Friday, August 19, 2011

never mind the bat nests: on fixer-upper manuscripts

When INTERN was in high school, she longed for a part in the school play, Shakespeare’s As You Like It. She was awkward and graceless and made a completely ridiculous Acting Face whenever she practiced reading the script, but she cared, goddamit, and on the day of the auditions she delivered a passionate rendition of Jabberwocky to the bemused directors. INTERN’s best friend, who was listening from the hallway, declared the performance “psychotic” and suggested that perhaps acting had better be left to the regular drama kids, none of whom had a singular and unchanging Acting Face but were in fact capable of a full range of actorly expressions.

A week later, the cast list went up. INTERN was shocked to see her name at the very bottom, cast in a minor role (but a role nonetheless!) as a foppish Frenchman named Le Beau.

INTERN was thrilled but mystified. Wasn’t it ill-advised to allow such an inexperienced actress even a minor role in the production? She was well aware of how clumsy her audition had been.

But when she saw the director in the hallway later that day, he grinned. “We just had to cast you!” he said. “That face!”—and he literally howled with laughter as he kept on walking down the hall.

As luck would have it, Le Beau is perhaps the only character in the history of the English language for which INTERN’s accursed Acting Face is perfectly suited. As for her many (other) shortcomings as an actress, well, the director was willing to work on them. He had fallen in love with The Face; it was a fair bet that INTERN’s posture, her projection, and all that other actorly stuff would come into place in time for the show.


A little while ago, INTERN heard from a writer-friend who had just gotten his first-ever revision letter from his agent.

“She started out by saying what an amazing concept I have and how much she adores the novel. Then she basically said the entire plot doesn’t make sense, the ending is one giant cliché, and she almost stopped reading after two pages because the first chapter’s so bad.”

How, wondered INTERN’s writer-friend, did his agent decide to sign him at all, when the manuscript was rife with so many embarrassing problems?

INTERN encouraged him to ask his agent this very question. A few days later, INTERN heard from him again: “She just fell in love with the concept.”

INTERN has heard similar stories from other first-time novelists, often substituting “voice” or “writing style” for “concept.” Conventional wisdom states that your manuscript should be as perfect as possible before going on the hunt for an agent. In truth, though, plenty of less-than-perfect manuscripts find representation—as long as they’re less-than-perfect in the right way.

Just like INTERN’s experience with the school play, these manuscripts don’t have everything going for them. But they have SOMETHING going for them, and that something is special enough to convince the right agent to work with the author on the less-special bits. Like a bat-infested Victorian with a breathtaking view of the ocean, fixer-upper manuscripts are all about potential.

But how many bats are too many?

INTERN has spent all afternoon trying to come up with a scientific-looking table: If you have X, you can (maybe) get away with a little Y.

For example: If you have an incredible voice, you’re more likley to get away with a couple fixable plot holes.


If you have a big enough platform, you can probably get away with feeding your pet monkey some Adderall and having IT write the manuscript.

But this kind of generalization could cause all sorts of trouble, so INTERN decided to ditch the project.

INTERN does not mean to suggest that writers ought to toss their manuscripts in the mail, bats and all, trusting that their ever-so-brilliant voice/concept/platform will cause agents to overlook the problems. On the contrary, manuscripts should be as polished as humanly possible before going in the mail.

But if you’re a little experienced, or a little awkward, or if there are a couple misplaced boards in the otherwise impressive house of your manuscript, don’t despair. The great thing about being a fixer-upper (as opposed to, say, a Demolition) is that your manuscript is capable of being fixed. And with the help of the right agent or editor, that’s exactly what you’ll do.


  1. wonderful post! Just what I needed to hear as I'm writing out my unbelievable plot lines and trying to sell them. I have the confidence that someone out there will be able to fix them. thanx again.

  2. Right on, brother.

    I think this may be THE most important thing about a ms: it's has the potential to be made into something really good. Providing the writer is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

  3. hit! A rallying cry to the despairing newcomer that, perhaps, all is not lost!

  4. Man, I need a monkey and some adderall, stat. O_o

  5. I understand that there is an important point being made here, but I'm still busy laughing at the Acting Face. It's such a great story! LOL. And yes, thank you also for the encouragement. But I say again - I LOVE that story!

  6. Fair Princess, you have blogged much good sport.

  7. Thanks :) I needed to read this today :)

  8. I tried out for As You Like It in HS, too! I was cast in a minor role because of a terrible audition, too! My minor role was Duke Frederick, and I totally forgot all of my lines the second the stage lights hit my face. For every performance. They should have just used my understudy. My experience was not as well-suited to writing advice, for sure.

  9. I have had three agents contact me and say how much they love my story, love my characters, love the humor, but... the story isn't quite to the point where they felt they could make me an offer of representation -- but they would be willing to work on revisions with me (with no promise of an actual offer) if I was willing to do so on an exclusive basis with them.

    (I worked with one for 6 months; the second held onto my ms. for 5 months without comment; I'm now starting to work with the third)

    Either my concept wasn't that special, or whothe$@#&%knowswhy but your mileage, obviously, may vary. (Yes, some frustration does leak out around the edges, I fear)

    As for the monkey on adderall, may I offer you my favorite Dilbert cartoon? It's the only one I've ever taped to my door:

  10. Just found your blog through @novaren on twitter. This post specifically was just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you! (and congrats on your book deal!)