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Basic Writing Craft Errors and Easy Fixes

As a professional editor, I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts with basic problems that would’ve caused an agent to reject it no matter how good the premise was. There are other issues with manuscripts that wouldn’t necessarily cause a pass but might make the agent think twice.

You don’t want them to think. You want them to fall in love.

Hopefully, these hints will help you polish your manuscript and lift it to the top of the slush pile.

Manuscript Format

Use Times New Roman (or Courier if you have to, no matter if you like it or not) and 12 pt font. The title page should be single spaced, your name and information top left, the manuscript information top right. The larger and bold title goes center page. Double space the rest of the manuscript. Center the chapter headings, one-third down the page. The first paragraph of each chapter is usually not indented. When reading tons of manuscripts or queries or synopses, it really makes a difference in the ease of reading. And you want your editors and agents to have it as easy as possible.

 

The Hook

The best hooks are an internalization or a vivid image. Both have the power to capture us.

An internalization should share a worldview from the main character’s perspective about the unique way in which they see the world. Often, it’s the wrong perspective that ends up changing during the character’s arc. The best hooks tie in the theme, the conflict, voice, and make us ask a question that keeps us reading.

It’s a lot to ask, I know. But it’ll set us up for what lies ahead.

A for instance, here’s the first line from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

(Even if you don’t like the books, she’s a master writer.)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ~Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice

Just a sentence or two about her perspective on the world that ties in her central conflict, the theme, her voice/attitude, character, etc.

The reality is, we see her own pride and her prejudice against rich men in general, which nearly ends up losing her true love and happiness. And she’s declaring her uniqueness, in that she does not need a husband, despite her poverty. It introduces the central conflict, that if one of the Bennett girls doesn’t get a rich husband, they’ll all be destitute when Mr. Bennett dies. It shows her attitude, her desperate independence and lack of faith in the men of her world.

I know it’s asking a lot, but the best hooks are the ones that tie all of this together while making us ask a question. When presented with her conflict and her view, we’re wondering, “How’s she going to deal with or overcome that?”

 

Deep POV

From the moment we meet the main character, we need to be connecting with them emotionally. The more universal that emotion is, the broader your audience will be. Throughout the novel, we need to see the emotional conflict through the thoughts, actions, and expressions of the characters.

Your novel might not be able to use internalization if it’s third person distant or omniscient. If that’s the case, you’ve got to layer in the emotion through expressions and actions, which is difficult but doable.

For close third, second, and first person, take full advantage of that POV. We should be having internal emotion layered in at regular intervals. Not every sentence or even every paragraph, but sprinkled in so we can connect more readily. Use the following pattern.

Stimulous/Action => Response/Decision => Thought/Internalization => Emotion => Stimulous/Action

The Stimulous/Action is the consequence of or forward moving choice made after the response/decision by the main character, another character, or the world/setting.

The best explanation of deep POV I’ve ever found is on this blog post, As We Were Saying by Liz Pelletier.

 

Passive Voice

Not always, but telling is caused a lot by passive voice. Passive voice is when someone is being, not doing. Active voice is when the character is doing something, acting. Even if it’s sitting still.  This is also a huge issue with killing pacing.

The word ‘was’ is occasionally part of the past progressive tense and indicates continuing action, something that was happening, going on, at some point in the past. This tense is formed with the helping “to be” verb, in the past tense, plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending). That’s not what I’m talking about.

Try and eliminate the following words from your manuscript. It’ll make a huge difference.

was, had, have, were, has, wasn’t, I’ve, she’d you’ve, hadn’t, I’d, he’d, weren’t, they’d, haven’t, etc.

Be judicious. This doesn’t mean that every one of these needs to be thrown out. But at least try to rephrase and usually, you’ll find that your writing will become more vivid and specific, which will add to the intensity and impact of your writing.

Example:

She had long legs, and her gown was white.

The white gown swirled around her long legs.

 

Pacing

The longer your sentences and paragraphs, the slower the pacing. Conversely, the shorter your sentences and paragraphs, the faster the pacing. Use this to regulate how quickly or slowly your scenes read.

Be judicious. This can easily be overdone by stripping things down to a bare minimum or having dialogue become a lecture or speech.

 

Voice

Simple words to show complex ideas. That’s the power of writing.

Each character should have their own voice, and the authorial voice (in third and omniscient) should also be unique and consistent.

Everyone has a unique voice. If you could record yourself and listen to yourself talk, you’d see that you don’t speak quite like anyone else. Maybe you use different words, you pause at different places, you even move different ways when you speak. All of that is voice. It’s the portrayal of your unique perspective through the written word. Because of that, word choice, punctuation, the structure of sentences and paragraphs, the rhythm of your language and the white vs. black space on the page, the dialogue, syntax, diction, semantics–all of those things and more make up voice.

To be authentic to a character’s voice, you have to know the background of that character. Maybe they’ve spent time in the marines which will make their words clipped, but they were raised on a farm in Canada so they end some of their sentences with, “…eh?” Add in that they can’t talk unless their hands are moving. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to enrich that character’s voice.

The same is true for your authorial voice.

 

Dialogue Tags

The words ‘says/said’ and ‘asked’ are better than any other simple tag. But you miss the opportunity to use action here and build the world, setting, plot, and character. If your tags can show movement, what’s happening around the character, what they sound like or look like when they’re saying it—so much the better!

For example:

“That’s a fine dog you have there,” Judy said.

“That’s a fine dog you have there.” Judy opened her arms and knelt down, hoping it would lick her face.

“That’s a fine dog you have there.” Judy drew her skinning knife and licked her lips.

 

Head Hopping

This is where you have a point-of-view character who the reader is in the mind of, then in the next paragraph or even sentence, they’re in the mind of someone else. The reader is constantly being dragged from one POV to the other, which never lets us get settled or connect emotionally.

 

Verb Tense

When you’re writing in present tense (write, do), all flashbacks or things that happened in a previous time will use past tense (wrote, did).

When you’re writing in past tense (wrote, did), all flashbacks or things that happened in a previous time will use past present (had written, had done it).

 

Telling not Showing

Especially in the first ten pages, any telling slows us down. That said, there are times when you have to tell things to ground the reader.

Only include the necessary information, and include it just before we need it. Spread it out with small phrases or a sentence here or there if you can. If it’s a flashback, make sure it’s not in your first ten pages. Then make it as short as possible while including all the relevant information.

Example:

There was a man standing in front of me.

A man stood, blocking the path ahead.

Or–turn the telling into an internalization.

The prototype of this machine hadn’t worked properly.

Its prototype had been a total let down.

 

Weak Words/Generalizations

ADVERBS: Most adverbs should be eliminated. Use stronger verbs and nouns to make up for their loss, and again, your writing will not only be more vivid and memorable, it’ll improve pacing. Do a search for each of them and take them out in any way possible. You’ll end up with a few scattered here and there.

Already, exactly, finally, actually, really, completely, barely, immediately, directly, obviously, instantly, slowly, recently, absolutely, nearly

WEAK WORDS: A list of common ‘weak’ words: it, could, it’s, know, there, see, get, felt, knew, feel, heard, noticed, watched, hear, feeling, etc.

FILLER WORDS: that, just, even, then, that’s, very, really, seemed, seem, seems, that’ll, that’d

EXCESSIVE ADJECTIVES/GENERALIZATIONS: all, none, most, many, always, everyone, never, sometimes, some, usually, seldom, few, generally, in general, and overall, small, big, large, pretty, etc.

 

Figurative Language

When you use any kind of simile, metaphor, personification–any literary device–we need to gain more knowledge from the image. Only use figurative language if the image conveys more than you can in words, or gives several apt associations you don’t want to spell out.

And too many of these devices weigh down the writing and slow us down or make it feel redundant.

Also, don’t make your figurative language give us conflicting images. It’s too much to take in and stops the reader while they try to justify the images in their mind rather than moving smoothly along.

 

Confusing phrasing

Be careful how you use every word. Think about exactly what image is being formed in the reader’s mind. Forcing the reader through mental gymnastics makes them work too hard. They want to forget they’re even reading.

Eliminating this is aided by reading the book out loud. Don’t read it to yourself. You’ll skip things. Have it read to you by a computer using a text-to-speech reader. Or a person if you can find one.

 

Echoes

When we write words, any kind of words, especially when we’re drafting, we tend to use the same words over and over that are most common in our speech. And when we use that word, it’s so easy just to use the same word, over and over. But using a word over and over makes your writing boring and monotonous. And occasionally annoying.

My rule of thumb is that you should only repeat words when you want to connect things or for voice.

To connect things…

If a character has referred to a cherry-red Porsche, then another character might refer to it as a hot-rod dipped in ketchup. Whether subconsciously or consciously, if ketchup is mentioned again, we’ll think back on the Porsche and connect the two things that happened or the characters involoved.

For voice…

If someone has something they say, a tick, a pet phrase, then you’ll repeat it. But a little goes a long way. My rule of thumb is no more than once every twenty pages. So maybe a character always says, “I’ll be.” Don’t have it repeated too often, and don’t let any other character say that phrase.

 

First Words

Be careful to vary the first words. Make sure there aren’t a lot of pronouns or names as the first word over and over. It feels monotonous.

 

Cliché Phrases

This is a hard one because we all talk in clichés, and it’s part of voice. But it also takes away from the uniqueness of voice and the possibility of making your character’s language even more their own.

Especially watch for this if you’re not on Earth, or even if you’re in a different culture where that phrase doesn’t exist.

 

Redundancies

These come in many forms.

Occasionally, it’s whole sentences repeated with different words but the idea is conveyed.

Maybe it’s two words right together that mean the same thing. Like fell down. You don’t need both.

Often redundancies happen because you don’t trust the reader to have gotten it the first time. There’s a balance between making sure the reader gets the needed information and beating them over the head with it. And when in doubt, trust them. Only add things in if your beta readers get confused or it’s been a long time and they need a few words to remind them.

 

Distancing/Filter Words

For first and close third, the reader is going to be experiencing everything the main character is. What they see, touch, hear, smell, sense, emote, taste–all of those senses are immediate to the reader when done right by the author. Eliminating distancing language will bring an immediacy to your writing and a closeness between the reader and character.

Example:

I felt his warm fingers brush mine.

His warm fingers brushed mine.

I heard the dog bark.

The dog barked.

 

Body Parts

People do things. Body parts don’t do things.

Example:

Her finger pointed.

She pointed.

 

World Building Conflicts

When writing outside of your own culture or planet, make sure the words you use, the phrases, the dialogue all fits with the world you’re writing about. If it’s a historical novel, they won’t use the word computer. That’s an obvious example, but often, these more subtle things are overlooked. They’ll destroy the authenticity of your world for the reader.

 

Of course, rules are made to be broken, but make sure you have good reasons for breaking them.