By Veronica H. Hart
For the past three weeks I have been working with a publisher (small press) helping to clear a backlog of submissions. All the submissions were referred by other authors, many suggesting the submissions were “great,” and “excellent.” In the end, only two were acceptable as presented.
Several things popped out as I studied the manuscripts.
The most glaring mistake I found, even before reading the entire manuscript, was the use of passive voice. This is an easy fix. If you use Microsoft Word, run a spell check and then look at the grammar analysis (readability statistics) that pops up at the end. It will show the percentage of the manuscript in passive voice. If you go to Find and type in was, you’ll see the actual number of times you used it. One book, which sounded promising, contained 1680 uses. The author will be repairing and resubmitting at our invitation because her story is worth the effort. “Was” is not the only villain, but is the most obvious. (I’m told this is only available on Word 2013, not the older versions. If that’s your case, then start your search and examine each was, individually repairing the sentence, which you’d have to do anyway.)
Why is it bad to use passive voice? Passive voice weakens the clarity of your writing. Sometimes, it is the only way to convey your meaning; however, the active voice is more dynamic. A reader’s eyes tend to droop if there are too many passives.
The same goes for weak modifiers, such as: almost, very, pretty, actually, really, basically, probably, kind of, extremely. If you find yourself using an adverb (words ending in –ly) rethink the sentence. Rethink if you use seem, seemed, or appeared to be.
Introduce your main character right away and let the reader know he is the main character. Do not clutter your first three chapters with thirty-two characters along with their descriptions. It is important for the reader to be able to identify with your main character, be it male or female. In a thriller or horror story oftentimes the first chapter has the villain plotting his evil. But the next chapter has to be about the main character.
When developing your plot make sure it is strong enough to sustain your story all the way through. Include subplots. Layer your story. If you pass a hundred thousand words in your first novel, go back. Find out what doesn’t have to be in there. A simple way to reduce your words is to delete 10 to 15% of the words on each page. You’ll surprise yourself with how many useless words you’ve used.
Remember to provide a setting, tone, and mood for your characters to exist in.
- The moonlight reflecting off the surface of the calm sea hides the monster lurking below.
- Wind whipped the willow tree, lashing at the window pane, leaving Mary desperate to return to the city where the sound of sirens and horns blaring were her lullabies.
Dialogue really requires its own blog. Nearly every submission contained dialogue. Unbelievably, I received two, which did not. Of those with dialogue, the biggest error was having characters greet one another with mundane, meaningless words, which did not advance the plot.
“Hi, Frank, how are you? How’s the wife?”
“Fine, John, Mary’s well. She’s visiting her mother, so we can talk in the living room. Let me take your coat while you go sit down. I’ll get coffee.”
You can use narrative voice to get Frank settled in for the conversation.
The second, and probably equally as annoying, problem I found are characters using one another’s names throughout an exchange.
“Hi, John. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Al.”
“John, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the missing money in your ledgers.”
“Is that so, Al?”
“Yes, John, the accountant brought this to my attention.”
You get the picture. Once we know who is in the scene, there is no need to keep repeating names. Think about your own conversations. How many times do you speak the other person’s name?
Give each character a separate paragraph in dialogue.
Mechanics are equally as important as content. Before submitting, check the publisher’s guidelines. If they are not specific, then use the industry standard: one inch margins all around, double spacing, left justified, indent first paragraph half an inch, use a space break or * * * to indicate a change of time or place. Start chapters half way down the page.
A single space following the end of a sentence is the current rule. The old practice of double spacing is gone, a relic of typesetting days. Pretend you never learned it.
Read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Chicago Manual of Style (standard for fiction), and other style books, such as Bobbie Christmas’s Write in Style.
If you pay attention to all of the above, there is a better chance an editor will at least read it.