Wouldn’t it be great if nobody ever needed an editor? If all of our stories and novels appeared in readers’ minds just as beautifully and vividly and succinctly they do in our own?
Wouldn’t it be great if the story we think we’ve told were, in fact, the story we’ve told?
There are more aspiring writers producing more manuscripts now than ever before history, and the writing-advice industry is keeping stride with totally conflicting instructions.
The result: everybody’s doing it, but nobody knows what the heck is going on.
I’d like to simplify that a little for you. Before you rush your beloved manuscript off to an editor, here are the four most common mistakes fiction editors see:
1. Unfocused structure
This is the biggest reason manuscripts get rejected. You’re telling a wonderful, powerful, gripping, complex story… but you’re the only person who actually knows that. Everyone else sees a long, rambling, uneven tale of various events happening to various characters. Why? What makes these things happen? And, most important to your reader, why are you telling us this?
Every novel needs a focus. What’s your point? What is it that you want the reader to know? That focus is your Climax, the one part your story simply could not do without. “I died of romanticism.” “I almost got et by a whale.” “I pretty nearly wrecked my life being a selfish grinch.”
At the same time, every novel needs a really good reason for the reader to care. That’s your Hook. The reader may have picked your book up for its snazzy cover, but you desperately need them not to put it down.
And every novel needs a series of intriguing, hair-raising, addictive events carrying the reader from the Hook to the Climax. You could just tell us the Climax. “The butler did it.” But long fiction is all about the wonderful, rollicking adventure building upon why that matters.
The hardest thing for aspiring writers to believe is that all this is holographic: what’s essential for the novel is also essential for the chapter, episode, even scene. Every single one of them needs a Climax, Hook, and some type of events leading from one to the other.
Read that again. Every single one.
2. Misplaced backstory
We live in a chronological world, so it makes sense to assume whatever happens first to your characters should appear first in your novel.
Unfortunately, we don’t read in a chronological world. We read for excitement. We read for the thrill of our blood pressure being inflated, soothed, then inflated again. We read for the rollercoaster ride.
All fiction starts with a Hook—the gripping thing that first sends these particular characters careening toward that particular doom. Yes, the backstory that influences and directs the rollercoaster matters, but the reader’s willing to wait until Chapter Two or even Three to learn about it.
They’re hopping aboard not because they understand exactly what’s going on, but because they simply care too much about Chapter One to put it down.
3. Underdeveloped character
This point can be difficult for the aspiring writer to grasp, because it just involves so darn much time. You know these characters! They’ve been coming to you in your dreams for years! Everything they do and say on the page makes perfect sense. How could it not be obvious?
I’m sorry. It’s not.
The craft of fiction is the craft of telepathy, of projecting the characters who are so much a part of your life and heart into the lives and hearts of total strangers. In order to do that, you need to spend an extraordinary amount of time getting to know them—not just their statistical data (although that’s a good start), but deep, complicated, intangible, detailed knowledge of them as living, breathing, suffering, contrasting individuals. You need to know their mannerisms, gestures, and expressions. You need to know their foibles, misconceptions, paradoxical needs. And, most of all, you need to know what they’re hiding from themselves.
Because how that comes to light is your story.
4. Unpolished prose
You simply have to learn how to write clearly. I know—no one can line edit their own work. This is true, and it sucks. But everyone can learn to write more clearly than they do.
Simple syntax: subject-verb. Simple rhythms: subtle variations on a few short sentences and a long, or a few longs and a short. Building and falling tension. Proper grammar and punctuation. Details that matter, both big to encompass atmosphere and tiny to create three-dimensional images.
Classic language is simple language. The reader’s pleasure lies not in the effort you put into a trumpeting voice, but in how invisible you make the words, just how close you can get to telepathy.
It lies in how your story rises up through all that clarity—a treasure surfacing from deep water.