Previously Dana asked: What are the worst mistakes in writing and how can I avoid them?
The answer varies from editor to editor. Some editors, for instance, will reject a manuscript that isn’t perfectly prepared. If it’s single-spaced or if the margins aren’t one-inch or if the font isn’t Times New Roman, they may simply set the manuscript aside and mentally label it “unprofessional” and therefore “unpublishable.”
I like professional looking manuscripts too, so do NOT take this as an invitation to send me sloppy submissions. But good writing trumps even a poorly prepared manuscript. It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to prepare their manuscript to look nice than it is to teach them how to write well. That said, here are a few of the mistakes that bother me. I’m sure, given time, I could come up with more. But these will do for now. And keep in mind that other editors’ lists will look a bit different.
1. For fiction AND for non-fiction, I MUST see a compelling first page. In fiction, do not give me a weather report or a geography lesson on page one. You’d be amazed at how many authors start their story by telling me what the weather is like or what the landscape is like. No, give me a person. Even more, give me a person of interest. Someone I will immediately bond with and want to follow for the next 250 pages. In non-fiction, pull me in right away, don’t start out trying to teach me something.
2. I hate what I’ve come to call vertical writing. I’ve promised to blog on this concept and I will soon, I promise. Briefly, what I call vertical writing is writing that is just one boring sentence following another boring sentence. I contrast that with what I call diagonal writing. This is writing where each sentence leans against the next, moving the story effortlessly forward, without strain and without boredom. After that compelling first page mentioned above, the flow must go on without stopping even once. This is true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Most writing I see is vertical.
3. As might be expected “show, don’t tell” must be on this list. Fiction that tells a story is deadly. Learn to write in scenes, showing the actions and emotions of your story.
4. Know the CBA market. Don’t submit manuscripts with elements that are not reader-friendly to CBA readers. Learn the publishers and what they’re publishing. When I meet a new writer at a conference, I’m immediately turned off when he or she asks, “So what kind of books does Harvest House publish?” Familiarity with the publishing industry is important. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the various publishers and submit to those that publish the kind of books you write.
5. Writing that is so out of the box, it’s of interest to way too few readers. Even if the writing is good, some historical eras and some plot situations are of too little interest to most readers. A novel set in 1167 AD is going to appeal to far fewer people than one set in 1867. That’s just the way it is. The Civil War is more appealing than the War of 1812. The Amish are more interesting than Presbyterians. There are plenty of topics that are “in” right now. Your job is to find the place where your writing interests intersect with what people are reading and will be reading in the next few years.
A final element that really isn’t related to the writing, but is important to me is the temperament of the writer. What I mean is that I’m a better editor for authors with whom I get along. Most of my authors I consider friends, not merely “my job.” Don’t be a high-maintenance author. Pray that your editor will be someone whose judgment you can trust, not challenge.
I hope this helps, Dana. I like your idea of having me offer an opening line and have commenters add the next few lines. I’ll do that in the future—as soon as I come up with some good opening lines myself. 🙂