Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Common Manuscript Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

Quite frequently I’m asked to share what the most common themes I see in the slush are. I don’t really have an answer for that. It comes in waves; ghosts, werewolves, princesses, distressed teens dealing with peg-legs and missing dogs.

What I can talk about, however, are the most common mistakes I see with manuscripts.

Most of the time, I feel like this when I read a query and turn to pages:

CC by SA 3.0 at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SadCat1.jpg

Why? Top three reasons:

1. Poor pacing
2. Not connecting to voice
3. Plot not stand-out enough

In my opinion, there is a way to avoid all three: they’re called beta readers. Just kidding. That’s a copout; you should never rely on your beta to make your manuscript publishable and/or readable – which is step one on how to avoid these mistakes.

Other tips:

1. Avoiding horrible pace

Cut your prologue, dream sequence, and first chapter. Second, take a look at your synopsis. A lot of the time, the synopsis highlights the heart of the story, and will pinpoint exactly what the important details you should have – and what you shouldn’t have – are. Too much back-story upfront really drags pace, and too many tiny, unimportant, menial things like sports games, day-to-day activities, talking to mom/sister/great-aunt also really slow pace. You don’t need to tell me when your character goes pee or brushes her teeth. In other words, don’t summarize events; realize them in the plot.

The best way to improve pacing is to go back and snip snip snip from your finished manuscript; ask yourself: why is this scene really here? Does it actually serve a purpose to the plot?

Here’s a great site on pacing

2. Creating a likeable voice

This is the hardest one. Voice is impossible to fix. It’s the most subjective aspect of the book.
However, a few pointers from voices I haven’t liked: make a character snarky, not rude. Make your character believable and relatable (there’s a reason so many characters have no boyfriends and no lives and are so poor – the majority of us are like that too). If your character has un-likeable aspects, make sure there are still flaws, too. Sarcasm is great; whining is not. Think cheeky and feisty rather than arrogant and violent. Inner strength should shine through the voice, even if not in the action.

Personally, I gravitate toward more open and sarcastic voices, voices I can relate to in real life. Think of your audience – what kind of narrator would they relate to?

Voice is the aspect of the novel that lets the reader forget about the writer. In other words, it's what makes characters real. Your character should have a perspective, a unique way of thinking about and looking at things based on where he/she is from and the experiences he/she have had. Figure out that background and what that would mean for your voice.

3. Avoiding the “done” plot

RIGHT when you get your sni (shiney new idea), THINK about it. A lot. Write down the idea; see exactly how far this spark takes you. The reality is, there are a LOT of books out there, and having a “twist” alone isn’t going to make your book stand out. Adding a supernatural element is NOT enough to turn your teen love story into a sellable book, nor is changing up an existing supernatural creature or mashing two themes like death and divorce together.

Hopefully, you are reading in your genre – that is the BEST way to know if your sni is too close to what’s already been done. Make me go, “oh wow” when I read your query letter – and do not fall into the trap of the “done” plotLINE. A fabulous idea that follows the same structure as every other book out there – such as, teenaged girl discovers powers at 16, meets mysterious boy, has to save the world, or perhaps London debutante who hates the idea of marriage suddenly meets her match – is still a no for me. Avoid lighter, chick-lit plots; they often fall flat!


  1. Thanks for the pacing site. I think that is one of the hardest parts of writing effectively and appreciate the link.

    Great advice for all writers.

  2. Wow. Great post. =) Off to check the links...

  3. Great advice, and really helpful links. So helpful to know the top factors that contribute to your passing on a query.

  4. Thanks for the advice! You're not the first agent (or person in general) to notice those sneaky little MS-viruses. I'm certain my own MS suffers from at least one -- if not all three maladies.

    Thanks for sharing the links and your own solutions. I'll see what I can do to apply it to my stories...

    Oh, and yes. Beta Readers are like Omega-3s. They do a lot for your MS's health, but they aren't super pills. They can't find and solve all the problems in your stories. I made the mistake of believing that at first...but then all seven of my beta readers caught different problems and none of them agreed!!! ACK.

  5. Great advice! I love the section on voice. Sarcastic and feisty are two of my favorite qualities in a main character. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. It's that last one that got me. Boo.

    The problem with the latter two is there is no easy fix. Pacing problems don't usually require a full rewrite but voice? Yes. Weak plot? Well, yes.

  7. I totally love this. Thanks for the post!

  8. Great post Natalie! So true that voice can't really be "fixed," though I do think it can be learned, especially through voracious reading and tireless writing. Oh, and I loved your advice for testing a SNI! :)

  9. Oh - one more thing! I love your new blog header! Such a pretty pic!!

  10. Such a cute new blog header. And... peg-legs? I want to read me some of those stories.

    Really helpful advice, and set out so clearly. Posts like this are incredibly helpful for those of us who are geographically challenged, and can't get along to conferences to hear agents speak about things like this. Thank you!

  11. Question on the "done" plot. Hasn't it all really been done before? I don't know, but it seems that maybe there aren't any new stories, only new ways of telling them.
    I might be biased here, as the character in my story might have to save the world, or at least, save "her" world. I think it's possible to use a done plot and still turn it into a great story.
    Or maybe I'm just drunk.

  12. I agree, Melinda.


  13. I agree with Melinda -- it's all in the execution.

    Honestly I think agents don't request a lot of good and some great manuscripts because of their own ideas of what is cliched. But the same elements that one describes as cliched, another describes as classic.

    That said, I can see how this is a byproduct of receiving so MANY submissions, and seeing some of the same themes over and over. But writers don't see what other unpublished writers are doing. We get a few ideas that we're passionate enough about to spend months or years with writing a whole novel and trying to sell it, and that's it. See the previous post on Dickens. . .

    Is it Sept. 13th yet?


  14. Great points about the "done" plot. Yes, I totally agree with "happy" (lol) that what I consider done and cliched will differ from another agent, though generally, it's usually in the same area, since yes, it's also a by-product of seeing so many themes over and over!

    I LOVE re-tellings, and yes, it's very hard to tell a completely original story; the biggest point I was trying to make with the "done" plot was mainly that there ARE very common plotlines that people use which get really old and predictable, and just throwing a supernatural creature into it isn't going to fix it. I want to be surprised - I love badass, unexpected, fresh/refreshing stories :)

  15. I agree with Smiley (happy?) ... while having the same elements are fine, if I read your pitch and it could describe five other books, either your pitch needs reworking or your vision of the story isn't fresh enough. (I have seriously seen pitches so generic I thought they were a parody of their genres.)

    And Natalie your header pic is adorable.

  16. Excellent direction.

    I especially find your #2 helpul--I think finding a likeable voice takes like of practice and effort.