Are you interested in finding a literary agent? In this interview, former literary agent Robin Martin offers advice on how to revise your fiction manuscript to improve its chances of success.
Robin Martin currently serves on the editorial board of Narrative Magazine and as a staff writer for the San Francisco Book Review and the Sacramento Book Review. She is the owner of Two Songbirds Press, which offers a full range of editing services, as well as manuscript evaluations and publishing consultations.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?
Robin Martin: A fiction manuscript must be absolutely polished before going to an agent. The writer should get peer group feedback and even feedback from a professional reader. Then, of course, the writer has to put the manuscript to the side and write a powerful query letter to the agent. If the query letter is effective, the agent will request the manuscript. It is essential that the first fifty pages be very tight, with a conflict introduced early, characters the reader can fear for or love almost immediately. Agents have so many submissions to get through that they have developed a shorthand to facilitate the process. The first fifty pages may be the only thing literary agents and acquisitions editors read. If the agent isn’t impressed by this time, they put it down, and the material will be rejected.
CWN: In addition to your experience as an agent and a freelance editor, you are on the staff of an important literary magazine that publishes short fiction. Are there differences in the types of problems (structural or otherwise) that you tend to see in short story versus novel manuscripts?
Robin Martin: At Narrative Magazine, in addition to being a finalist judge and a mid-level reader of short stories (anything generally under 50 pages), I also am part of a small team that reads six-word stories and iStories, Narrative’s 150 word or less category. Interestingly enough, the biggest problems writers have appear in every length story: No matter the length of the piece, a story must have a character that I either love or fear for. The narrative voice must be strong, clear, and consistent. This holds true for a six word story or a three-hundred page novel. The difference, of course, is that the novel writer doesn’t have to craft the story with such an economy of words. Short story writers have to spend more time poring over the language to capture the precise image or feeling they want to portray. The best literary novelists do this too, of course, but generally there are a lot of wasted words in a seven hundred page tome. Short stories are where the innovation is occurring as readers move to more digital reading platforms. Because of the attention to the finer points of language and writing craft, I find the short story very exciting. I think it was Samuel Beckett who said, “In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.”
CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of character development?
Robin Martin: One thing it seems I always have to explain to novice writers is the fact that point of view is essential in developing characters. Without a clear understanding of who is telling your story and from where, characters tend to be flat and it is a struggle for the reader to identify who the story is really about. This is much more than first, second or third person, omniscient or limited omniscient. This is about intimacy. If I enter the story in the point of view of a blade of grass, it must be because that blade of grass is an important character or contributing to an overarching theme of the piece. I’m thinking about John Steinbeck here. When he starts off with an image of the land in Grapes of Wrath, it is because the land is a pivotal player in his novel. Writers hear that they need details and to show and not tell, but this doesn’t mean just any detail. The details have to be particular to the character who is the focus of the section. If I want my story to be about Lisa, then I really need to spend a lot of time with the details that Lisa notices. Every word should do work, and the main work in a story is creating characters.
CWN: What types of pacing issues do you comonly see in fiction manuscripts?
Robin Martin: Some writers spend too much time up front in exposition, trying to tell the reader all about where the story starts rather than showing it in scene, with gestures and dialogue. I like it when no more than a page or two is devoted to this introductory material.
CWN: Are there any specific issues with dialogue that fiction writers should watch out for during the revision process?
Robin Martin: Tags are not always necessary, but punctuation is. Every sentence doesn’t need to say, “he said,” or “she said.” But if it is a question, put the dang question mark in there. Also, never ever add an adverb along with a tag. “He asked questioningly,” is about the most amateur mistake anyone can make. But equally as bad is, “he said, incredulously,” or “she sighed, longingly.” Just don’t do it. The word choice, the gestures, should indicate the emotional state of the speaker, making the adverb extraneous.
CWN: Do you have any advice for writers on revising to improve manuscript endings?
Robin Martin: Endings are just about the hardest thing to write, aren’t they? One of my favorite authors, John Irving, has said he never starts a novel until he has figured out the last line. This is the only way he knows what his story is about. Endings should somehow tie back to the beginning; writers should resist the impulse to tie everything up in a bow for the writer. Give the reader some credit— he or she can figure it out if the ending is sufficiently intriguing. It has to feel satisfying but not provide all the answers right out there.
CWN: Do you have any other words of advice for fiction writers who are in the process of revising a manuscript?
Robin Martin: Keep a careful eye out for filters that separate the reader from the emotion. An example of a filter is if you have written, “He thought about last night’s party and felt the throbbing in his head.” Just say, “His head throbbed from last night’s party.” One distances the reader from the character and the other puts the reader inside the character. This comes back to point of view and character that I talked about ad nauseam, already. Make sure that the reader has the opportunity to feel with the character and that you are never telling the reader how to feel.
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