Eight Rookie Mistakes to Watch for in Your Writing

A few months ago I was digging through the boxes of my old stuff at my parents’ house looking for goodness knows what and happened upon the flash drive containing all of my high school writing endeavors. I was so excited to plug in the flash drive and start reading. But man, am I happy high school me refused to let anyone read her stories!

It seems I was a huge fan of what I can only assume was supposed to be “witty” dialogue, using Word’s built in thesaurus, and starting every story with the main character waking up. Every. Single. One.

As an editor, I wanted to delete every single story immediately. Or maybe set the flash drive on fire, run it over with a car, and figure out a way to weigh it down and drop it in the middle of the Atlantic. But as I read through and saw all of these mistakes, I was actually happy to be seeing them. It means I’ve grown, right?

So, if you’re just starting out or if you’re looking for ways to polish your writing before sending it off to beta readers, agents, or editors here are eight ways to avoid making rookie mistakes in your writing.

  1. Simplify

When you’re writing, chose the word people know. Simplifying your vocabulary is a fantastic way to keep readers engaged in the story. Using words that have readers reaching for the dictionary will pull the reader from the world you’re trying to create.

Using the biggest word possible at all opportunities will also give your writing a pretentious vibe. If you’re dying to bust out the seven syllable words, maybe pick one or two and make them a character trait. Maybe you have a know-it-all character who says facetious instead of sarcastic? Even in this case, however, use sparingly.

  1. Said is so not dead

This goes hand in hand with simplifying your writing. Dialogue tags are really supposed to blend in with your writing. When you have characters whispering, shouting, breathing, or exclaiming everywhere it will draw focus away from what is actually happening. While you don’t have to use “said” for every dialogue tag, it’s the one tag that readers will naturally skim over and so it won’t pull attention from the Untitledstory itself.

  1. Structure

Varying your sentence structure is your best bet for maintaining your writing’s flow. I feel like this aspect of writing is really something that comes with time and experience. The more books you read, the more you internalize what writing is supposed to sound like and the more your writing starts to imitate that sound. If you have a section where you’re just not sure on what’s not right, take a look at the sentence structure and see if you’re stuck in simple sentence land.

  1. Avoid the cliché

Black as night, pretty as a rose, soft as silk, etc. Avoid these. If you find yourself using these kinds of phrases try to rethink how you can word those sections. If your style is more poetic, think of new ways you can describe everyday things.

On a larger level, avoid plot clichés. Don’t make my mistake and open with your character waking up to her alarm on a typical Tuesday. You want to hook your reader from the first word so drop them in the story right where the action starts.

  1. Formatting

Another rookie mistake I made in my high school writing was in formatting. Oh my gosh did I love the italics button. I used it to set off character thoughts, to show dream sequences, and emphasize words in dialogue-all in the same story! Sometimes italics are a great formatting tool, but always aim to be able to write well enough that they aren’t actually necessary. Use the text around that emphasized word to get the reader to read the dialogue the way you intend and write the character’s thoughts in a way so they flow with the rest of the story. If you’re going to utilize italics, make sure it’s only for one specific purpose. You can set off a dream sequence, but you shouldn’t use italics for anything outside of dreams after that point.

  1. Pick a point of view

As an editor, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. While I’m just as much a sucker for the dual point of view love story as the next person, I can’t handle it when there are two points of view in the same scene or chapter. There needs to be a break between narrators so that readers can adjust. Otherwise it ends up being about as confusing as I’d imagine it would be to be able to read minds in a crowded room.

  1. Modifiershhhhhhhhhhhhh

“Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.” – Mark Forsyth The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

Have you ever learned this rule for modifiers? Please, please avoid needing to reference the entire thing for your story. Modifiers are a wonderful part of our language, but if you can use a strong verb then ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Find all of the –ly words in your story and make sure they aren’t taking over your writing. While you’re at it, make Robin Williams happy and get rid of “very” in its entirety.

  1. Repetitive

Another edit note that I harp on pretty consistently is repetitiveness. This can be as specific as sentences or as broad as major concepts. On a sentence level this can be a really difficult habit to break, but once you see it you’ll notice it easily. An example would be, “He was so angry. He slammed the door” really only needs to be “He slammed the door” By cutting the unnecessary words you can really clean up your writing.

On a larger level, you want to make sure you aren’t repeating facts from the story or ideas. Sometimes it’s tempting to relate everything back to a character’s traumatic past, but that gets to be repetitive. So, for example, if Joan has a horrible relationship with her mother and the reader knows this, you don’t have to explain the relationship again when Joan won’t go to the grocery store her mother frequents or when Joan immediately dislikes the motherly figure in her office.

 

So if you’re reading through your writing and finding some or all of these mistakes, no worries! No one’s perfect. If you can see the places where you slip up, you can edit them. Once you work through editing them, you’ll find that you naturally avoid them in your next work. It’s all about learning and growing and putting your story down on paper in the best way you can, and then looking back at the early stuff and laughing (sometimes out loud) at some of the silly mistakes you made then but never make now. Happy writing!

 

What Are Agents Really Looking for in Partials and Fulls?

Lots of writers ask why agents bother asking for a partial manuscript. After all, what can agents really find in those fifty pages? Wouldn’t it save a lot of time if agents just asked for the full?

Short answer? No. Not at all. Aside from just saving a lot of time, agents are also looking to see if they want to read more of your work. It’s much easier to give an interesting idea a fair shot when agents know they are only going to be committed to a shorter read. You’ve piqued the interest of the agent in your original query and now they want to see what else you’ve got.

Unfortunately, this seems to lead to heated debates with writers questioning whether or not agents can glean enough of the story to decide whether it’s good or not with only fifty pages.

the-best-note-taking-software_evodify-com_How can an agent fairly judge a book by its beginning? Shouldn’t they just go ahead and commit to reading the whole thing so they can see how things play out?

Another short answer: No, but there’s also a longer answer. Aside from making it easier to process the amount of submissions an agent gets in a day, each stage of the submission process also tells us a lot about your story and how it’s crafted. So what are agents really looking at throughout the query process? Everyone has their own preferences, but generally speaking, agents look for the following:

Requested Pages In Your Query

Now this is not about the query letter. If you want more information regarding the query letter you can look here. This is about the sample pages you copy and paste in the body of the email. With only fifteen pages, agents understand that they’re not going to get much story content here. So what these sample pages boil down to are two things; writing strength and style.

“You mean you’re not looking for clichés and an active beginning and an engaging voice?” I hear you ask. Well yes, but realize all of those things tie into whether or not you can write. And knowing an author can write well is absolutely the first thing an agent needs to establish. One could assume that the “why” is pretty self-explanatory, however I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are many writers out there who believe that bad writing can be fixed with an editor. I am here to tell you this is not the case. Far from it, in fact. Agents can help edit a manuscript for problems in story-telling, a good round of line edits can help recast minor flaws in sentence structure that impede clarity, copy edits can fix grammatical issues, and proof-reading will make sure all your syntax is in its final place. But if you don’t have the writing basics under your belt, there’s no amount of editing that can fix that. At least, not without resorting to hiring a ghost writer.stock-photo-101277739-woman-using-notebook-computer-taking-notes-at-cafe-working

Partials

Time to start getting a little more picky. Now, agents aren’t just looking at your writing. Now they’re looking for the hook and the heart of your story. I know that for me, personally, if I can’t tell what the story is about within the first 30 pages without re-reading the query, I will recommend a pass. The heart of your book should be apparent by this point in the book. Readers should be able to see a rough outline of the journey they are in store for whether it’s solving a murder, trying to escape a captor, seeking a new life in a new place, or a character’s road to self-discovery; whatever that hook is, readers should have it. You cannot expect anyone to keep reading in hopes that the book will get better. Every page matters, but especially in the beginning when the plot is first starting to come together.

In addition, here are some specific things agents may look at:

  • Pacing (Are we getting bogged down in exposition or a huge info dump?)
  • Characterization (Are they relatable? Can readers get emotionally attached to them? Do they sound real?)
  • Dialogue (Is it reading cheesy? Does it accurately reflect how the character would speak?)
  • Conflict (Are we getting the catalyst that sets this book into motion?)

Fulls

Fulls are fantastic! At this point agents know you can write well, you’ve hooked them into the story, and now they get to sit back and actually READ it and see how everything comes together. The most important thing to look at when reading a full manuscript is how the story works overall. This ranges from how it’s organized and structured to how well both the story as well as character arcs are developed and how plot devices are used. Are there any loose threads left untied at the end of the book? Was each page just as compelling as the last? How much editing does this book need before it’s polished enough to pitch to an editor? And even if all these things are perfect, there is still one last item to check off the list: Chemistry.

Imythofthespoiledchildebookparentingnotesintentionalmamat’s important to realize that there are still a million and one reasons why an agent may still decline representation at this point. You can have the most perfect, well-put together book, and still get a rejection because chemistry is really important. Agents have to LOVE your book, not just like it a whole lot. This is because selling is very hard and if an agent isn’t completely over the moon about it, it makes pitching it to a publisher that much harder. Your book could be completely perfect, but it just may not be perfect for that particular agent.
Rejection is never easy. Agents know and understand how much time and effort it takes into creating a book. No matter what happens, don’t give up. What may not work for one, may work for another. Keep revising and keep querying.

 

 

 

 

Amber Mitchell Discusses Her Journey To Becoming A Published Author

Today we’re talking with Amber Mitchell about her journey to publishing her first novel, Garden of Thorns, hitting shelves on March 6, 2017. Amber graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in a small town in Florida with her husband Brian and their four cats.


Starting from the very beginning, what inspired you to start writing Garden of Thorns?

Every time I see a movie where there is a big ball room scene and the women are twirling around in their ball gowns, I always thought they looked like flowers. It was one of those things I filed away for a later date.  While I was editing a supernatural novel that I was working on, this voice kept tempting me. It grew so loud that I opened up a different Word.doc and I started writing in Rose’s perspective. Her situation, being trapped where she was, resonated with me so strongly that I had to keep writing to figure out exactly what she was so afraid of. That night I came up with the concept of the Dancing Flowers and the Gardener and never looked back. GARDEN OF THORNS was one of the few books I didn’t plot out completely before I started writing. After I got stuck, I started to plot, but I was surprise at how natural it came to me.
 
What were some of the edits you made in order to polish your manuscript before submitting to agents?
 
I went through a lot of rounds to edit GARDEN before I considered it ready. I knew I had something special with the concept and world but I had a lot of problems with the middle half of my book. After getting some feedback from beta readers I was able to refocus the plot and felt the book was much stronger. I also needed to add more world building in. I’d had touches of Delmar’s religion and culture but I needed to amplify it even more before I sent it out.
 
When you decided to submit your work to agents, how did you narrow down the hugeamber-9491 list of agents to a list of those you wanted to query? How did you keep yourself organized throughout this process?
 
My saving grace was Querytracker.net. I lived on that website. It’s really useful because you can track which agents you query, the status of your query and on what day the agent responds. I updated it every day and spent hours reading the comments people posted and what other agents had requested and rejected. When I felt I was ready to start querying agents, I looked at what they represented first and foremost. I was not making the mistake of sending out a query to someone that didn’t represent my genre. Since I was writing a YA fantasy, an agent that represented both of those genres became a must for me. I shied away from those that liked YA but weren’t into epic fantasy since I wanted to save myself as much heartache as possible. After that, I looked at which agents were the most active, who they represented and sent out my queries.
 
Speaking of queries, what tips can you give other writers who are faced with the daunting task of writing their query letter?
 
Do your research. This is such a big one. And after you’ve done your research, make sure you are personalizing every query you send out there to the best of your ability and following guidelines to the tee. Don’t get disqualified before an agent even lays eyes on your work! The other major thing that I find helpful is to give your query to people that haven’t read your book and ask them if it makes sense with their limited knowledge. That will help you weed out those generic phrases and confusing sentences.
 
gardenYou were signed by Nikki Terpilowski and have been working with her ever since. What is it like working with an agent? Was there anything that surprised you?
 
It’s really nice having someone in your corner that will help you navigate the maze of the publishing world so you can focus on the things that matter (like writing). Since this is my first publication, I had so many questions and Nikki has happily answered every single one. She has always been an awesome advocate, giving me great advice, celebrating my victories and also advising me when to take a step back and let things play out naturally. Even now, I have a hard time letting go of control, not because I don’t trust, but because I care so much. However, I’ve learned to breathe easier knowing that Nikki is on top of things.
 
After your book sold to Entangled Publishing, did you have anything that surprised you about how a publishing house operates?
 
Working under deadline has been a completely new experience for me. I’m a slower writer (I used to think I was pretty fast but I’ve come to reconsider that opinion) so while I would always set myself deadlines, it was nothing like what was expected of me during the editing phase of publication. Then there was the added pressure of knowing that people are relying on me to get my job done so they can complete theirs. I loved the back and forth of completing edits and then receiving comments from my editor a few weeks later. It made the novel feel alive, always changing, always new.
 
The other thing I didn’t expect was how many rounds of edits it would need. I was prepared for the developmental and line edits but the multiple rounds of copy edits took me by surprise. I actually found the copy edits to be the hardest because I could no longer move things around and suddenly, I had to justify why I was changing a word or taking one out.
 
When the edit notes came in, did you have any obstacles that seemed insurmountable? How do you approach editing your story?
 
The first round of developmental edits were big and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t scare me. When I first opened up the email, it felt like I needed to rewrite most of my book, which was only partially true. After re-reading the email and speaking with my husband, what I began to realize is that I needed to re-think all of the decisions I’d made and really figure out what made sense. I needed to reanalyze character motivation and relationships to figure out what all of my main characters wanted. After I started thinking about motivation and how that affected everything in the world, the rest sort of flowed onto the page naturally. It helped that I got permission not to worry about word count!
 tips-for-writer
What is one “writing tip” you learned from editing Garden of Thorns?
 
The question that kept coming up in editing was what was keeping Rose and Rayce from their goals. Was it just for plot’s sake or did I create an underlying reason for them to be unable to obtain their goals (and each other) in the beginning of the story? When I approached the story for that angle, scenes that were lacking tension suddenly sparked off the page.
 
So the biggest trick I’ve learned from editing GARDEN, is to really dig deep and figure out what is keeping your characters from reaching their goals emotionally, physically, spiritually and societally. Points if you can come up with something that does all four! Make them want whatever they want badly, make it impossible and then join in their triumph as they strive, bleed and stretch to reach the unobtainable.  
 
You mentioned in your earlier interview that you found out how impatient you were during the slow moving process that is publishing. Any advice to writers who find themselves staring at their computer screens?
 
Is there any advice they would like to share with me?
 
I kid, I kid. Mostly…
 
The only thing that has helped me besides very cheap champagne and expensive chocolate is to focus on your next project. I hate this advice because it’s literal torture to follow it, but if you really do unplug yourself from the internet, even 10 minutes at a time to fall in love with something else, it will get easier. Not a lot easier, but enough to function.
 
It seems that publishers and agents alike are always advising authors to be building their author platform. How did you approach this?
 
This is something I’m working on even as I’m typing this interview. I started out in the book blogging community so that is proving helpful. It’s also very prudent to test several different social media sites so you can find out which ones are enjoyable for you to use. Personally, I really like Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads so that is what I’ve been focusing on. Try to be active, don’t make every tweet, update or blog post about writing. People want to know the person behind the words.
 
walt disney world - magic kingdom castle fireworksAny exciting plans to celebrate your book’s publication day?
 
I’m going to Disney World with my hubby and friends! No, seriously, I am. Which isn’t a super huge deal since I live in Florida but it seems like a good way to celebrate the fruition of a lifelong dream. I might even get that Gaston plushie I’ve been eyeing and if I want to get really crazy, we might even go to meat sweats (we call Brazilian steakhouses by this lovely moniker) for dinner.

 

For more about Amber and Garden of Thorns check out her website or follow her on Twitter @Amberinblunderl.

 

The Revision Letter: Why and How to Follow it to a T

By Rachel Beck

When an agent takes the time to write a thoughtful revision letter for your manuscript, it’s a really good thing because it means he or she is interested enough in your story and characters to invest in this. It just means your book isn’t quite there yet, but they’re willing to put in the effort to help you get it there. It means they want you to succeed! But revision letters can contain a lot, and there are often many ways to interpret a change that an agent is asking for. The goal of this post is to help you make sense of revision letters.

keepcalmIn an ideal world, an agent will read a manuscript, like it but have some thoughts for improvement, send off a letter detailing these thoughts, and then the author will read it, nod, and get right to work, producing the manuscript of the agent’s dreams. But this is rarely the case–in fact, one round of revisions is usually not sufficient. So it’s likely that authors might wonder, when asked to do more revisions, What did I do wrong?

Revising is tough. We get it. Sometimes our ideas and reasons for having a character do X instead of Y make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’re conveying exactly what we mean in our revision letter, but what you read and what we wrote are actually coming across like two totally different languages. German and Swahili. Arabic and Spanish. Or maybe just Agent and Writer. So how do we all get on the same page (literally)?

It’s important to understand the reasoning behind a change an agent is asking for. Especially if it’s something major, like a plot line, character’s motivation, or deleting an entire chapter. If the agent hasn’t laid it out in a clear enough way that you understand and agree with, probe further. Ask more questions. If you’re just blindly making a change because your agent said to, the changes you make won’t necessarily be stronger. Plus, you’ll learn for next time that, say, having your main character’s estranged cousin come back into her life and reconcile with her at the end of the story doesn’t work because it distracts from the purpose of the book and creates a contrived relationship that’s totally separate from and unnecessary to the main story line.

You might often be asked for revisions to a character’s goals, motivation, or conflict. A realistic book with stakes and heart is going to need these three things in sufficient doses. So one revision note might be, what is Mandy’s goal in the scene when she looks up her cousin with the intention of reconnecting? Why does she want this reunion in the first place? Such revision points should cause you to question your own choices for your characters and story. If you can stand by your decisions, by all means, give your agent your rationale and have a conversation. The key is to ask if you’re still confused about a certain point after reading through the revision letter. It can never hurt to get more information.

script-revisionsAmong other things, we might ask in revision letters for higher stakes to the plot as a
whole, slowing down or speeding up the pacing of the story, beefing up a character’s past or conflict, and so on. These are all important things that are sometimes not brought out in early drafts. Additionally, we might give some pointers on the mechanics of writing, though we generally expect the authors to acquire this knowledge on their own. We might question why a character is hiding their true identity, or some fact that seems important, from another character. If it seems unethical or makes a character seem less appealing, we’ll probably note that, and we can discuss whether the deceitful action is worth the less-appealing light it puts the character in in order to accomplish whatever purpose he had.

Think of a revision letter as a pair of eyes on all of your characters and story lines. If they’re doing something that doesn’t ring true to the book, it’s going to be questioned. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that a revision letter is like a conversation. So be sure to respond with any concerns or questions that you have after reading over your agent’s thoughts, and never hesitate to ask for clarification if you need it or are still confused on a certain point. The book will be stronger for it, when all is said and done!       

 

Rachel is an agent with Holloway Literary. Learn more about her here and then follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Burkot.