right up there with the “armstand back two somersaults, half-twist in the pike position” in Olympic diving. When someone does it well, it looks effortless. The person watching almost thinks they can do it, too, so clean is the execution and so invisible the industry.

While there are dozens of craft techniques that contribute to the well-told tale, some of them are harder to learn than others. I comment on several hundred manuscripts per year, and most of them are under-developed in the same five areas. What I’ve found is that if I can ask the right questions, most writers are excited to discover that they do know the answers and can revise accordingly.

Here are the Top 5 manuscript “questions” I address on a regular basis:

Craft Question #5: Why today?

Our main character has had the same problems for a while now. Let’s say she’s dissatisfied with her job grooming cats, and what’s worse, she lives with her dad, who’s allergic to cats and makes her shower at the gym before she comes home. So the question is: why is today the day of the story? What’s different about today? Why are we not watching yesterday’s cat grooming session or tomorrow’s? What new decisions will our character make today when horrible Mrs. Crabtree brings Fluffy to the shop? And most importantly, why will the character make them? Did her dad have a “special friend” sleep over last night? Will she get into a fight with Mrs. Crabtree? What consequences will follow her decision? Maybe she expected to get fired, and ended up earning herself a promotion? Why did the character never confront Mrs. Crabtree in the past and how will doing so now change her?

What I see in many stories is a typical, dissatisfying day of cat grooming, and nothing new happens. While it’s important for us to understand the character’s life, we must provide this understanding within the context of a plot that moves.

Craft Question #4: Why is this a novel rather than a movie?

In fiction, we occupy the interior of the main character, both mind and body. It’s a different method of storytelling from movies, which show us primarily external action, conveying emotion through facial expressions and dialogue and movement. Fiction’s internal storytelling means that the reader has access to the main character’s thoughts, physical sensations, and history. In other words, we know what he or she knows. If a writer is heavily influenced by a steady diet of movies, we are seeing a lot of external action, and we’re not gaining access to the character’s interior life. For example, maybe we’re reading ten pages of description of aliens landing in a western town in the 1800’s. The bizarre concept intrigues us, and we keep turning pages and waiting to get immersed, but we don’t. A lot of exciting things are happening – aliens come out of the ship and kill the minister’s daughter. And yet readers are disengaged and confused. They’re thinking: Whose mind and body am I occupying? What does it feel like when the spaceship kicks up dust? What does this person feel about what happened to the minister’s daughter? Does the character know her or care about her? What kind of life does this character have and how does the alien invasion affect it? What does the character intend to do?

The readers are waiting and waiting to “become” the character. It’s what they crave. It’s why they pick up a story to read instead of turning on a movie.

Craft Question #3: Whose story is this?

As discussed above, one of the main reasons people pick up books is so that they can “become” someone other than themselves. They can try on different lives. It takes a little time for readers to acclimate to a consciousness and physical body other than their own. The pleasure of reading is the chance to settle into that new person, to lose one’s self in that experience. While it’s certainly possible to provide perspectives of two or five or ten people in the western town that’s experiencing an alien invasion, we have to use a lot of care. Readers start to feel at home within the mind and body of Bart Johnson, the Sheriff, and they can lose interest or get confused when we switch the perspective to Maeve O’Malley, the Inn Keeper. As such, it’s important to give readers support and cues for the transitions, and also to provide enough access to each character to feel satisfying. If readers don’t get to spend much time with Bart, they may not get invested in that story. Do we need the whole chapter about Bart dropping the keys to the jail cell in the latrine? Even though we started with him, do we need his perspective in this book? What’s his story adding to the overall novel? Would the novel improve if we kept the whole thing in Maeve’s perspective? After all, she’s the one who’s kicking the aliens’ asses with the moves she learned in the Merchant Marines.

In the early drafts I see, many writers shift points of view simply because they don’t have any idea who Bart is or why we should care about him. Desperate to keep writing, they shift to a secondary character like Maeve, who sometimes turns out to be a lot more interesting. But in the next draft, it will be important to get rid of Bart’s chapters if he’s not pulling his weight.

Craft Question #2: How much time passes in the novel?

Stories are comprised of a series of scenes. A scene is a moment in the character’s life that we get to experience in “real time.” For example, we’re in a cafĂ© with a character who’s meeting a potential love interest from a dating app. Eyes trained on the door, the character searches for someone who looks like the photo, wonders if this one will go better than that last one with the guy who sat down and tried to sell a used dishwasher. We all experience our own lives in scenes, living them moment by moment within our thoughts and our five senses. Thus, scenes are the most powerful way to make readers feel connected to what’s happening.

Do we have to cover all the years that the main character is single? Do we have to watch all of the bad dates? Which ones should we watch and why? The more connected one scene is to another in time, the stronger the momentum.

On this particular day, maybe the date is a good prospect. Maybe our main character is the one who, for whatever reason, turns out to be a terrible date. We follow with horror this scene unfolding. Why does the next scene take place three years later? How does this choice affect the momentum of the plot?

The less time covered, the easier it is to rely on scenes rather than summary and, therefore, to hold readers’ attention.

Craft Question #1: What’s at stake in this story?

In other words, what’s to be lost or gained for this particular person during the present action, the moment we’re watching? The higher the stakes are, the more compelled we are to turn the pages. Let’s say, for example, that our main character is the aforementioned cat groomer. The character has made a decision to confront Mrs. Crabtree, thereby risking her job, which is great. A plot is comprised of decisions. However, the plot will progress most effectively if a decision has consequences upon consequences. What does the character have to lose by confronting Mrs. Crabtree if she already dislikes her job? Does the character pride herself on being nice? Has the character ever confronted anyone? Does she fantasize about confronting her dad while she’s confronting Mrs. Crabtree? Why has she never confronted her dad? What keeps her at her dad’s place? What is the potential consequence of realizing she isn’t as nice as she thought?

People are layered, so a novel succeeds when the stakes are layered. First drafts can almost always be deepened in terms of what’s at stake. It’s what I think of as the So what? factor. The character has a fight with Mrs. Crabtree. Okay, who cares? Why is this incident more than a bad day? Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has said, “A character has to want something so badly that it’s dangerous.” That desire and its potential consequences create the urgency that keeps readers turning pages. Most often, a fight about cats isn’t really about cats. And a writer’s genius isn’t so much genius as it is attention to craft, imagination, perseverance, and impeccable timing.

But would I still enjoy having a TV show in which I could wear a sparkly outfit? The answer to that one is probably obvious.


Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. She will soon debut a new Imprint with Stay Thirsty Publishing entitled Unblended with a mission to “serve up stories, fiction and narrative nonfiction, pure of spirit, brimming with humanity.”

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.