Pros: Detailed; witty; many examples and exercises; practical; surprisingly non-gimmicky
Cons: Some of this is old hat; for commercial fiction only
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 5/10/2004
Alice Orr’s “No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells” sounds gimmicky. So why did I read it? Curiosity, I guess. I wanted to know what sort of “secrets” could supposedly turn rejection into acceptance for writers. I was surprised to find out that while the title makes this book sound like a “5 steps to instant success” spam letter, the content is invaluable.
This book is aimed strictly at writers of commercial, novel-length fiction (think thrillers, mysteries, romances, other genre work). If you write literary fiction you’ll still find things of value in here, but some of the rules-of-thumb simply won’t apply (or won’t apply as stringently). This book doesn’t deal with non-fiction.
Many of the basic concepts in here will be old hat to experienced writers. We all know we need to create compelling characters, and we all know we need to hook readers with a dramatic opening. However, Ms. Orr provides very concrete suggestions, examples, exercises, and directions to go with her “secrets.” One of the best things she does is to give negative examples from real manuscripts she’s received (suitably anonymized, of course), then explain why those manuscripts would be rejected and what the author could do to make the manuscript more appealing to an editor. So, while this book is best suited to novice writers, it still has much to offer any writer who doesn’t understand why her manuscripts are being rejected. It can help you to find the flaws in your work and fix them.
The 50 hints in this book are divided into ten “passages” of five hints each.
Passage 1: Ideas. This section talks about where we get our ideas, how to get into the habit of coming up with ideas, and, specifically, how to come up with ideas that will suit the world of commercial fiction.
Passage 2: Protagonists. Orr talks about how to choose the best protagonist for your story, how to come up with a protagonist who is suitably heroic, how to make sure your protagonist has enough motivation for her actions, and so on. There are some handy character exploration exercises here, and I love Orr’s discussion on passive vs. active protagonists.
Passages 3 and 4: Second-string characters. Here we find out more about secondary characters, from sidekicks to villains, romantic interests to walk-on roles. Orr discusses conflict, depth, and more.
Passage 5: Beginnings. Orr stresses the need to place our characters in hot water right from the start, and gives us plenty of tips to help us do this right. She deals with both the wider picture of how the story begins, and the narrower picture of how that first scene, page, and even line should begin.
Passage 6: Scenes. Orr helps us figure out whether a scene is necessary, whether it’s doing its job, and how to get the most out of it.
Passage 7: Middles. The middle of a story is often a problem spot. Orr gives us hints to help us keep a good grip on the story line so we can keep the drama, conflict, and plot moving.
Passage 8: Style. This section deals with elements of writing style. There are other books that cover this in a lot more detail, but it’s handy to have the bare bones of these tips laid out in quick fashion to help remind us of what’s truly important. Unlike most books on style, this one is specifically aimed at writers of commercial fiction.
Passage 9: Endings. This section talks about payoffs, ways not to end your story, satisfying the reader, and so on.
Passage 10: What comes next. This chapter deals with everything that happens after you’re done with the actual writing. Orr goes into a fair amount of detail on how to write a good story synopsis, how to pitch a book, how to promote yourself and your work, and what it means (and takes) to be (and come across as) a pro rather than an amateur.
If you’re looking for a magic pill that will enable you to take your manuscripts that are currently getting rejected and get them accepted without your having to do any extra work, this book isn’t going to help. (Of course, neither will any other book.) However, if you’re willing to accept the reality that rejection generally means there are things you could improve about your work, and if you’re willing to do the work to make those improvements, this book could help you quite a bit.
All of these pieces of advice can be found in other writing books. However, this particular book has a couple of advantages over others:
1. The author has worked as author, agent and editor; she brings a wide variety of perspectives to the table as well as a very balanced viewpoint.
2. This book is aimed specifically at writers of commercial novel-length fiction, so if that’s what you write, you’ll find more of this information to be of specific use to you.
3. Orr includes all sorts of specific examples, concrete suggestions, and helpful exercises to help you internalize her lessons. So if you’ve had trouble figuring out how to apply all these ideas to your work, this book can bridge that gap.
This is a great book that far exceeds the expectations I had from the cover. The writing style is comfortable, friendly, straightforward and witty, making it an easy, fun and interesting read. Nearly any writer of commercial fiction could benefit from it.