Question from the E-mail? What common writing mistakes do you most often find in the manuscripts you receive? What makes an editor look at a manuscript and say "no?"
Here's our best list: The things Editors commonly look out for
when they pick up a new manuscript (Not one your agent has takent ot lunch and presold -- a cold submission):
You didn't know most editors, even those in large publishing houses, don't read all of your book? We've known a lot of editors who informed us of the standard practices... All had one thing in common. Their number one goal is to get rid of the slush pile.
The first thing they do is double check your transitions to be sure the reader is oriented at the beginning of every scene. A transition is the opening sentence in a block of copy or scene. A good transition, like the lead in a newspaper or magazine article, should answer the questions, Who? Where? and When? An editor at a big house, starting a new ms. will glance through several pages reading only the transitions. If they don't make sense: say who is there, where they are,etc. they will reach for a rejection letter, and if they are not too pushed for time, may scrawl at the bottom, "Sorry, your work needs grounding in time and space." Trust me, I have letters in my bottom drawer that say just that.
Try to end every scene or section with a hook that will leave a question in the reader's mind. Because, after checking the transitions, that very same editor in a big publishing house will look at the final lines in the scenes or sections, making sure they leave the reader wanting to know more. If the hooks are not there, the note the editor will scrawl will say, "Needs work. Lacks tension." And the editor will go back, having whittled down about half of the large stack of ms. waiting on his or her desk.
In the beginning, the editor is not reading for story, or looking for literary art. The first thing they want to know is whether reading the whole submission will be a waste of time. If either of the elements above are missing, they have saved themselves a lot of time and work.
The Next thing that editor will read is the synopsis, to see if it's a good story or premise: It could be written perfectly, artistically, lyrically, and accurately to boot. But if nothing happens, they'll say no. A good story or premise is the only kind they want...
The same problems do crop up often. Some authors make one, some another, and if they make one, there are bound to be other instances of the same thing mistake throughout the ms. Most often the problem could be fixed with a simple visit to www.m-w.com online a free, up to date, American English Dictionary. American publishers want American spelling and grammar. Strunk & White were nice guys, but they were British...
In dialogue, make sure characters don’t waste time on small talk. Punctuate dialogue correctly.
Never let two characters talk in the same paragraph. In typesetting, commas and other punctuation go inside the quotes, not the way we were all taught to punctuate them for a college paper. And everything a person says at one time (even if they change the subject) goes in the same paragraph to keep the reader from being confused about who is speaking.
Indicate the speech tags as part of the whole sentences in dialogue. When a quote is followed by a “speechtag” (anything that shows it was said out loud and by whom) as in, ‘David explained.’– the tag is still part of the SAME sentence as what was said, and so the end of the dialogue speech is connected with a comma (NOT a period), and then a close quote. Tags like “Respondrd David”, or “Explained Mary” should never be capitalized as they are never a new sentence, despite what some versions of spell check advise. That same editor mentioned above, seeing caps on 'She said' and 'He uttered,' will reach for the return letter and scrawl, "Maybe you should take a class," on the bottom.
Keep speech tags simple. Use “said” most of the time. Never use animal sounds such as ‘he barked’ or impossible ones like ' she exploded' unless your character is a dog sitting on a bomb. Here's a neat little technique–if you show a character with an action tag, within the same paragraph as their speech, the reader will assume the character who moved was also the one who spoke. Do remember though that the MOVEMENT is not a speech tag. It's an Action Tag and should be a complete, stand-alone, sentence with a cap and a period. She laughed. and He grinned, are both action tags. Can't say how often they are preceded with a comma, close quote, and indicated as a speech.
This little trick can get rid of a lot of repetitive language (all the saids), and it forces you to insert an image (show the action). If you want to show another character's reaction to the speech, change paragraphs and treat the movement exactly as if it were a dialogue reply. You can use this kind of response, too, to break up those long, long, all-the-way-down-the-page speeches where characters explain things. Nothing intimidates a reader like a book full of page-long paragraphs! It's just plain off-putting.
Write in scenes or structured parts and be sure each part makes a point. In fiction, the turning point is the place where something important changes forever. In non-fiction, it’s where you draw a conclusion. In either case, fictional scenes or exposition, you should make a point in each section.
Narrate scenes or parts with no point. They always tell us in the beginning to write in scenes and "show don't tell" and narration is "telling." But given space limitations, paper costs, and the limited attention-span of today's readers, you just can't show everything. Narrate the mundane, or the action in scenes that don’t have a point.
Be aware of scene structure and hooks. Every scene has the same structure. Here it is:
1. Transition, preferably with hook. (Who? When? Where? and What next?)
2. Rising action and dialogue
3. Turning point of the scene (the place where something important CHANGES)
"I never want to see you again!" she exploded. er, I mean: She slammed the door on her way out.
(if there's no point, the scene goes, no matter how well written)
4. End/resolution of the scene, preferably with another hook. When we come to the end of a scene,
* * *
You indicate it with the double line break, at least two extra lines of "white space" and the three stars or something to show that it's the end of a scene. White space alone will not do it, as most publishers use your own ms to typeset the piece by computer and the computer may automatically close up all blank lines...
Watch capitalization. Proper nouns get capitals, pronouns do not. But that can be confusing sometimes. For instance, Mom or Dad gets a cap when used as a proper noun, but no cap when used as a pronoun. As in, “My mom said Dad was late coming home.” The qualifier MY before mom, makes it a pronoun, but Dad is used as a proper noun and gets a cap. Goes against all those “be consistent” rules we were taught in school, but it's correct. If you don't fix this kind of thing, your editor will have to. If not, both of you will look like idiots.
Apostrophes are used in contractions, that is a shortened version of two words, but never in abbreviations. Can’t instead of can not, it’s for it is (the possessive form of “it” never takes an apostrophe), and didn’t instead of did not. But CDs wouldn’t take an apostrophe. Apostrophes (usually apostrophe followed by a plural s) are used, for possessive clauses. Mandy’s house. Tammy’s CDs.
In America, Possessive forms of proper names take an apostrophe s even if they already end in s, such as Silas’s car. But plural nouns and pronouns get the apostrophe without the s. I visited Mandy’s parents’ house. Plural form of proper names get an “es” rather than a plain s, and no apostrophe. Both the following are correct.
The Williams’ car,” for possessive, if the car belongs to the whole family, and “The Williamses came to dinner,” for if they all arrived to dine.
You should never quote from any copyrighted material directly without permission in writing from the publisher. We often see song singing, complete with all the lyrics, downloaded from the Internet. It's a lawsuit waiting to happen. It’s okay to quote from Shakespeare or older editions of the Bible, because that material is in the Public Domain. But if the copyright is still active, as it is on The New Living Bible for instance, that’s not okay. It’s okay to paraphrase song lyrics, to quote song titles, or book titles, to mention celebrities by name, but not to copy directly from any work. So you can name your character Sherlock Holmes or Scarlett O’Hara, if you want. Or you can have Kris Kristofferson singing “Bobby McGee,” or singing “about being broke and hitching rides in Baton Rouge.” But you can NOT have Kris sing, “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headed for the train...”
Be careful of pronouns. The rule is a pronoun always refers to the preceding noun. But the important thing is not to confuse the reader. So if two people are present, a man and a woman and the name Mary is followed by “he” — that’s clear. But if the scene has two women and the “her” after Mary refers to Anna, then the proper name should be used to avoid confusion.
Always vary the language as much as you can. Guard against using the same word or phrase too close together. We all get "stuck" on a phrase from time to time, and this kind of problem crops up for every writer. Keep an eye, too, on how often required repetitive language such as pronouns and "said"s crop up. If you ever work in first person, look out for the "I"s. Try to keep the language as fresh as possible by paring those things down during your "self-editing" process.
Done isn't finished. You should be prepared to read over and edit your own work -- look through it for problems several times-- after a work is finished and before you are sure it's ready to submit.