Today we have a guest post by Trisha Tobias, who has worked on books such as the award-winning Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles by J.M. Sullivan, and Chasing Eveline by Leslie Hauser:
When it comes to writing, there aren’t many hard rules. It’s a creative endeavour, and there are many ways to accomplish a single goal. But the missteps below aren’t myths—they’re very real—and they’re especially prevalent in manuscripts by budding wordsmiths. Knowledge is power, so let’s break down five major mistakes newbie writers make.
Pacing might be one of the biggest issues I come across in manuscripts, and it’s also one of the more difficult problems to explain or correct. If your story’s pacing is too uneven, especially in early chapters, it can be a swift no—from agent, editor, or reader. Too fast? Nobody knows what’s going on, and they struggle to attach to your protagonist. Too slow? The reader will wonder when the real story begins because what they’re reading doesn’t seem to matter…and might be boring. And if your reader feels like they’re getting whiplash from the back and forth of the pacing, well, that probably won’t endear them to your work either.
This is something that you simply get better at identifying with time. (I know! Frustrating. I’m sorry!) However, stepping away from your manuscript can help. When you read through the narrative with fresh eyes, you’re more likely to notice when the flow of the story isn’t quite right.
Mapping out plot beats can also help you figure out where important moments in your story are occurring too early, too late, or not at all!
Experiment a little, and eventually you’ll be able to tell when the narrative has gone astray or stalled completely.
2) Low Stakes
I don’t mean in general, but for the main character. If the reader doesn’t understand why the story’s events and consequences matter to your protagonist specifically, they are pointless. (A bit blunt, but true.) Not every story requires exploding planets and worldwide plagues. Those are big stakes, but they aren’t inherently high stakes. Tension comes from personal investment, and the more invested your protagonist is, the more excitement.
There’s no one way to correct this, but one of the best ways is to re-evaluate your main character from the ground up. Look at their history, their desires, and their motivations. If any part seems unclear or doesn’t seem to connect to the character, target that element. All facets of your protagonist (and your entire cast, really) should work together to make them…them. If the character isn’t solid, the stakes don’t matter, so get to know your protagonist!
3) Lack of Clarity
If the reader can’t follow what’s going on, it’s time to perform triage. Your work needs to convey meaning. As an editor, I don’t want to take on a project that seems muddled or unfocused.
Now, don’t take this to mean you can’t do interesting experimental writing. You can do just about anything! (Have fun!) But some degree of clarity is necessary to make sure your readers aren’t completely lost from page 1 to page 300. What seems clear to you as the writer might not be so obvious to your audience. And for many editors and agents, fuzzy work equals “I’m not interested.”
This is another blunder that can be fixed with time away from your manuscript. Give yourself a chance to forget the details, then return with new perspective. Confusing parts will reveal themselves to you in ways they wouldn’t before. Also consider additional readers who aren’t familiar with your work. If they don’t understand something that makes perfect sense to you—and if they’re good people—they’ll let you know.
Confession: this is a struggle of mine! As a writer, I use far more space to describe something than I really need to. Does all the extra text add anything? Probably not. Sometimes, less is more. When you keep your writing tight, the product is altogether more streamlined. And the brevity can mean a more directly impactful story.
You don’t need to use every word. You need to use the right ones. So while you might mourn a declining word count or the loss of a breathtaking paragraph, really go through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb and cull words that aren’t pulling their weight. The flow will improve by leaps and bounds.
(But don’t bother with this until your plot’s events are concrete! There’s no point in performing line-level edits on scenes that might not make the final cut!)
5) Lack of Basic Editing
We all know the feeling of pressing “Send,” then later browsing your email to discover a massive typo staring you in the face. It happens to the best of us. So it’s worth stating this: nobody expects your manuscript to be perfect. Whoever is reading your work probably won’t reject you simply because there were some mistakes here and there. (To err is human.)
But if mistakes are abundant, not only does this jar the reader from your story, it might make someone wonder if you’re careful and thorough, if you took any time to review your work before sharing it with the world. It doesn’t show your book in the best light, and it doesn’t do anything for your image either.
Typos and misspellings aren’t death knells, but try to polish your manuscript as much as you can before you send them out. It’s the respectful thing to do! No special hacks or tricks necessary—just hard work. Scrutinize every line carefully, and maybe ask a friend or critique partner to look along too.
Bonus For Querying Writers: Not Following Directions!
This is the simplest way for a new writer to ruin chances for themselves—and it’s totally avoidable if they’re paying attention! Every time someone receives a manuscript from a writer who didn’t do their research or didn’t care about the guidelines set by the agency or publisher, someone’s eye twitches. (Spoiler: it’s my eye.)
If an agency doesn’t represent poetry, don’t send them your heartfelt poems; they will not care. If a publisher isn’t interested in nonfiction, attaching your memoir is already a lost cause; they won’t read it. You waste your time and the time of agents and editors who are already up to their eyeballs in work when you don’t take directions into consideration. Spare yourself the heartache!
Writing’s not easy, and with a plethora of pitfalls lining the path from draft to publication, it’s difficult to avoid tripping along the way. But staying mindful at every step is half the battle. By knowing what mistakes can be made, you’ll be ahead of the game and able to fix them when they crop up. Your writer toolkit has everything you need! – Click to Tweet
Trisha Tobias is a freelance editor, Assistant Editor at Pen Name Publishing, and the mind behind the bookish YouTube channel, Paperback Prima Donna.