Imagine finishing your first novel and proudly showing it off to an agent, hoping that lightning will strike and your fabulous talent will be discovered. The problem is your fabulous manuscript is riddled with amateur mistakes that could easily be fixed, allowing the gem that you created to shine through and convince agents and editors you’re the real deal. How? By applying a little elbow grease up front and sticking to the guidelines laid out here.
So here are my Top Twelve Amateur Mistakes Writers Make:
- Overuse of I said, he said, she said. Your manuscript doesn’t need them. Cut out half of them, and then cut out another half and your manuscript will start to have lift off.
- Repetitive phrases. Use a software program to check for repeated words. You will be shocked how often you repeat the same word on a page. Overuse of identical words shows a limited range of skill in detailing events in your story. There are programs that will do this for you fast and easily, so invest in one and make your manuscript start to zing! (I use ProWriting Aid but there are many out there!)
- Typos. Don’t have any. Period.
- Not replacing backwards, forwards, towards, upwards, downwards, with backward, forward, toward, upward and downward.
- Overusing (insert pronoun) heard, saw, felt, realized, seemed, had been. Use the word search function and count the number of times you use each of the listed words. You will be shocked at how much you overuse this method of describing your character’s actions. Replace as many as you can with active descriptions. I heard a shot fired, is more exciting when it’s written as a shot zinged over my head making my ears ring. I felt a bolt of fear can be better stated as fear ripped through me like a bolt of ice.
- Did I mention typos? They’re there. Find them, including bad punctuation and missing periods.
- Overuse of backstory and flashbacks. Eliminate them whenever possible. Stories are best told in the present tense. Flashbacks and prologues are a bit like cheating. Find a way to weave the backstory into the present and your editors won’t get annoyed with you.
- Buying into the family and friends bandwagon who claim your novel is the best they’ve ever read. They are biased, even when they say they’re not. They can’t see the forest for the dangling participles. Don’t believe a word they say. Find a good editor who doesn’t see you on Thanksgiving Day and pay for as much criticism as you can take. The only way you will grow as a writer is to hear feedback which is impartial and informed.
- Wallowing in self-pity when your manuscript gets rejected. This business is very subjective. Your manuscript might be great, it might be average. Doesn’t matter. The only way anyone will ever read it is if you make it worth reading. So don’t wallow, work harder at learning the craft and develop a thick skin.
- Working on the same story over and over for ten years thinking that the first book is so precious it has to sell before you ever write the second one. Don’t linger in the past. The first book might have been your best, it also might have been an exercise in Can I Do This? The answer is yes, now send it out to get edited by a professional while you write the next book. Don’t wait around hoping lightning is going to strike. It probably won’t. But if you start the next book while the first one is in the hopper getting edited, then pretty soon you’ll have two books, and when that happens, your confidence will increase and with proper feedback, your writing will begin to improve. Then you just might climb out of the amateur stage into the up and coming author stage.
- Writing a book that is 500 precious pages long! Unless you really are the next George RR Martin cut it down to 80,000 words and you might find an agent who will read it. If you don’t think it can be done, start taking out secondary story lines and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, try removing a sub-character and see if you can trim the story.
- Having a query letter that begins with “All my friends think this is the best book they ever read!” Or even worse, “This book is the next (fill in blank) Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Twilight.” Tell the agent what is unique about your story. Convince them you have a twist that hasn’t been done yet and they might ask for a few pages. DON’T send your entire manuscript with the query. Be careful to read their submission guidelines and follow them. You are not special, and your work won’t be seen as such if you pester them or try to step out of their guidelines because you’re convinced your manuscript is unique. The work will speak for you, so let it.
Remember, keep an iron jaw, and always keep writing!
PS: After travelling all week to Denver for the annual Public Library Association, I thought I would share a repost of one of my favorite blogs from 2014, updated with a few lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope you enjoy it!