Interested in finding a literary agent? In this interview, publishing insider Jaimee Garbacik offers tips on revising your fiction manuscript for a better chance of success.
Jaimee Garbacik got her start in publishing as the acquisitions editor for a well-known agency, The Literary Group International. Currently, she is the owner of Footnote Editorial Services, which offers a range of editing, ghostwriting, and publishing consultation services.Advertisement:
CWN: What are some of the most important aspects of a fiction manuscript for writers to look at during the revision stage in order to improve their chances of finding a literary agent?
Jaimee Garbacik: Sadly, the review process in a literary agency is not exhaustive because most agencies receive upwards of a hundred or so unsolicited manuscripts per week. They need to dig for gems rapidly. Make sure that you have some serious rising action in your first fifty pages and that your reader will get a sense for the main characters’ motivations.
I cannot tell you how often manuscripts get deep-sixed because an intern gets fifty pages in and hasn’t been adequately hooked. We as readers either need to develop immediate empathy for a character or something scintillating needs to happen quickly. The reality is that while there are some truly phenomenal slow, meditative novels, as a general rule, you’re going to wind up in the reject bin unless we see something that sets you apart right away.
CWN: In your work as an editor, what are some of most common problems you've found in fiction manuscripts?
Jaimee Garbacik: The most frequent issues vary by genre and by the author’s level of experience, but it’s fair to say that pacing is problematic for just about everyone. New authors are frequently far too self-conscious about the manner in which they reveal information to their readers. Attempts at cultivating context can easily become mechanical, particularly when “info drops” are employed where chunks of summary substitute for organic disclosure. Back stories should be subtly alluded to without slowing down the action, and dialogue is definitely a better way to introduce characters than blatant exposition.
I also find that many writers have a hard time adequately differentiating their characters’ voices. Authors might imbue their characters with different individual interests and fixations, but forget that their pace of speaking and command of language needs to differ as well. I read a lot of manuscripts where every character more or less has a similar manner of speaking, and it’s difficult for an editor to remedy without completely altering the author’s intentions.
Awkward dialogue, developing description that isn’t obvious or banal, and cultivating a truly satisfying ending are also very common challenges for new authors.
CWN: Are there any specific issues with dialogue that fiction writers should watch out for during the revision process?
Jaimee Garbacik: I think there is currently a very strong impulse to make dialogue overly clever or even snarky that should be avoided whenever possible. It dates your work, and it limits your audience. There are exceptions, of course, like if you’re writing something that uses specific jargon as a conduit to reveal the personality of a subculture. In these cases, the dialogue is very much a form of setting. But what I’m getting at is, I find too many “in-jokes” in first novels that are meant to sound edgy but instead come off as insincere.
The other immediate concern with dialogue that I caution against is using it to covertly preach. A lot of young writers believe that their novel is the ultimate “think piece” because they have inserted social justice issues and the language of oppression into their characters’ dialogue, but they haven’t crafted a plot to speak of. They are caught up in a sort of Franny and Zooey stage of their personal philosophies and believe that readers’ minds would be expanded by their rants, if only they could hear them. I’m not saying that politics has no place in the novel, but ask yourself if you’re journaling your epiphanies in your book through dialogue. If the answer is yes, it’s unlikely to be of much use to anyone beyond your close circle of friends.
CWN: Do you have any advice for writers on revising to improve manuscript endings?
Jaimee Garbacik: First of all, authors, I swear this is true: You don’t have to tie up every loose end to satisfy your reader. Some of the best novels ever written leave the reader wondering about major plot points, characters’ overall happiness, or even their survival or demise. I feel that for better or worse, I have become increasingly snobbish about epilogues in the last few years, because it’s an all too frequent dumping ground for everything that didn’t get covered gracefully in the course of the story.
Epilogues are really just an obvious example of what I’m really upset about though, and that’s the distinctly American need to offer up a conclusion that’s neatly resolved in a tight little bundle for the reader. It’s the novel equivalent of how we serve up Hollywood happy endings that would never fly in European cinema. Life continues after we close a book, both for us as readers and for the characters in our literature as well. I’m far less concerned with all of our questions getting answered and much more fixated on whether or not an ending has punch. People talk and blog constantly about “best first lines” in a novel, but I think satisfying last lines are even rarer. I want to hear a strong sense of voice and purpose in those last few paragraphs. What was this all about, really? What image will I be left with? Hit me in the face; I want to feel something before I put this back on a shelf.
Zadie Smith wrote an incredible ending to On Beauty that has been resonating in the back of my brain for a few years now. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it, but in a final scene this very emotionally immature academic stands outside his home and has a conversation with his daughter. In the course of just a few words, she realizes definitively that he cheated on her mother with a very young, beautiful woman that is practically his daughter’s peer. Through the entire book, this father and daughter have been comrades, and the daughter has held him in great esteem due to his intellect, completely disregarding the practical wisdom, elegance and character of her mother.
Up until now, her mother has symbolized everything she fears she could grow up to be: overweight, brash in speech, and lacking a classical education or career. In one little moment, this veil is lifted and her father has been, in a sense, dethroned. Then the camera of our mind’s eye pans back and we see very vividly this young woman turn to run back and tell her mother what she has learned. We don’t hear a word of what transpires between mother and daughter, or even get a glimpse of the mother’s face; it’s a completely silent moment where the academic sort of digests that his life is about to change, and that these women in his life share a bond that he has deeply underestimated. And then it’s over.
We don’t need to know what happens next, because the really important thing, the shock of the misappropriated hero worship that we often offer to one parent or another (or to intellectual endeavors) is just washing over the reader. We don’t need to see or hear the mother’s vindication. We’re left with this quiet reverence for the knowledge that this particular blow, delivered by her daughter, will have a sort of sweetness to it - that they will bond over this, even as she is disgraced. The sort of flailing innocence of her daughter that has been eliminated here is a more fulfilling denouement than any further prose about their lives afterward could ever offer.
And you know what? I think Smith did write a sort of epilogue after this scene, but I’m not even sure. I don’t remember, and in a way, it’s inconsequential. She had already said everything.
CWN: Do you have any other words of advice for fiction writers who are in the process of revising a manuscript?
Have many readers, and make sure they’re not afraid to tell you what they hate. Rest your work so that you don’t become too close to it and lose perspective on how small changes will affect the larger scope of the work. And try to edit in fairly long stretches so that you fully invest in each scene that you examine. Sometimes the failure to do enough in one sitting will result in variations in tone that are far more obvious to an outside reader than an author realizes. I know it can be an arduous process, but I really suggest several hour stretches over nitpicking on one’s lunch break.
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