America is overweight…but not its manuscripts.
I don’t mean that there’s a shortage of manuscripts. God knows, there’s not. Some days it feels like the network arteries in my office are utterly clogged.
Nor do I mean that manuscripts aren’t fat enough. God knows, nowadays we hardly blink when the bottom of the screen tells us that the manuscript we just opened tops out at 600-plus pages. That’s routine.
No, what I mean is that most manuscripts are starved for story. They’re thin, wasting away. There are plenty of words but little weight. These anorexic tales feel like they could blow away in a light breeze.
It’s a condition that I notice constantly at the workshops I teach: However good a novel’s premise may be, the middle drags. Not enough seems to be happening. We describe this as a “slow” read, but what that really means (in part) is that there aren’t enough narrative events.
Why is that? Many authors write with the aim of racking up pages. Their goal is finish! That, obviously, is not the same as spinning story. That entails a commitment to making every scene or sequence a powerful transformation.
Does that sound like too much? Do you imagine a novel overflowing with action and drowning in cliffhangers? Plot is not the point. Change is. Does every scene in your manuscript enact a tangible change, both outwardly and inwardly?
Much workshop advice boils down to cutting, the literary equivalent of putting your manuscript on a diet. That’s not wrong but the better analogy, I think, is this one: build muscle.
Your page count isn’t a measure of health, it’s whether those pages actually do real work.
A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.