With a slush pile that, all told, now approaches a half-million words, we’ve had the opportunity to evaluate submissions from more than 80 different authors, in genres ranging from single short poems to overly long novels. What follows is a list of points that emphasizes trends frequently seen in first-pass submissions; these twelve observations aren’t intended to call anyone out, but they are offered as a sort of mental check to help authors revise their manuscripts.
Show, Don’t Tell.
One of the most frequently invoked nostrums of fiction writing is that the key events in the story should be demonstrated as action within a scene instead of asserted through narration.
Un-Good: “Sally was a fat old woman who rarely bathed.”
Less Un-Good: “Sally was so focused on folding her walker as she spilled into both handicap seats that she was unprepared for the sudden forward lurch of the bus. She grabbed wildly for the armrest. Bob would have laughed at the sight of her flailing had he not been overwhelmed by the stale, pungent odor released from her armpits as she struggled.”
A caveat: The show don’t tell mantra gets beat into writers in workshops. And yes, there’s value to the concept — but take care that the descriptive pendulum doesn’t swing in favor of prose so larded with adjectives that you’ve merely replaced one construction problem with another.
Remove the Modifiers and ESL Words.
Resist the temptation to pad your prose with an overflowing cornucopia of flowery adjectives and adverbs. Especially adverbs; they provide far less semantic value than appears at first blush — especially terms like quickly or easily, which have been turned by marketers into words utterly devoid of specific meaning. Authors who over-rely on adverbs and adjectives usually deliver flabby prose that’s profitably tightened by dropping the modifiers altogether.
In recent years some English teachers have tried to converge traditional English pedagogy with English as a Second Language vocabularies. So, students learn to use common, easy terms and from there, to build semantic complexity through the addition of phrases and clauses. But such an approach, although it benefits readers with weak literacy, results in a much less dense concepts-to-syllables ratio. Sometimes, the right word isn’t the ESL word, and trimming the fat through the use of the right word makes for more compelling prose.
Un-Good: “Jasmine quickly put the red, bloody knife in the drawer to safely hide it.”
Less Un-Good: “Jasmine concealed the bloody knife in the drawer.”
In this example, cutting the two adverbs trims the sentence without changing its meaning. And using concealed as the main verb instead of the circumlocution put … to hide tightens the narration.
Spread Out Descriptions.
Writing is an art; there’s no correct answer as to whether some detailed description ought to appear immediately, or to spread over scenes or chapters. Yet a hallmark of an inexperienced author is to consistently front-load descriptors — usually with places and characters, where an entire paragraph of narration transcribes the sensory impression offered by a given new person or place.
It’s OK for details to be shown instead of told, and that such details may appear in their own sweet time.
Scrub the Backstory.
Fantasy, you vile beast of a genre: You attract authors impelled to write history lessons early in their novels to “frame the backstory” or “describe the universe.” Often, these soliloquies flow not because they’re useful to the reader, but because the author is so invested in his own private universe that he can’t resist shining a klieg light upon the beloved product of his imagination.
Tip: Just. Bloody. Stop.
There’s almost no scenario in pure fiction where it’s profitable to insert an extended discourse by the narrator that recites facts, statistics or history. If the information is useful, reveal it naturally within the story at the point where the data become meaningful. Data dumps in Chapter One signal an author’s inexperience as a storyteller.
Vary Character Voice.
No two humans speak in the same way. Neither should your characters. When all the dialogue reads as if it’s just narration with quotation marks, then you’ve got more work to do to create multi-dimensional characters.
And while you’re at it: Render dialogue in spoken English, as English is generally spoken. Most people, for example, do not routinely refer to others by name — so neither should your characters. The use of names in prose is a shortcut to identify the person to whom the character is speaking, but such direction — even if it’s necessary (it usually isn’t) — is better effected by narration instead of dialogue.
Befriend a Grammar Nazi.
Visit enough authors’ websites, and you see a common lament: “I submit my work to publishers and agents all the time, but I never hear back.” One possible reason for your lack of a response follows from the First Five Pages Rule — namely, that if an editor or agent encounters several significant style or grammar errors in the first five pages of the manuscript, it’s set aside entirely.
Consider this: We at Caffeinated Press are still somewhat new at all of this publishing stuff, yet we’ve already developed a strong spidey sense for when we’ve been pitched first-draft material. Things that should never, never, never, under any circumstances ever, appear in a shopped manuscript, nevertheless appear with soul-crushing regularity in a very large segment of the work that hits our inboxes:
- Misspelled words in the first sentence of the story
- Punctuation outside the quote marks
- Verb-tense errors
- Incorrect speaker attribution
- Words used incorrectly
- Inconsistent typographic conventions (spacing, margins)
We’ve written before about beta readers. Up your game by ensuring that one of those beta readers is a bona fide grammar Nazi, complete with jackboots polished to gleaming perfection with the pages of the stylebook of your choice.
Lose the Thesaurus.
Upscale, educated readers delight in the judicious use of rare words. But just as everyone recognizes a bad toupee when they see it, so also do readers recognize when a writer relies too heavily upon a thesaurus to vary word choice.
Florid writing — purple prose — partly follows from over-writing with adjectives and adverbs, and partly from using an unnecessarily large number of polysyllabic words when a concise construction would suffice.
Use the Right Tense.
Verb tense matters. Be very, very careful about submitting stories written in a third-person point of view, but with present-tense verbs.
Don’t Stereotype your Characters.
With contemporary sensitivity to race, ethnicity, orientation and other attributes so finely tuned, it’s difficult to account for stories that rely on one-dimensional characters who are, distilled, just a stereotype of the character, or function as a rigidly archetypical character.
Readers want to love or hate or otherwise care about the characters in a story. Conflict-driven plot requires readers’ emotional investment in the main characters. So when a story presents with lifeless people who follow the script, the story just doesn’t work.
For example, avoid relying on:
- Villains who are ugly or deformed or who had bad childhoods
- Heroes who are beautiful and always get the guy/gal
- Smart secondary characters who can never resist the temptation to do that stupid thing that magically moves the plot along
- Fat people who are lazy or greedy
- Nurses or princesses or secretaries who are perky sluts
- Young heroes who always act with virtue
It helps to understand your characters before you write about them.
Use a Consistent Point of View.
Authors unschooled in POV structures sometimes fall naturally into an appropriate POV, but the Pareto Principle governs here. Roughly 80 percent of material suffers from at least some POV confusion. Sometimes it’s just picking the wrong POV for a given scene; sometimes the problem is that POV flips within the same scene.
Think Before you Twist.
Twists. Some authors love them. But plot twists must be executed with care; they’re an advanced technique that requires careful foreshadowing and plausibility to work. A twist that basically says, “Haha, reader, I fooled you!” isn’t storytelling, it’s an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
A rule of thumb: A weak writer has no plot; a mediocre writer writes with plot twists; a superior writer offers a strong plot that doesn’t need twisting. Some exceptions, of course — horror, as a genre, tends to twist a bit. But as a rule, if you think you’ve got a clever plot twist, think instead about how to improve the whole plot so the twist isn’t necessary. Good stories shouldn’t require contrivances to finish in satisfying fashion.
Mind the Motivation.
Why do your characters do the things they do? A good story drinks deeply from the well of human moral psychology, but it also remains true to moral plausibility. If characters behave in ways that are unexpected and out-of-character compared to what a “real” person would do, then something’s misfired. It’s a common conceit that people believe themselves to have a good sense of right and wrong, so therefore they’re fully capable of making an ethical assessment of some situation. But moral philosophy is richer and more nuanced than just the instinctive moral sentiments of the uneducated.
The why of the story must be both plausible and intelligible. If it’s not, the whole premise of the story collapses.
Tip: If you really want to foray into motivation and morals, it’s well worth your time to read one of the accessible overviews of moral philosophy, such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics or John Rawls’ Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.