The Five Most Common Mistakes In Beginner Manuscripts

Mistakes-blog.jpgThis is one of my favorite blogs. I wish I could claim it, but the post was actually written by Jerry Jenkins. I love his work. If you haven’t visited him, I would highly recommend you do. He did put a disclaimer at the end of this article saying it was ok to share with friends, so I am in no way stealing his work. Hope this helps someone and hope you consider visiting his site.

It doesn’t sound fair.

It doesn’t seem right.

But here’s a dirty little secret of the writing life you need to hear:

Any veteran editor can tell within two minutes whether they’re going to reject your manuscript.

It takes longer to decide whether they’ll recommend it for purchase, of course, but—sad to say—it can, and often does, go into the reject pile just that fast.

“What?” you say. “Before I’ve had a chance to wow them with my stupendous villain? Before my mind-blowing twist? Before my plot really takes off?”

Sorry.

And I’m not exaggerating.

Why?

Because the competition is so stiff and editors have so many manuscripts to read, you have only nanoseconds to grab them by the throat and hang on.

Every writing mentor hammers at this ad infinitum: Your editor is your first reader.

Every word counts. You get one chance. You must capture them from the get-go.

Am I saying editors look for reasons to reject your work?

No, no, a thousand times no! They’re looking for the next Harry Potter!

Editors want you to succeed!

Then how can they know so quickly that your book won’t cut it?

In my lifetime in the business I’ve heard dozens of reasons, but let me give you my personal top five from my experience as both an editor and publisher:

  1. Throat-clearing

This is what editors call anything that comes before a story or chapter finally, really, begins. It usually consists of a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with the story. Get your main character introduced, establish and upset some status quo, then plunge him into terrible trouble that reveals the engine of your story. Is it a quest, a journey, a challenge, what?

There’ll be plenty of time to work in all those details that seemed so important while you were throat-clearing that would have cost you a sale. For now, your job is to start with a bang.

  1. Too many characters introduced too quickly

I’m usually wary of generalizations or hard and fast rules, but almost any time I see more than three characters within the first few pages, my eyes start to swim. If I feel like I need a program to keep track of the players, I quickly lose interest.

Your reader is trying to comprehend the story, and if you ask him to start cataloging a cast of characters right away, you risk losing him. Keep things simple until the story has taken shape.

  1. Point of View violations

Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene. Violate that cardinal rule and you expose yourself as an amateur right out of the gate. Beginners often defend themselves against this criticism by citing classics by famous authors or citing J.K. Rowling, the exception who proves the rule.

Times change. Readers’ tastes evolve. This is the rule for today, and it’s true of what sells.

  1. Clichés, and not just words and phrases

There are also clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock, a character describing herself while looking in a full-length mirror, future love interests literally bumping into each other upon first meeting, etc.

Also avoid beginning with an evocative, dramatic scene, and surprise, surprise, the main character wakes up to discover it’s all been a dream. There’s nothing wrong with dreams, but having them come as surprises has been used to death and takes all the air from the balloon of your story.

It’s also a cliché to have your main character feel his heart pound, race, thud, or hammer; and then he gasps, sucks wind, his breath comes short… If you describe the scene properly, your reader should experience all that and you shouldn’t have to say your character did. Put your character into a rough enough situation, and the reader will know what he’s feeling without having to be told—and hopefully, he’ll share his distress.

  1. Simply bad writing:
  • Written-ese

This is what I call that special language we all tend to use when we forget to Just Say It. I recently edited this sentence from a beginner: “The fire drop from the pommel of Tambre’s sword shot past the shimmering silver mist of her involuntary dispersal.”

I had to read a few more paragraphs to have a clue to what it even meant. That’s written-ese.

Hollywood screenwriters coined this term for prose that exactly mirrors real life but fails to advance your plot. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves, except that they could be synopsized to save the reader’s time and patience. A perfect example is replacing all the hi’s and hello’s and how are you’s that precede meaningful dialogue with something like: “After trading pleasantries, Jim asked Fred if he’d heard about what had happened to Tricia. ‘No, what?’”

  • Passive voice

Avoid state-of-being verbs. Change sentences like “There was a man standing…” to “A man stood…”

  • Needless words

The most famous rule in the bible of writing hints, The Elements of Style, is “Omit Needless Words,” which follows its own advice. This should be the hallmark of every writer.

Example: The administrative assistant ushered me through the open door into the CEO’s office, and I sat down in a chair across from his big, wood desk.

Edit: Obviously, there would be a door. And even more obviously, it would be open. If I sat, I would sit “down,” and naturally it would be in a chair. Because I’m seeing the CEO, a description of his desk would be notable only if it weren’t big or wood.

Result: The administrative assistant ushered me into the CEO’s office, and I sat across from his desk.

Re-examine these 5 common mistakes, and study more self-editing tips here

-Jan R

The Five Most Common Mistakes In Beginner Manuscripts

Choose Your Words Wisely!

seo-content-writing3-1024x458I have been accused and rightly so of on-the-nose-writing, over writing, redundancies, and throat-clearing. I’ve also had a close relationship with the words “that” and “had”. I blame it on inexperience and just not knowing any better.

Novelist and editor Sol Stein says the power of your words is diminished by not picking just the better one. “He proved a scrappy, active fighter,” is more powerful if you settle on the stronger of those two adjectives. Less is more. Which would you choose?

When editing your draft, remember that every word counts. Every word should have a reason for being and not just added fluff. “It sounds good,” won’t cut it.

  • Avoid throat-clearing- This is a literary term used to describe a story or chapter that finally begins after two or three pages of scene setting or backstory. You may write beautifully but nobody wants to get bogged down in description. I could care less the dutchess wore a gown with six gold buttons encrusted with diamond dust running down the back, unless it was found at a crime scene. Get on with the story.
  • Choose normal words– When you’re tempted to show off your vocabulary, think reader-first. Get out of the way of your message.
  • Avoid subtle redundancies– “She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted. When you nod, it’s your head and if you nod, you are agreeing. You don’t have to tell your reader this. “He clapped his hands.” What else would he clap? “She shrugged her shoulders.” What else would she shrug?
  • Avoid the words Up and Down-unless they are really needed.
  • Usually delete the words ‘that’ and ‘had’. Read the sentence with them in it and then without. Are they really necessary? You will be amazed how many times these words are used incorrectly.
  • Give the reader credit- Once you’ve established something, you don’t need to repeat it. Another one I’m guilty of 🙂
  • Avoid telling what’s not happening. “He didn’t respond.” “She didn’t say anything.” If you don’t say things happened, we’ll assume they didn’t.
  • Avoid being an adjectival maniac.- Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs, not adjectives. Use them sparingly.
  • Avoid Hedging verbs-…smiled lightly, almost laughed.
  • Avoid the word literally-when you mean figuratively. I was literally climbing the walls, My eyes literally fell out of my head–really?
  • Avoid on-the-nose-writing.-You don’t need to tell every action of every character in each scene, what they’re doing with each hand, etc.

I hope this information helps you to be more aware of the words you use. Choose your words wisely, they do matter.

I would like to end this blog by giving credit to Jerry Jenkins for the information I’ve shared. He has a great blog for writers and provides not only invaluable information, but free tools to assist writers on their journey. If you haven’t visited his site, I would encourage you to do so 🙂

-Jan R

 

 

Choose Your Words Wisely!