Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel

Are you interested in publishing a novel? In this interview, publishing insider Lindsey Alexander explains how to make the right first impression on an editor.

Lindsey Alexander is a former HarperCollins editor who works for a variety of publishers, literary agencies, and individuals. You can learn more about her editing and consultation services at her website.

"Submitting a manuscript isn’t unlike sending in a job application, and a manuscript that’s rife with errors is akin to showing up for an interview in ripped jeans."

- Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel


A Conversation with Lindsey Alexander

CWN: As an editor at HarperCollins, you were responsible for acquiring new titles. 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 at publishing a novel?

Lindsey Alexander: Agents and editors have varying degrees of willingness to shape a project once they’ve acquired it. Some prefer projects that are pretty much going to be able to be published as-is. Others, like myself, are open to working with an author through several drafts once their book is acquired in order to help that book be the best it can be before it hits the bookshelves. So beyond the question of “What makes a submission or query letter attractive to an editor?” could be the question “What makes an author with a pretty good project someone an editor will fight to acquire, knowing that their project might need some more work once it gets the green light?”

There will be a number of things you can’t control during the submissions process. If an editor reads your query the day after she’s broken up with a boyfriend, for instance, or an agent who’s three cups of coffee short of a good mood; or the possibility that a publisher just signed up a book much like yours in content or character. You can’t control how long it takes for an editor to respond to you, and you can’t purport to be a world-famous, prizewinning anything if you’re not.

Fortunately, you do have control of your manuscript and your approach. Both are opportunities to present yourself as professional, careful, and conscientious—all qualities an editor seeks in a potential author. As far as a manuscript goes:

  1. Do sweat the small stuff. Submitting a manuscript isn’t unlike sending in a job application, and a manuscript that’s rife with errors is akin to showing up for an interview in ripped jeans. An editor might overlook a few mistakes, but why take your chances? A cleanly written manuscript shows that you’re a careful and professional writer, someone who could handle doing revisions, if asked, that wouldn’t require a great deal of cleanup on the editor’s part. Consider enlisting a professional copyeditor, developmental editor, or proofreader before you prepare to submit your work.

  2. Editors, more often than not, have short attention spans and a sizeable pile of submissions. They’re going to make a judgment about your work based on a shockingly small sample of it—maybe 5-10 pages. Consider that reading submissions is only one part of an editor’s day-to-day duties—there’s a lot of other work to be done in a publishing house—so evaluating submissions quickly is a necessary part of their job. That said, it’s crucial that the first ten pages of your work not only grab their attention but also that they establish a level of expectation for the book, both quality- and content-wise. Within ten pages, I want to have a sense of a book’s arc—what scale and scope it will have, who the protagonists are, what conflicts they’re going to be grappling with, where the story takes place, from what perspective the story will be told. As an exercise, you might consider giving your readers the first ten pages and asking them to imagine where the story might lead. What action can they imagine unfolding? Where will the action take place? Who are the main characters? Don’t give them a synopsis first, and don’t try to steer their feedback. If where they think a book is headed and where you know it’s actually headed line up, you’re on the right track.

  3. Lastly, when you’re revising your manuscript and preparing to draft a query letter, cultivate a realistic sense of where your work fits into the book market. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to familiarize yourself with published books like your project, and to have a general sense of the length, format, and structure of your genre. Know that no matter how universal you feel your project is, a publisher will perceive it as fitting the needs of a certain segment of the reading public. A publisher’s work is, in large part, to connect with the group of people who will be interested in your book specifically—this is what they call “positioning.” Understanding this segment of the market for yourself helps you put the tools in an editor’s hands that they’ll need to present your manuscript to their higher-ups. Hyperbole isn’t going to help them, or you. In a query letter, a statement like “You are holding in your hands the next Harry Potter!” is less helpful to an editor than a more specific (and yes, modest) statement like, “My novel combines the breakneck pacing of Author X and the gripping personal drama of Author Y.”

"In a query letter, a statement like 'You are holding in your hands the next Harry Potter!' is less helpful to an editor than a more specific (and yes, modest) statement like, 'My novel combines the breakneck pacing of Author X and the gripping personal drama of Author Y.'”

- Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel

CWN: In your work an editor, what are some of most common problems you've found in fiction manuscripts?

Lindsey Alexander: This might sound strange, but fiction manuscripts that aren’t fictional enough rank up there. Especially in children’s books, authors are often inspired to write by their children, or grandchildren, or pets. And yes, your granddaughter is adorable and wow, what a troublemaker Fluffy is, but their antics alone are rarely enough to sustain a manuscript without an additional imaginative layer that takes those real-life details and spins them into a compelling story. I see the same thing happen with young adult and adult novels sometimes—facets of an author’s life, or the lives of people they know, play a huge role in generating the story, but sometimes authors resist letting those details work in the service of the fiction, and instead try to force the fiction to work in the service of their life stories. It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole. The old maxim “write what you know” is tried and true, and I can think of so many great books where the author has done just that, but I’ve worked with numerous authors who are struggling with a work because they’re holding on to true-life details or outcomes in a way that holds their story back. The truths of your life are going to find a way into your fiction—somehow they always do, right?—but it’s important to let them do so in a way that works for the fiction. Yield to the elements of fiction, those building blocks, and let yourself think abstractly about what inspires your work.

Point of view is another issue I often draw an author’s attention to. Many authors change POV unconsciously, or don’t realize when they’re sending the reader a cue that the POV is changing. I often use film to talk about POV. Whose shoulder is the camera looking over? Whose voice is narrating the voice-over? I love it when authors take a creative approach to POV, but I don’t like being surprised by a POV change I haven’t been prepared for. If the first three pages of a book are third-person close on one character, and then suddenly on page four another character’s POV is zoomed in on, I’m going to be surprised, and not necessarily in a good way. Likewise if the first three chapters are from one character’s POV, and the fourth chapter switches to a different first-person narrative. This goes back to the idea of a reader’s expectations, and one of the ways I help authors make their work consistent. Call me old fashioned, but I like POV that’s predictable, and I like to feel comfortable in a pattern. For instance, if the POV switches back and forth every chapter, that’s a pattern; if the POV switches sometimes but not others, in what feels like a random fashion, I have less confidence that an author is exercising control and making specific choices with their work.

"I love it when authors take a creative approach to point of view, but I don’t like being surprised by a POV change I haven’t been prepared for. "

- Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel

CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of plot structure?

Dropped threads—characters or conflicts that simply disappear or fade out over the course of a story—are common. Sometimes it feels like a simple fix on the author’s part; other times, it feels like a certain character or theme or conflict that attracted an author in the early stages of writing a book has become less crucial as they neared the end. Maybe those kinds of threads were what you needed to guide you into a story, but as the story is woven together, it becomes clear that those threads play an inconsequential role. I think authors usually have a pretty good sense of this themselves, once these instances are pointed out, but if not, this is where a sharp reader can come in to let you know which plot threads have the most energy and which feel less developed.

I don’t think one size fits all, plot-wise—I have very different expectations for the plot of a literary novel versus a mystery or middle-grade book—but I think the catalytic nature of plot is universal. That is, one action sets off another that sets off another, and so forth through the end of a book. Action isn’t necessarily linear, but it’s all related. Often, it’s not clear in what action has taken place to cause a reaction, thus advancing the conflict toward a climax and resolution.

Sometimes I think it’s helpful to think of a plot as a machine—and each chapter as a moving part. In chapter one, let’s say, a single lever is raising up and down. Chapter two adds a gear that turns every time the lever moves. With chapter three, the gear connects to a pump, and so forth. The relationship between these elements isn’t linear, but there’s a action/reaction relationship. And with each chapter, that machine becomes noisier and more chaotic until it’s one big smoking mess that’s ready to blow. When you’ve hit that point, you’re ready for your resolution.

What I really want to see when I reach the end of a manuscript is that each thread and action introduced has played a part in bringing a reader to that concluding moment, whatever it is. Writing is a process of exercising choice, so make sure you’re making choices for a reason.

CWN: Could you describe some of the common problems you've seen in terms of character development?

Lindsey Alexander: Similar to dropped threads, characters who fade in and out, or whose presence feels uneven, are problematic. If a character is going to play a central role, an author needs to signal that to the reader by devoting some time and attention to developing that character, and not letting the reader forget they exist. Even if you’re setting up their role as a surprise—for example, a destitute protagonist’s rich aunt from a foreign country swoops in on page 356 and saves the day—you need to lay the groundwork for that possibility. Page 356 shouldn’t be the first time we hear of this aunt. We need to be prepared for that eventuality in order to feel happily surprised rather than frustrated and taken aback by a plot twist that feels like the author grasping for easy solutions.

"If a character is going to play a central role, an author needs to signal that to the reader by devoting some time and attention to developing that character"

- Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel

CWN: Could you offer some advice in terms of story pacing?

Lindsey Alexander: A great—and often overlooked—tool for authors trying to improve the pacing of their work is language itself. A lot of times, authors approach pacing from a plot perspective. That is, they rely on lulls in action or intensifying action to do their pacing work for them. But leveraging language is a great way to give a reader a sense of increases or decreases in movement. Think about a piece of classical music—what signals to you as a listener that a piece is becoming faster or more intense? Those long, smooth violin strokes become staccato and abrupt, the drums come up, the pitch of the flute becomes higher and more frantic. Similarly in writing, where your goal is to increase pacing, avoid lyrical, sonorous language and choose words that are more impactful and energetic. A long paragraph full of four- or five-syllable words gives a reader a different sense of speed than brief paragraphs loaded with one- or two-syllable words. When increasing pacing, dialogue might become more rapid-fire, or you might choose to make more sudden transitions. Consider the sound of each word you use: besides meaning, what does its sound connote to you? S sounds and long vowels, for example, have a different feel than lots of k’s and t’s and short vowels. It’s the difference between feline and cat. Language is a real friend of pacing, so use it strategically.

CWN: Are there any specific issues with dialogue that fiction writers should watch out for during the revision process?

Lindsey Alexander: Make sure each character’s voice is consistent, unless they’ve undergone some great change that impacts how they speak. Lines that don’t feel consistent with the way a character speaks should stick out to you like sore thumbs in the revision process, once you’ve gotten to know them through the process of finishing a draft. If they don’t stick out to you, a careful reader should be able to point them out.

Also, consider the balance of dialogue and narrative exposition—you might find, in revision, that information you’re trying to relate in dialogue would feel more naturally presented in narrative. It’s rare in real life for people to present large chunks of carefully structured, very organized information to each other, outside of boardrooms or classrooms. Some genres—fantasy, for example—are more forgiving of this approach than others. However, if your characters are frequently explaining things at length to each other—if what you’ve got is a monologue with brief interruptions rather than interactive dialogue—you need to consider reworking the presentation of information so that it’s more balanced between dialogue and narrative.

CWN: Do you have any other words of advice for fiction writers who are in the process of revising a manuscript?

Lindsey Alexander: Find and cultivate relationships with good readers for your work. I characterize a “good reader” as someone who understands and enjoys your genre, reads carefully and is reliable with critiques, is not your spouse or family member, and who will act as a mirror for your work rather than telling you what your work “should” be. As a mirror, a good reader’s job is to reflect back to you what your writing communicates: What’s the heart of the story? Whose story is it? How are certain characters coming across? Is there tension where there needs to be? If what they’re getting out of your writing and what you’re attempting to communicate are in line, then you’re on the right track. If there’s confusion or misunderstanding, or if there’s information (plot-wise, character-wise, or otherwise) they feel is missing or could be elaborated on, you may need to revisit these issues during revision.

If you’re looking for support during the initial writing or revision process, connect with a critique group in your area, or consider enrolling in a writing workshop. I don’t know about you, but isolation is one of my least favorite aspects of writing. Spending time with other writers can be gratifying socially, professionally, and creatively—you never know what ideas you’ll come up with when you talk about your project with others.

"Within ten pages, I want to have a sense of a book’s arc—what scale and scope it will have, who the protagonists are, what conflicts they’re going to be grappling with, where the story takes place, from what perspective the story will be told."

- Lindsey Alexander on Publishing a Novel

Publishing a Novel - Next Steps

If you're planning on publishing a novel, you might be interested in our new online course. Self-Critique for Fiction Writers will help you shape up over 100 aspects of your fiction to make the best impression on agents and editors.

Did you like this interview on publishing a novel? You might also enjoy our interview with Robin Martin on finding a literary agent.

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