Though we shred all rejected materials, we do keep track of submissions in a database. This has proven useful to us in a number of ways. It's especially helpful in terms of jogging our memories and cross-checking to see if any of us have previously seen a writer's work. We don't keep extensive notes, just author/title, a brief description of the book, and our no-holds-barred thoughts on the manuscript or proposal.
In looking at the database earlier this week, I noticed that we tend to use the same words quite often--and that these words can be packed with meaning. We usually won't use these words in a rejection letter (we try to be respectful), but these seem to me to be the 10 worst words we can use to describe a manuscript:
1. PRETENTIOUS. This is the worst of them all. "Pretentious" means the writer has an unrealistic sense of self and/or the work. However, there's a big difference between "ambitious but flawed" and pretentious. The former usually connotes a terrific grand concept that doesn't quite come together. The latter means "overly, and unjustifiably, impressed with oneself."
2. DERIVATIVE. At best this means startingly unoriginal; at worst it means "copycat." We do recognize that writers need to find ways to grab an agent's or editor's attention, and there certainly is a market for books that mimic bestsellers. However, at the end of the day I believe that orginality always wins out.
3. SELF-INDULGENT. A self-indulgent manuscript is one that the author has been unable to edit or revise with an objective eye--a book that indulges the writer's tendency to go on at length without regard to the reader. Such tendencies can be curbed with practice, and of course established authors can get away with such sins much more easily than aspiring novelists. A self-indulgent writer signals editors that they care much more about "getting published" than they do about selling books. And who needs that?
4. SLOW. There's a lot to be said for a brooding, carefully plotted building of suspense. But one of the worst sins in a mystery is a plodding plot, one that moves at a snail's pace or takes forever to get started. We need to be hooked in the first two pages--or, better yet, the first sentence and paragraph. Give me a gimmicky opening over tortuous backstory and endless detail any day of the week.
5. FORCED. I usually use this word to describe manuscripts that set out to be "funny." I can almost guarantee you that if you laugh a lot at your own jokes, you're not funny. One of my very favorite writers (and one of my all-time favorite finds) manages to combine some really intense psychological portraits with incredibly sharp humor. Yet I'd never describe his books as "humorous" as "funny," though the reviews often point out how satirically on-target they are. He's not trying to be funny. He is funny.
6. HO-HUM. A ho-hum manuscript might actually be a good book if you were stranded on a deserted island with nothing to read but pulp fiction. It has all the right elements but doesn't manage to rise above the everyday formula. Sadly, a competent, ho-hum manuscript won't make it in this cutthroat era. If we can't get excited about it, we're not going to be able to get readers excited about it, either.
7. INANE. I don't mind a wild plot. In fact, I sometimes love them, as in those over-the-top capers that I find absolutely wonderful on airplanes. I can get past some pretty big plot contrivances, but when characters do ridiculous things, the manuscript moves into the "inane" category, and I run for the hills.
8. DEPRESSING. I like characters to have conflicts that need to be resolved, but I don't like depressing mysteries peopled by depressed characters. This may be (read: is) my personal taste, but I don't think the typical mystery reader wants to spend time around dystonic individuals, particularly alcoholics and drug addicts. I sometimes think that such depressed characters are the creation of writers with "literary" ambitions, and that the works are published by editors and/or houses that like to see themselves as the oh-so-serious keepers of Contemporary Fiction. I have no such ambition. I want to enjoy reading the book, not congratulate myself for having gotten through it.
9. AMORAL. This one is a real problem with me. I don't think of myself as a prig, but I like a book to have a moral center. I sometimes feel that some of today's thrillers cast the villains almost as heroes, asking the reader to sympathize with them or even root for them. The very worst offender in history, I believe, is Thomas Harris' Hannibal, which basically pits two digusting psychopaths against each other and asks the reader to sympathize with one of them (Hannibal Lecter himself). I actually feel like a creep for having read it until the end, when I should have tossed it into the garbage pail.
10. DULL. Frankly, I use this adjective most often with regard to setting. Please do not be offended by this, but not all settings are created equal. The fact that a writer lives in a certain city or state does not automatically make that city or state a good place in which to set a novel.
All of this said, I do like to keep Mysterious Matters mostly positive, so let me end with a few words of encouragement.
There are certain words that we don't throw around easily. That is, when we say them, we usually mean them. If we say that a manuscript is well-written, we really do think it's written well. A word that I like to use when I've take a fancy to some part of the manuscript is clever (and I think that being clever is probably one of the most important characteristics a mystery writer must have). Finally, if I say that I will be glad to consider future submissions, this means that I think you have what it takes to get published, even if your current work isn't right for me at this time.