As an acquisitions editor, I see a wide range of submissions both in subject matter and writing style, but one thing in particular really perplexes me sometimes.
It’s getting a manuscript I absolutely love, but can’t offer a contract on because there are just too many issues, often minor, but that would add up to quite a headache for our copyediting department. I’m talking about things like word/phrase repetition, grammatical errors, and, more importantly, plot holes that would bring readers to a screeching halt partway through the story.
You might be wondering how I could love a manuscript that had issues like that. Well, because there are other areas where the author did a fantastic job: premise, characterizations, emotions, dialog, pacing. Those can all be wonderful and make me long to accept the work, but if there are too many issues that need to be addressed before the book can “go to press” as it were, the bottom line is I have to say no, at least for the time being. And that actually breaks my heart a little.
So yes, grammar matters – in each and every sentence you write. Active phrasing and concrete nouns matter – in every case. Knowing how to tag dialog matters. And please, PLEASE, learn the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, and when to use them. And when not to use them. You definitely don’t want technical stuff to be why an editor rejects your work…but trust me, it happens. If you don’t know grammatical rules, learn them. I personally have a subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style, but there are free sites as well, such as http://grammarbook.com.
Finally, when a manuscript is finished, rather than race to submit, the author needs to take take four steps back, breathe, and then view the work with her most critical eye, because that’s how an editor will view it. If the conflict doesn’t quite feel believable, dig deeper into your characters’ backgrounds to strengthen it. Motivate their actions, or their actions just won’t feel believable. Give them goals. Make them proactive rather than reactive. And keep them talking and interacting with each other. I’ve found the best way to develop a plot with good forward momentum is for the characters to be constantly playing off one another. Every scene should propel your story forward, never backward (yes, I’ve seen scenes that do this). And never let the story resolution come too easily – make the characters work for it. You always want to sustain the romantic conflict till the end, or readers might stop turning pages.
These are all things that can stop me in the middle of an otherwise engaging story, and regretfully decide that, despite a world of potential, it has to be a no, at least for now. Sending those emails is the hardest part of my job – it’s proabably as hard for me to hit send as it for the author to receive it.
So don’t sabotage your own career – don’t let the little, easily-fixable things keep you from realizing your dream!