In my ten years as a book editor, I have seen just about every error a writer can make—and not just from beginners, either! New authors have a tendency to make certain kinds of errors more often than pros, however. I hope this list of the top five mistakes I see from new writers will help you avoid them.
How often have you read something wonderful, then thought, "I can do that!" Well, maybe you can. But don't! Agents and publishers want to see something new, or a novel twist on the familiar. I frequently see versions of The Celestine Prophecy, Silence of the Lambs, Harry Potter, and other best-selling phenoms. Often these manuscripts are well written and well organized. But I fear they stand little chance in the marketplace, because they are too blatantly imitative of other works.
We are all influenced by our favorite authors, as we should be. I always recommend that writers read widely and learn from the best. It's essential to read in your particular market—then find something original to contribute. Naturally you have more leeway to be imitative if you work in genre fiction, because you must respect the conventions of the genre. But even writers of romance, horror, western fiction, and so on, must find a way to surprise their readers, even as they work within the comforts of the genre. Don't discard those early derivative efforts, however! You can learn a lot about how to write your next book from an early work inspired by a bestseller.
#2 Sloppy Formatting
Your manuscript is far more likely to be read if it is easy to read. Follow these guidelines when formatting a manuscript for submission to an agent or prospective publisher: Use a bright white 8 ½" by 11" paper and black ink. Avoid colored papers and inks, and fast or economy-grade printing, which usually yields a gray, hard-to-read text. Double-space your manuscript, and use a 12-point font, either Times New Roman or Courier. Set one-inch margins at the top, bottom, and sides, and justify the left margin only. Create a title page with the title halfway down on the page and your name and contact information beneath it. Include a table of contents with nonfiction. Set the header at the top left margin of each page to read, BOOK TITLE: Author's last name. Start each new chapter five inches down on the page. Begin numbering the pages with the first page of text, and continue numbering consecutively through the manuscript. (Do not begin each new chapter or section with page 1.) Center page numbers at the bottom of the page. If your manuscript includes a bibliography, footnotes, appendices, or other such elements, you may wish to consult the Chicago Manual of Style for proper formatting.
#3 In Fiction—Opening in the Wrong Place
New writers often get stuck trying to cram everything they know about their protagonist into the first chapter and attempting to use every word in their vocabulary as well. I know, because I did this myself in my first novel! In most short or full-length fiction, you'll want to open your story on the edge of the action, and then keep it coming. First, engage your reader in the trajectory of the story. Then allow your characters to gradually reveal their personalities and secrets.
Does your first chapter include a lengthy flashback? Have you spent the first twenty or thirty pages explaining the context for your protagonist's predicament? If so, chances are you have begun in the wrong place. Don't let your protagonist wallow in the past until the ongoing present is firmly established—if ever. Ideally, your book should move forward in time. You'll also want to cut any long passages of background information from the front and integrate the material into later chapters. Today's readers do not want to wade through pages of description or history before discovering what the book is about. Your characters' plight must capture your readers independently of the background we will come to learn.
#4 In Nonfiction—Saving the Best for Last
Jokes require a punch line, and fiction readers love a surprise ending. But nonfiction readers need to know where you are headed, what points your argument will support, and what benefits they will reap from reading your book. In short, don't bury your conclusion in your last chapter—many readers will never get there.
For example, I recently edited a manuscript in which the author made point after seemingly unrelated point, offering voluminous evidence from diverse fields that, taken together, eventually led to a startling assertion about the origins of the universe. But because he failed to state his thesis up front, the reader had no idea what the writer was trying to prove and no context in which to consider the information he cited until the final chapter, hundreds of pages later. I found myself thinking, "Interesting—but so what?" An agent or prospective publisher would have dropped the manuscript after the first thirty pages—which would have been a shame, because the book turned out to be fascinating.
In nonfiction, it's useful to recall the first lesson of Journalism 101: "First you tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; then you tell 'em; then you tell 'em what you just told 'em." You want to gradually build on the material you present to allow the reader to grasp your points in an orderly, satisfying manner. But let us in on where you're going and why we should come along for the ride!
#5 Resisting Revision
You know the old saying, "Writing is rewriting"? Here's another one: "After the inspiration comes the perspiration." But some of the best things in life are sweaty activities! Many writers tell me they enjoy the rush of creativity that goes into a first draft, but they view revision as a chore. Others report that they feel exhausted after the effort of producing a complete manuscript and find the prospect of revision almost overwhelming. And some tell me they are so teeming with ideas that they only write first drafts, then succumb to the lure of the new, never taking a project to completion.
I always reply that revision can be just as fun, creative, challenging, and energizing as the first draft. The heavy lifting is over; you've got the basic story on paper. Now you get to relax, take a deep breath, and really work with what you have created. Stretch yourself. Get ruthless. Play. Refine. Go deeper.
Every author is different. Some people like to dive right into the revision process, while others prefer to rest between drafts. Many writers like to knock out a short piece or two before re-approaching a full-length manuscript. I encourage clients to find the balance that works best for them. I usually recommend that writers take a break between revisions to replenish their energy and gain some distance on the project—but not so long that their enthusiasm or ambition wears off. Often a professional critique is just the ticket to help an author push through the resistance and get back to joyous, productive work.
Facilitating the revision process is a way I feel Editorial Alchemy can really help writers, both experienced and new. Revisions are considerably less daunting when you have practical, step-by-step guidance to refer to, and are far more enjoyable when you have someone with whom to share your quandaries and celebrate your successes.
Wishing you all success with your writing!