I used to edit and critique manuscripts as a sideline to my writing. I did it for years, until it threatened the time I spent writing. So I stopped cold turkey. One day I just stopped accepting clients, and gradually my existing clients finished wringing me dry, and I was free. Here's a quickie handout I used during that time to help ease the pain for those whom I gently turned down. (Yes, Virginia, I actually turned down paying clients whom I felt couldn't yet make good use of the help I had to offer.) If a novel showed a pattern of deficiency in at least four of the items listed below, I thought the author was wasting their money coming to me. I didn't want to be a ghost writer, I wanted to help them make their own writing shine.
Here they are, in vague order of importance, with number one being the most important.
10. Manuscript not tightly edited and polished for grammar, spelling, and punctuation
Incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation show you don’t care enough to learn the mechanics of writing. Working with you in the future will be a continual, frustrating clean-up process, and editors want mss as clean as possible to reduce cost of copy editing.
9. Autobiographical writing
Unless your life story is really larger than life (be honest, now) and/or you are a popular celebrity, don’t bother sending it to an editor. Face it, most of us have lived mundane lives, which is one of the reasons we turn to fiction. You can use elements of your own life when creating characters, but use your imagination as well. We’ve all got something to draw upon in our own lives which would be interesting to others, but be selective! Also, don’t use your characters as talking heads for your personal views. Opinions and actions should be consistent with character development and not stuck in because you wanted to make a point. Keep the diatribes about social issues for a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
8. Poor pacing
The book should rise through a series of plateaus of action or intrigue or growth in relationships, followed by breathers. A breather happens when the protagonist is not actively involved in the main thrust of the plot. Breathers become shorter and shorter as the plot shifts into high gear. The interval between breathers gets longer as the book goes on, so that by the last 50 pages or so, there aren’t any.
7. Telling, not showing
Many new writers take the shortcut of explaining a situation or backstory directly to the reader, spoon-feeding character development and plot events. Instead, show the action as it happens, letting the characters participate first hand in real time. A family argument can be described to the reader in a paragraph or two, but without emotional impact. If the scene is played out in real time, the reader could enter the scene and experience it with all senses on high alert. Which is more memorable?
6. Stereotyped characters
Use of stereotypical characters is a shortcut to playing into the preconceived notions of the reader. All cops eat doughnuts and are gruff on the outside with a heart of gold inside; all college professors are bumblers in dealing with everyday life. Readers pick up on these immediately and are disappointed that the writer hasn’t gone to more trouble than using cookie-cutter characters.
5. Weak Motives
Characters in the book don’t have strong motives for their actions, and are essentially pawns of the plot. That leads to overuse of coincidences because actions don’t spring from within the characters and have to be imposed on them.
4. Padded stories
Some publishers are interested in a word count range, which is particularly true in genre writing. If a story doesn’t sustain that length, don’t pad it with inconsequential events. Some writers go so far as to take a concise phrase such as “She was belligerent” and dilute it by saying “The woman seemed to be a little bit touchy, maybe even looking for a fight.” Bingo, three words turned into fifteen. Add word count to a story by increasing the complexity of the plot, adding one or more meaningful subplots, or going into more depth in character development.
3. No “hook” at the beginning of the book
The first 500 words of your book are golden. That is the amount a browser might read in a bookstore, pulling the book off the shelf and examining it. In those brief words, you have to anchor the reader in a character, a situation, and a location. You have to create enough interest for the reader to want to move deeper into the story. Don’t rely on overused beginnings such as the dream, describing the weather, or having the character wake up and go through routine morning activities in detail.
2. Dialogue stilted
Bad dialogue is a constant irritant. Read your dialogue aloud – better yet, have a group of friends read it while you listen. If your characters are saying things that would never come out of a real human’s mouth, you’ve got work to do. On the other hand, dialogue is usually not a word-for-word representation of the way real people talk. It is condensed, more like the way we wish we could have said the things we did.
1. Voice not engaging
Voice is a combination of your protagonist’s personality and your own writing style. Style consists of your word choice, sentence structure and length, tone (humorous, dark, etc.), paragraph length, chapter structure, pacing, and point of view. Editors are looking for a “fresh voice”, meaning something that is not a rehashing of other authors’ work, something with genuine sizzle and a new way of looking at the human condition.