As an agent I receive hundreds of manuscripts throughout the year from authors seeking representation. For the most part, the manuscripts—both fiction and nonfiction—are well written, interesting, and entertaining. But in today’s market, that isn’t good enough. A manuscript must stand out from the rest in such a way that I have full confidence I can successfully place it with a publisher. In this blog, I want to discuss writing adult fiction, and a few things that will make your manuscript stand out from the others.

1. Write something that is new, gripping, and exciting.
You can use themes and subjects that have been used before, but put a different twist on it. Use your own background and experience to make it unique and different and believable. For example, in my novel The House of Kane, I pull from my experiences as an author, editor, and agent, and the knowledge I have garnered over these many years of what takes place inside a publishing house. This realism is interspersed throughout my fictional story of Aislinn Marchánt, a writer and editorial consultant who is hired by the major New York publishing company, Kane Publishing House, to help determine why several submissions sent to them have mysteriously disappeared only to be published later by another publisher. Are the editors at Kane simply not being diligent enough with the in-coming submissions, or is there something more sinister going on? Working between her West Palm Beach home and New York City, Aislinn quickly becomes involved with the House of Kane as well as with Caldwell Kane, the man who hired her.

2. Start the story on the day that is different.
In Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery begins her story on the day Anne Shirley, an orphan, is to arrive at her new home.

Alcott starts Little Women with this passage: “Christmas won’t be like Christmas without any presents,” said Jo lying on the rug.

In my novel, The Gospel According to Prissy, I start the book with my main character, Laramie Larkins Kruger, driving up to the hospital emergency door—the moment when everything in Laramie’s life changes:

It was the second time in twice as many weeks. The hand that had been holding a bloody towel against the left side of her face somehow managed to push the car door open….

When beginning your book, think about peril—physical as well as emotional—or adventure, excitement, or change. View your story as a snapshot in time. Everything was normal until this happened.

3. Set the tone in the very first sentences.
Setting the tone means letting the reader know if the story is a western or mystery, a contemporary romance or spoof, early on.

I was a leader of a critique group at the SCBWI National Convention several years ago. In one participant’s YA story, it started out very funny. Then we found out the protagonist had been a victim of rape. We felt like a bad joke had been played on us. The tone to this story was totally misleading.

How do you set the tone?
By choosing words carefully—strong active nouns and verbs.
By paying attention to subtle differences/meaning.
By descriptions, and
By dialogue.

In my novel Shyla’s Initiative, I begin my story in a setting that introduces one of the major themes that runs throughout the story—an ancient, little-known off-shoot religion tied to Santeria. It lets the reader know that there is something strange, mysterious, yet to be defined, and a little threatening.

As it was in the beginning, it had always been; and so it was now. Four people, three men and a woman, made their way single file on the stone path that marked its way through the dense foliage of flowering hibiscus and oleander, large crotons, and sweet-scented lantana. Some of the planting were large, some of the small; some of them grew in wild abandon, others in cultivated rows. The plants had been carefully selected, as had each stone, and brought together at this place in this form and pattern for the sole purpose of pleasing the orishas, those emissaries who ruled over every force of nature and every aspect of human life.
At the end of the path the four people came to a clearing surrounded by cypress trees, tall and aged. This is where the altar stood. It was that time of day when things appeared diminished in definition and somewhat muted. Colors were no longer distinct, having faded into indistinguishable earth tones. Birds ceased their song, other creatures simply paused as though listening and waiting for the unfolding events of night; and like the disappearing sun far off in the horizon, everything was suddenly less visible. It was dusk.

The tone escalates as the plot develops, and in this case the reader feels the foreboding, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and mystery.

4. Get the first paragraphs right—TECHNICALLY.

There are at least four things the reader should know by the end of the first few paragraphs:

– Who is the protagonist? Boy or girl? Man or woman? What’s his or her name? How old is he or she?
– What is the time—historically speaking?
– Where is the story taking place?
– Finally, we want to know if reading the story will make us too scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night or make us pine for the handsome and sensitive Dirk, our heart throb.

5. Trends revisited.
As in children’s books, themes and subject matter have changed over the years in adult books. One of the current popular categories is “thriller.” There is the medical thriller, political thriller, science fiction thriller, mainstream thriller, psychological thriller, religious thriller, and even romance thriller. Divorce, drugs, abuse, and death are popular themes in today’s market, and in general, anything with a cutting edge. Science fiction and fantasy are also popular, and romance has evolved into several different levels that include everything from bodice-ripping heart-throb romance to chick lit and inspirational/religious romance. It is important to be aware of trends, but it is equally important to remember that trends don’t usually last. Already I am hearing from publishers they are tired of thrillers—they want something new.

Finally. one word of caution: Don’t take the current best seller and think you can improve on it or write something similar that will be just as popular. It won’t. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was first released, I must have received well over a thousand submissions with the word “Code” in the title. Come up with your own story—unique and unlike anything else on the market.

Next time I’ll talk about writing nonfiction and some of the important elements that will make a publisher or agent sit up and take notice.
Thanks for stopping by.