Why Manuscripts Sparkle

Recently, I’ve been binge-reading a bunch of manuscripts by authors seeking publication (that’s all of us, right?)  They’re all very well written, but some of them stand out, and others do not.

So I took the opportunity to study this—because we all want our manuscripts to stand out when they reach the editor’s desk.  The reasons why some of them do stand out didn’t become apparent to me until I noticed that certain elements of the sparkling manuscripts were missing from the rest.

Here are 5 things I’ve noticed so far.  Manuscripts that sparkle and stand out…

1. …use sensory detail.  As a reader, I want to go on the journey with the characters.  I want to see, feel, taste, hear, and smell all the things that they notice.  Not only does this help to make the setting feel real, but also the characters.

2. …have characters who feel real.  What the characters look like doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they are feeling, or how they act, or why they choose to act in the way they do.  They’re active characters rather than passive.  They actually do something—and it’s interesting—rather than talking about it.

3. …have lots of conflict.  Once we readers care about a character, we really care when trouble comes knocking.  We are rooting for the character, and we want him/her to solve whatever problem crops up.  But will he/she solve it in time?

4. …have twists and turns and surprises.  We talked about this last month when Mysteristas explored the “twist” theme.  And it’s so true!  Readers want to be surprised.  We don’t want the expected answer.  We want new and marvelous adventures that we haven’t been able to predict.

5. …have a nice balance of pacing.  Sometimes the action is fast, when exciting events are happening.  And sometimes the action is slow, when the characters are introspective so that the reader gets to understand why they are doing the things they are doing.  It’s not all of either one, but some of both, and they need to be balanced.

This is just the beginning, and I’d love to see more thoughts.  But here’s the bottom line:  even the most brilliantly luminous story ideas are gonna fizzle without that sparkle.


13 thoughts on “Why Manuscripts Sparkle”

  1. Thanks for the post. All of points you make are mandatory. I like a strong setting which is different from my day-to-day life: academia in Cynthia Kuhn’s book, Cajun country in Ellen Byron’s book, Belfast during The Troubles in Adrian McKinty’s book and so on.


  2. Wonderful post, Sue! All of those definitely make a manuscript sparkle, and are things I strive for in my own writing (it’s tough!). Another I’d add is a strong and unique voice, which is so important!


  3. Excellent post, Sue. I was intrigued that you omitted dialogue. We’re often told to write witty dialogue, but dialogue rarely keeps me reading. Some authors, yes, they handle it really well and I do read the books for the dialogue, but most. No. I want to be drawn into the story and have it swirl around me. I think you were correct to omit it.


  4. Agreed! Keenan, I’m also big on setting. I don’t want to just see it. I want to experience it.

    Yep, Mary. Sparkle avoids the flat.

    So true, Kate. Voice is so important, and often is a byproduct of sparkle. It’s hard to plan voice.

    Sure, Kimberly, glad to! And thanks, Sam!

    Kait, one of my writing instructors told me long ago that dialogue is the longest way to tell a story. It’s taken me a long time to understand what that means. Dialogue done well also adds sparkle!


  5. All of these are fabulous points. My only condition (my nasty internal editor has snuck out of the closet) would be that all of these things happen organically. Unforced. Natural to the the story. That requires a lot more nuance.

    You probably assumed that, didn’t you? And here I am bumping things around.

    Back to my cave.


  6. Very interesting, Sue! I like all of the things you mentioned. Great list.

    Also want a strong and compelling voice, as Kate brought up–if it doesn’t have a strong voice, I’m likely to wander away as a reader. On the flip side, sometimes I will keep reading even if other things don’t work IF the voice is great, as was the case in a book I recently read that shall not be named…didn’t like the story or characters or plot at ALL but really enjoyed the voice. 😉

    Also agree with the je ne sais quois that Becky mentioned…sometimes there’s just that indefinable extra sparkle!


  7. I absolutely agree with your list of what makes a book “sparkle.”

    I especially like strong, real characters. I want those characters to be so real to me that I might meet them in the grocery story, that they might buy the house down the street. (Even the “bad guys.” Have you ever noticed that bad guys make the best neighbors? When news people interview the neighbors after police have found twelve dismembered bodies in someone’s garage freezer, the neighbors always say “Oh, he was such a nice neighbor. Always quiet. Never bothered anyone.” )

    I also like appropriate vocabulary, grammar and construction. I don’t like books that “talk down” to me. I don’t want something written with four word sentences and words of five letters or less. I’m not in third grade. If I were, I wouldn’t be reading about people getting murdered.

    And, yes, this is all subjective. I don’t like every book I read, and other people hate books that I loved. I guess that is why the industry has so many of you diverse writers.


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