Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes

Trying to land a book deal is like trying to land a job. In both cases, the gatekeeper (agent, in-house editor, human resources manager) has lots of applicants for the position (a slot in the Fall 2016 fiction catalogue, a job) and must narrow down the field to, ultimately, the Best One. So they screen out 95 percent of the submissions (manuscripts, résumés) before they even get started.

I can’t tell you why you didn’t land an interview for that big job you wanted. But we’ve talked about the three things publishers are looking for. And I can tell you what they don’t want to see too. Because there are things agents and editors see over and over that mark a manuscript as the work of a beginner.

1. It’s too long.
Either it’s too long for the genre, or it’s just plain too long. This means the writer wasn’t able to see for himself what needed to be trimmed—or wasn’t willing to. There may be two books in the one manuscript. Either way, excessive length is the most common problem seen by editors. We’ve talked about word count; watch it.

2. There’s no actual plot.
Oh, sure, lots of things happen. But you shouldn’t confuse action with plot. A plot (or story arc) is a series of events that are causally connected—one leads to the other. It generally starts as a problem for the protagonist and as he attempts to solve it, he experiences struggle and setbacks and growth.

3. The writing is, well, unpolished.
This includes both prose and craft issues, everything from dangling participles (actually, especially dangling participles!), awkward sentences, comma splices, using the same phrases over and over, clichés, misused words to show don’t tell, adverbial dialogue tags, leaden dialogue, exposition masquerading as dialogue, overuse of exclamation points or ellipses … Oh, I could go on and on. Poor writing usually reveals a lack of voice too.

4. There’s too much going on.
This manifests in a variety of ways: convoluted plot points that don’t make sense, for example, scenes that don’t advance the plot, or trying to cram in too many ideas or subplots. Often there are too many characters that fuel all this excess.

5. The backstory is mishandled.
It’s either too much too soon or too little too late. Most commonly there’s a big fat info dump, sometimes identified as a prologue, sometimes in the first chapter—either way, it takes all the fun out of it. The flip side is the overclever writer who withholds so much that readers lose interest because there’s not so much as a crumb of a foreshadow to grasp. Alternately, the dots are never connected: the writer knows what’s going on but it fails to appear on the page.

6. The editor rolls her eyes.
Implausibility in characterization or plot points is a common problem for beginners. Yeah, it’s fiction and we’re makin’ it up, but things have got to ring true. Unforeshadowed plot devices or character traits won’t cut it either. And remember, a coincidence that gets a character in to trouble is OK, but a coincidence that gets him out of trouble is not good fiction.

Remember, agents and acquisitions editors are looking for reasons to say no—an agent can only represent so many projects at any one time; an editor has a limited number projects he can afford to acquire. And there is an endless stream of manuscripts on offer, so if you make a lot of beginner’s mistakes in yours, it’s unlikely you’ll make the cut.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

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3 Comments

  1. April Line says:

    I know you’ve talked about this before, Jamie, but it begs mentioning: Another thing that may be a deal breaker between a would-be novelist* and an agent or editor is how one responds to hearing one’s manuscript has one or all of the above issues. Responding with anger and vitriol or defensiveness is another mark of a rookie.

    Sometimes, maybe all the time, an editor or agent takes a project because of its *potential* and some wildly subjective je ne sais quoi. Not because they hold a polished, market-ready piece of work in their hands. (though it is usually more polished and ready than other things in the slush pile)

    *no, no, it’s true: having produced a manuscript does not a novelist make. Becoming a novelist is like becoming an essayist, pianist, painter, etc: requires many days and hours worth of practice and study and obsession. Writing novels is a specialty like podiatry or oncology. It’s called a craft because it wants honing, because every word one writes makes the next idea or sentence or paragraph a little better. In no case has anyone ever written the Great Novel their first trek out. I structured my first story ever (when I was 8) as a play partially, I think, because I sensed that there were a lot of things I didn’t know about how to put together a story. A play provided a ready-made structure, two or three acts, a way to get characters talking without having to make the prose to put them in a place together. Of course, now I know that writing a play is a wholly other practice than writing a story, essay, or novel; but in my experience a characteristic of those who “have it” is a thirst to understand, in one’s viscera, not only how to do it, but everything about it.

  2. […] we’ve talked about the most common mistakes beginning writers make: the manuscript’s too long, doesn’t have a plot, has too much going on, isn’t well written, […]

  3. […] been talking a lot, recently, about being a beginner writer. From the general mistakes that agents and editors see to the very specific things you can identify for a self-edit, there are things you can do to […]

  4. […] to see in your genre; it will be easier to sell this manuscript if you’re within the norms. More than likely it’s too long, so be prepared to […]

  5. […] you know, we’ve talked about this already. Probably the number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. And word […]

  6. […] this year in my post “Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes,” we talked about six beginner’s mistakes that will land your manuscript in the no-thanks pile. […]

  7. Leon Oziel says:

    Excellent information here Jaime, thank you for this post. I appreciate how you pack a lot of information into a short blog. I need all the help I can get as a beginner writer.

    I have a question for you and the editors of the world. If most of the grammar in a manuscript is correct, and the story arc, structure and plot is above average, would an agent say, “I think I can work with this,” or do most agents look for flawless grammar?

    I came across this link from the University of Bristol, when researching dangling participles, and thought some of your readers might enjoy testing themselves.

    http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/page_41.htm#exindex

5 Trackbacks

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    […] been talking a lot, recently, about being a beginner writer. From the general mistakes that agents and editors see to the very specific things you can identify for a self-edit, there are things you can do to […]

  3. […] to see in your genre; it will be easier to sell this manuscript if you’re within the norms. More than likely it’s too long, so be prepared to […]

  4. […] you know, we’ve talked about this already. Probably the number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. And word […]

  5. By More #WriteTips for Beginners (An Update*) on 17 July, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    […] this year in my post “Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes,” we talked about six beginner’s mistakes that will land your manuscript in the no-thanks pile. […]