Bigger Really Is Better

First, some exciting news! Cap’n Sweet Valley and I have acquired our first manuscript. Stay tuned for deal news. We’re pretty excited about this (for a number of reasons, possibly differing from each other’s).

Second, some housekeeping news: please, please, PLEASE do not submit your manuscript to me via this website. The New Adult contest was an exception, not a rule. St. Martin’s Press makes it their policy not to accept unagented manuscripts and if we have not contacted you first, please refrain from querying me here. In the future, submit your query through the proper channels. Any submissions I receive through the blog will be rejected. I’m sorry, but I simply cannot consider everything that comes here in fairness to everyone.

Third, a look into rejections, and why we reject manuscripts.

Bigger Really is Better

Bigger really is better.

People all about the internets have been posting about why they pass on manuscripts. I thought I’d add my two cents here. Most of the reasons we pass is pretty much the same as everyone else’s.

Not right for our list.

In our case, we receive a lot of really great manuscripts that are unfortunately too YA for us. I know we’ve stirred a lot of excitement within the YA community with our announcement about publishing into the niche above Young Adult, but we are looking to publish adult fiction. I love YA, I really do, but if we publish one, it will have to be a breakout or crossover in some way.

Needs too much work.

This one might sound a little odd coming from an editorial department, but we’ve gotten a few books that were compelling or interesting in some way, but need some major rewriting. Rewriting is different from revising–the former changes the entire book in a significant way, the latter is tightening structure, character motivation, and prose. We don’t want to write the book for you; that’s your job, not ours.

The Usual Suspects: Plot, Character, Writing, Storytelling

You can have one of the four that needs work, sometimes even two of the four and we might be willing to take a chance. I’ve listed the problems in order of importance and/or ease of fixability: plot is the easiest, storytelling is the hardest.

Not good enough.

I hate this one, mostly because I hate writing rejections for it. No one likes to hear something isn’t good enough. But sometimes, that’s really the only answer we have.

Not big enough.

A phrase I’ve been using more and more in my editorial discussions with Cap’n Sweet Valley is that a manuscript is simply “not big enough”. But what does that mean? “Big” doesn’t mean “longer”. “Big” doesn’t necessarily mean “bestseller” either (not that you can predict that). Of course, we’d love to have the next HARRY POTTER or TWILIGHT or THE DA VINCI CODE in our grubby little mitts, but who wouldn’t? This is not the same as “not good enough”, not really.


At the risk of sounding like a size queen, I want my books to be “big”. Grand scale, epic conflict, sweeping emotions, etc. I want to cry, I want to laugh, and I want to throw books across the room because I care about what happens. This is a “big” book–one that elicits strong emotional responses from its readers. Sometimes those emotional responses can be negative–I mean, I will never, ever forgive Jo for refusing to marry Laurie in LITTLE WOMEN. I can’t read it all the through to this very day. Was I happy? No. Did I feel strongly about it? Absolutely. Will I ever forget it? NEVER.

I’ve come across a lot of manuscripts that are well-written, with interesting characters, and with interesting stories, but ultimately, the scale seems too small. This doesn’t mean the manuscript isn’t “good enough”; on the contrary, it could be a really wonderful book. Unfortunately, in the early stages of feeling out this new category, Cap’n Sweet Valley and I are looking for manuscripts that have something really special, whether it be in the prose, the plot, or the setting. Really special books will distinguish us in the marketplace, and while there is a definite market for lovely, intimate novels, that is not what we are looking for at this juncture.

But what makes something “big”? That’s harder to articulate because it involves a number of different factors. You can set a novel in a small town, but it can still be a “big” novel. What makes a novel “big” to me are consequences. For me, a protagonist must be presented with difficult choices and that the consequence of each choice must matter in a significant way. On the simplest level, it can be about life or death. Save the life of a few loved ones or the lives of many people you don’t know?

I think Elizabeth C. Bunce’s A CURSE AS DARK AS GOLD is a great example of a “big” book with a more intimate setting. The greatest dilemma facing Charlotte Miller, our determined young heroine, is how to save the existence of her little village. Does she give in to the offers of a buyout from larger, more prosperous mills? To do so would save her family from ruin, but would destroy the livelihood of the people with whom she’s grown up. When disaster after disaster falls upon her little enterprise, she needs to decide between selling the mill or bargaining with a mysterious figure named Jack Spinner, who names an impossible price.

The novel is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but remove the fairytale and you still have a “big” book. It’s not a traditional fantasy; the fantastic elements are small and/or ambiguous. There is no grand, sweeping romance (but there is romance, believe me). The setting isn’t exotic; it takes place in a small English village during the Industrial Revolution. The choices Charlotte make matter, and they are not easy ones. As White-Harp said in her review, we stayed up really, really late to find out what happens, even though we knew the story to begin with. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone.

Those are my thoughts. Can anyone else give me some “big” books?

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6 Responses to Bigger Really Is Better

  1. Kristan 11 Jan 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I think MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult might qualify. I mean, on one level, it’s just about sisters. But when you go further, it’s about a family that’s falling apart trying to save the life of one of their own.

    Also, Junot Diaz’s BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO. On one level, it’s about a nerdy Dominican American who wants to fall in love (and get laid). When you go further, it’s about an immigrant family struggling to rise above their circumstances (and also save the life of one of their own).

    And maybe also SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd. This one doesn’t have the big consequences you’re talking about (life or death) but I think identity can be a big stake/important issue (especially in your realm of New Adult, although SECRET LIFE isn’t NA). On one level, SECRET LIFE is about a girl running away from home. When you go further, it’s about race relations in the South, it’s about a girl coming to terms with the death of her mother, and it’s about a girl finding her real place in the world. To me that’s big, even if it doesn’t involve saving villages or worlds.

  2. Kristan 11 Jan 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Oh, and congrats on the acquisition! I look forward to reading more about that.

  3. Laura Daimond 12 Jan 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    Woo-hoo! Congrats!!

    Big books: Again, I have to say Mary Doria Russell does this with The Sparrow, Children of God, and A Thread of Grace (Oh, Renzo!). I also enjoyed the “bigness” of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

  4. Katie 19 Jan 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    I’ve always heard that, if you get equal parts ecstatic and infuriated responses (and no one in the middle), you’ve succeeded. Those are big books!

    Oh, and I’ll never forgive Jo either. Will I forget that book? Nope.

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