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What Are We Looking For in a Manuscript?

Okay, with reservations, we’re going to delve into the mystery surrounding what we’re actually looking for in a manuscript. We say “with reservations” because this is the most nebulous area of book publishing. We can tell you all these rules that we would usually swear by, but if That Book comes in – the one that you just HAVE to publish – a lot of the rules will go out of the window!

If you just bear in mind that you should take heed of these rules, except on a Wednesday when Venus is in the ascendancy i.e. these are the best we can give you and other publishers will have different ideas, then you’ll be doing okay.

*sighs* It’s already not going too well, is it?

Right, the basics first (and always bearing in mind that we want agented manuscripts, right up until that Open Door period in April!):

1. Do NOT send us a first draft, or even a second draft, of your novel. Send us the polished version. The version that you wrote, then edited, then re-edited, then sent out to beta readers for them to help edit. Although an editor will likely want to change parts of a manuscript that come into them, they are not there to do ALL the work. The quickest thing to turn us off of a book is to see flagrant spelling mistakes, sentences that don’t quite make sense and a novel that isn’t even close to being ready for publication.

2. Do NOT send us a novel that is an “homage” to another book, as in, you have pretty much used Find and Replace on character names. We have seen this sort of thing! We want to hear YOUR voice, YOUR story. Apart from being a very nasty habit and borderline illegal, plagiarism is not going to get you published.

3. Do pay attention to what we are looking for, as in, age range. At Strange Chemistry we do not publish adult novels. We do not publish middle grade or children’s books. We can’t do anything with picture books. We are exclusively publishing Young Adult novels. If you need a definition of such, then, believe me, you haven’t written a YA novel!

Now to the subjectivities…As in, the rules that can be broken on occasion, the rules that might not be rules for other publishers, the rules that are really more like suggestions!

4. We are principally looking for Voice. We don’t just mean the way you write your dialogue! Voice, for us, is where you become fully immersed in the prose of the novel and it feels completely fresh and unique – even if the subject matter is something that has been done before. Some of the recent YA novels we have read that had this Voice are Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and Hollow Pike by James Dawson. In both cases, the books were so utterly readable.

5. We want journeys! Not travelogues, we don’t mean that… Rather, we mean character journeys or transformations. We want to meet a character in chapter one and see them change and develop as a response to what is happening in the story. For us, Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard (coming from us in November of this year) achieved this in spades – when we first meet Katya, she is a rather shy and unassuming girl. By the end of the novel, she is completely changed and has attitude in spades! This organic development is crucial to the telling of a story. If your characters remain flat and unchanged by events, then you haven’t achieved what you could have.

6. Protagonists need to be worth reading about. The most memorable protagonists (and antagonists!) are those that leap off the page; those you identify with; those you want to spend time with. Katniss from The Hunger Games is this sort of protagonist, as is Todd from the Chaos Walking trilogy. Make sure your characters are fully fleshed and not two-dimensional. On a personal front, at Strange Chemistry we prefer our female characters to have backbone, if you please. We’re looking for Tamora Pierce-esque heroines, rather than the Bella variety.

7. Concentrate on your setting – and the whys of it. World building can add so much depth to a story. We don’t want expositional info dumps about the social and economic climate in your world, but we do want details that help us to understand why there is a story. For us, a great example is Bumped by Megan McCafferty. It received very mixed reviews, but the added slang, the advertising slogans about becoming fertile, the way in which their society dealt with teenage mothers – this all helped to bring out more of a story.

8. Never, ever, ever write what is popular now (see point 9 for where this rule can bend a little)! You’ve probably heard this one before, but it bears repeating. Publishing moves slowly. The books purchased today are most likely going to be published in eighteen months or so. Who knows whether a dystopian setting is still going to be the Big Thing at that point? We might all be reading about motorcycle gangs on Mars by then! (or, y’know, something less constrictive…) What is a phenomenon right now is going to fade away, we promise. Right now we’re seeing ghost stories and horror novels starting to creep into publishing. We’re seeing people starting to play around with other elements of SF than just dystopian. What this means is that you have to write the story that YOU are passionate about, and not worry *too* much about what the market is doing. Be aware of what is popular. More crucially, be aware of what everyone is getting tired of. But, essentially, if you’re passionate about your story and its setting, then that will shine through over someone who writes more to cash in on a current trend.

9. Perhaps try an entertaining twist on something that has been done before? Yes, we might be a little tired of vampires, or the fae, or mermaids, or dystopian settings – but if you can achieve something different with your story that gets us excited about it, then you are going to shine from the rest. If we describe a twist to booksellers, bookbuyers, bloggers etc that makes their eyes pop at the thought of the novel, we’re onto a winner.

10. However crass it sounds, we are looking for novels that are going to sell. We want marketability. We want books that we know other people will be interested in reading. If your novel is too off-the-wall or strange, it doesn’t matter how good the writing is, we are unlikely to be able to do much with it. The marketability extends to the author of the manuscript. When we find a book we’re thinking of taking to acquisitions and possibly buying, we will inevitably have a look at the author’s online presence – do they have a website? Do they talk on Twitter? Do they seem as though they’ll be decent at self promotion? Do they stand out in any way? So, alongside your novel, you’ll be selling us…well…you!

We hope that helps, and that you’re not all weeping into your cornflakes right now! Publishing is a tough industry to crack and you need to ensure that the novel you submit is the BEST it can possibly be when it hits an editor’s desk.

Over to you: Anything specific you would like to ask?


Amber J. Gardner

Where can we find samples of the novels you mentions as examples?

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