Killing the slushpile: one manuscript at a time.

Peter Cox

Seven Pretty Deadly Manuscript Sins

Most Submissions I See Commit At Least One of These Avoidable Mistakes

Let’s start by demystifying things. Yes, there is a certain magic that surrounds exceptional writing.  One example: I’ve spent considerable time deconstructing the prose style of Stephen King, and the more I examine his writing, the more impressed I am by his ability to create something that is altogether greater than the sum of its parts.  Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how he does it – possibly the result of some Faustian pact?

Nevertheless, such outliers are rare.  At a less celestial level, the majority of successful writers are simply good because they have learned to avoid the most common pitfalls: those mistakes that leave 95% of submissions to agents and publishers floundering in the virtual trashcan.  Here are the most common blunders I see.  Avoid them and your work will stand out like a diamond in the dust.

1. Don’t Be Boring!

Sounds obvious?  Maybe. But the fact is, the majority of manuscripts and proposals that cross our desks suffer from this fatal flaw: they’re simply not interesting enough to hold our attention, let alone merit commercial publication.

This has very little to do with the choice of subject-matter.  It’s usually a consequence of the writer’s inability to produce compelling prose: writing that excites a deep emotional response.

Sadly, just because you may enjoy writing your manuscript, it doesn’t necessarily follow that others will enjoy reading it.

Today’s reader needs constant encouragement to keep turning the page. It’s your primary duty and professional obligation as a writer to keep the reader doing exactly this.  So deploy every strategy, tactic, trick and technique in your arsenal to keep this happening.

“Why should the reader be interested in what I have to say?”  That’s the key question to periodically ask yourself while writing. If there’s no obvious answer, then you’re probably running into trouble.

2. Failure to Understand “Point of View”

This very common flaw affects aspiring fiction writers who think that “writing is easy”.  Maybe they were “good” at English at school, and can’t be bothered to learn the basic skills of their craft. Not much sympathy from me, I’m afraid.

Writing is a hard craft to learn, partly because it involves unlearning many of your preconceptions about how easy it must be.  It is a dark and strange art; and the sooner you show it some respect and humility, the faster your progress will be.

The dullest, most insipid way to tell a story is for the author to assume an omniscient “God-like” role, and narrate a sequence of events.  While this style is appropriate for writing a brief synopsis (synopses are technical documents, by the way – never to be included in an initial pitch) it’s no good for anything else!

The rule-of-thumb is: show, don’t tell.  You surely must have heard that mantra before.  As the all-powerful creator of your own universe, you have the unique ability to let us see, hear, feel and experience the reality of your world from any character’s point of view.  Like a film editor who carefully cuts a scene for maximum dramatic effect, you have to deploy this skill very thoughtfully and with manifest control.  When it works, you’ll find it produces a deeply satisfying emotional response in your reader… and reading is primarily an emotional experience.

Point of view isn’t rocket science, guys!  It’s a fundamental writing skill, without which you have no claim to be taken seriously.  Learn it, use it, move on.

3. Don’t Be Derivative

Too many book proposals, manuscripts or screenplays we receive are simply carbon-copy variations on an existing theme. Why does the world need yet another book about calorie counting? Or a sub-James Bond thriller? You’ll never make your reputation as a writer rehashing a tired old formula. Give an agent something that twinkles with the fresh dew of originality, and you might just find that those sparkles turn into diamonds.

4. Don’t Be Afraid Of “The Big Idea”

This follows on from the previous point.  Virtually every successful book has, at its core, a “big idea” – a powerful, original, enticing concept capable of seizing the reader’s attention, and engaging their mind and emotions. “Make no little plans” wrote D. B. Hudson. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood…”

Especially in these challenging times, agents and publishers are desperately searching for Big Ideas.  Make us happy, please!

5. Don’t Neglect Your Craft

A great concert pianist, at the very pinnacle of their success, will typically practice for four hours a day.  How much time do you spend honing your craft?

Many writers arrogantly, and dangerously, assume that they have no need to improve themselves or their skills. What sets a good writer apart from the herd is a confident, controlled, creative and virtuoso use of language… A subtle skill, and one which demands constant practice.  Never stop honing your skills.  You can always develop, always improve, always learn or create new writing tactics.

6. Don’t Hide Your Talent

This may sound pretty obvious, yet it’s amazing how often we see opening chapters that are obviously sub-par and don’t adequately showcase the very best of that particular writer’s talent.  Sometimes, I’ve even had cover letters that say “the first few chapters aren’t very good, but I really hit my stride by chapter seven!”  What?

Guys, if you have a flair for dialogue, show it!  If you can bring tears to the reader’s eyes, do it!  If you’re a demon at plot construction, start constructing from page one!

Agents and publishers want to discover brilliant new talent.  If you spend the first three chapters warming up, only to hit your peak by page fifty, don’t expect anyone in a busy office to see.  Expect no more than three minutes (sometimes less) of their attention.  So front-load your talent, OK?

7. Don’t Give Up!

“Nobody knows anything” wrote William Goldman in his seminal book “Adventures In The Screen Trade“. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

This is as true of publishing as it is of movies.  Publishers and agents basically back hunches. If they are unsure about a project, the natural tendency is to play safe, and pass.  No-one got sacked for not picking up JK Rowling.  That’s why it’s difficult – but not impossible – for new talent to break in.

So don’t become discouraged when you encounter rejection; pay serious attention to criticism but never at the cost of ignoring your own inner voice; never lose faith in yourself; challenge yourself to constantly reinvent your writing style; and finally, remember that there’s really only one cardinal rule (perilously ignored by many writers) which is to keep the reader turning the page. Everything else, ultimately, boils down to that one simple dictum.