Angela and Becca have asked me to comment on the most common “mistakes” I see in the manuscripts I assess and edit. I’ve tried to used more of a big picture view here, rather than a list of nags about missing or excessive apostrophes or dangling participles or misplaced modifiers (very common, by the way). All of the following mini-rants are subjective because I’m giving you my opinion as an editor of fiction. And personal preferences in crafting, usage, plotting, genre are inevitable in fiction. Editors rarely agree on anything, whether it is comma placement or drifting POV in a manuscript. But they do all agree on one thing: they love good fiction and great writers. Here is my personal shortlist of things that get in the way of both:
The “too new” manuscript: Fresh out of the writer’s brain and onto paper. This is very common and really doesn’t say anything bad about the writer; it only points to inexperience and a bittersweet innocence. You write a novel, you get it published. That’s how it works, right?
Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works, but hundreds of manuscripts are submitted every year in a first-draft state.
The work should start when you write “The End”. Revise , rewrite, revise, rewrite. Identify what the novel is saying (the theme, who the characters truly are, what is important to the novel as a whole, what you want the reader to experience) and then examine every word (yes, every single one) to ensure that it deserves to be in your manuscript and serves the novel as a whole. When you can’t stand to look at it anymore, then submit.
If you need help, take some post-grad creative writing courses, find a local or internet writers’ group, examine the work of writers you admire and practice identifying the craft they use to capture and keep a reader within the fictional “dream.”
The “white porcelain” manuscript: This is “extreme” writing, where the writer has scrupulously followed the so-called rules. All suspected use of passive language, any use of present tense, first person POV, adverbs or descriptive narrative have been ruthlessly scrubbed from the manuscript. The novel opens with a “gripping hook” that may or may not deliver in the following three hundred pages. It never opens with dialogue, a description of landscape, or the protagonist waking up. All verbs are aggressively active. The storyline is strictly sequential. The “to be” verb has been vigorously expunged (much to the detriment of the clarity of the prose). Everything is shown, not told. Sentences are short and declarative. Modifiers don’t exist.
This kind of manuscript can be difficult to read at times as the reader is bruised, buffeted and shoved around by “good, strong verbs,” occasionally intimidated by the fierce conflict raging on every page, numbed by the unvarying sentence structure and confused by an awkward use of past tense that avoids the “to be” verb.
There are no questions for the reader to ponder, no eloquently rendered settings for the reader to imagine, no innovative word choices to envy.
These manuscripts often feel sterile, lifeless and predictable, even though the writer has included lots of action, conflict and storyline twists and turns. The flatness and rigidity of the presentation work against the content.
If these rules were truly the standard by which acquisition editors judge manuscripts, then none of the books in print today would have been published. Read the books that made you want to be a writer. Go over them carefully for “rule-breaking.” Take a deep breath. Then write and let your creativity dictate the presentation.
The “celebrity” manuscript: This one is tough, but there is a big difference between a manuscript that uses subtle details of music selection, TV or movie viewing or current events, and the one that uses these references to replace substantial areas of character building. Manuscripts that are flooded with current cultural references, celebrity names, brand names and trendy innuendoes are difficult to assess in terms of their publishing potential. They might work for a year or two, or they might be dated before they hit press.
Using celebrity names to evoke a reader response is tricky. The writer who uses a lot of pop cultural references places some high expectations on readers. The writer assumes that the reader is familiar with the name or product or current event and further assumes that the reader’s reaction to the reference will be exactly what the writer intended. Those two assumptions are often wrong and the writer has lost the opportunity to character build or scene set or whatever the shortcut of inserting a celebrity reference was intended to provide in the manuscript.
Use your characters’ love of music, art, literature, TV, movies, politics as subtle but cumulative character building. Don’t depend on celebrity namedropping to create a character. It doesn’t always work. The innuendo you’re trying to achieve will likely backfire or leave readers perplexed. Build your novel with your own words and use the cultural references judiciously, as details.
The “timid” manuscript: The writer uses language to its fullest, no fear of breaking rules or disrupting convention. The writer is competent, willing to experiment in usage, imagery, characterization, slick in prose style, careful not to offend or raise blood pressure. The manuscript is accessible, clean, and oddly, faceless. The writer didn’t cry writing the sad bits, sweat in the tense bits, yell at the unfair bits, blush at the intimate bits, and neither will the reader.
This is a very obscure thing to define. But the absence of “risk taking” by the author is palpable, just as its presence is. The writer who holds back, writes from a distance, orchestrates and arranges the manuscript, never quite elicits any real emotional response from the reader.
These and the “white porcelain” manuscripts are the ones I grieve over the most because often the most promising innate talent lies in these novels. No amount of technical brilliance can fill the void of a rigid, antiseptic or soulless manuscript. It is difficult to convince a writer to break rules they sincerely believe are correct, nor can you force a writer to have the courage to put their very soul on the page.
Final advice for writers: Read the best of the best in your chosen genre. Read what inspires you. Try to best them. Write what you want to read and what you believe in. Write “up” from where you think you are. Reach for that one step higher on the literary ladder. Chances are very, very good you’ll reach it and beyond. Forget the “rules”; you can always go back and tidy things up. Make the reader’s heart stall, re-start, purr and accelerate. Be true to you and you alone. The reader will recognize honesty. And editors want to read fiction that takes risks, breaks rules knowingly, and creates a compelling, real world that the writer (and reader) believe in, experience and are reluctant to leave.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.