It’s hard enough to get published without making rookie mistakes. Those are red flags that tell an agent to stop reading, deposit your baby in the trash and go to lunch.
I hate when that happens (one actually called me and told me where he tossed mine), so I’ve collected the fifteen most common cures my agent friends tell me would keep them reading.
- Place the reader in time. Give him/her a clue as to the time of day, like a lunch crowd or rush-hour traffic, so s/he can pay attention to the story. Same goes for the time of year, the season. Are leaves falling? Is heat reflecting off the sidewalk? Do people wear short shorts and crop tops?
- Place the reader geographically. It makes a big difference if the character is in an office or a restaurant. That’s easy to get across, too, with ringing phones, clatter of dishes–stuff like that. Once you’ve opened the chapter with these few details, the reader can relax into your prose.
- Make sure you’re clear on who your audience is. Who do you write for? Think about it right now: You’re probably writing a novel or you wouldn’t be reading this post. Who do you think will read it? What’s their age–adults, young adults, children–and what’s their genre–action thriller, science fiction, literary? Your word selection and plot construction is quite different depending upon how you answered these questions. Decide that before you start writing. If it’s too late for that, put your pen down and decide now.
- Don’t be afraid to use words that fit your writing style but are longer than one syllable. Beautiful words might be your signatures as it is for Elizabeth George. Readers like insider knowledge and learning from what they read. If you love words, allow readers to enjoy them with you.
- If you switch POV’s in your story, identify who’s head you’re in by word selection and interior monologue. Don’t have everyone sound vanilla or southern or like you. Then, the only way readers can differentiate characters is by dialogue tags. That’s not professional, nor is it real life. (Click for more on POV)
- Your writing style might be informal, but don’t be lazy about it. Make it a conscious decision. Use relaxed prose as your voice, which means you must carry it throughout the novel. (Click here for more on voice)
- Don’t switch genres. Pick one and excel at it. Don’t excuse your inability to focus by saying you love all genres and that’s why you jump around. That’s code for ‘I failed at one so I’m trying another’. How many published authors do you read that switch from literary to thrillers? Fiction-nonfiction is about as big a leap as readers will accept.
- Remember to vary sentence length to reflect action. A long involved sentence is retrospective and passive. Short snappy sentences are active. Use them.
- Don’t think your agent or publisher will correct your grammar and spelling. More likely, they’ll reject your novel because the mistakes annoy them. Put your novel in its Sunday best before anyone sees it. Allow any reader–even your mother–to judge it on the merits, not lack thereof. (Click here for common grammar errors)
- DO NOT use exclamation points. Use words to get the excitement across, not punctuation. This is one suggestion everyone I know agrees on, so if you ignore the other fourteen ideas in the list, follow this one.
- Remember there are five senses, not one. Add smell, touch, taste to your story. Readers love those details and when they’re not there, your story feels flat. No one lives in a one-sense world.
- Wordiness is boring. Writers often get caught up in their art. We love words. I read dictionaries for fun, but most readers aren’t like that. Cut as much as you can. Don’t repeat even if your prose is stunning.
- Don’t leave loose ends. As you write your story, make a note of every plot point you started, every subplot no matter how minor, and tie them up by the end of the story. Novels aren’t like real life in that sense. Real life, there are always unresolved issues. In novels, we want everything closed down by the last page. Unless you’re talking about a sequel. Then, by all means, telegraph what you didn’t finish so we want the next book.
- Does anyone think cliches are acceptable? I almost skipped this one as too mundane, but decided it was worth mentioning. Cliches show readers what some other writer came up with. You must create your own clever way of saying ‘as flat as a pancake’ or ‘blonde bombshell’ so we see the depth of your talent. That’s just the way it is.
- Truncate run-on sentences. This one, as writers, we should have grown out of by now, but I am constantly surprised by how many I find. Use no more than two prepositional phrases in a sentence, two adjectives for each noun, limit adverbs and adjectives in general. That’ll start things. You can build from there.
I’ve avoided these mistakes in my current undertaking, which means I have to move on to the next list of writer’s fixes. I’ll show you that soon.