Being a writing contest coordinator and having been a judge myself for several writing contests, I’ve seen why many manuscripts don’t win. They’re the same reasons agents and editors pass as well. These 5 manuscript killers are what usually separate a winning manuscript from those that fail to make the cut.
1.) No beginning hook. It also needs to be sustaining. Some authors try to open with a bang on the first page because they know it’ll grab the agent’s attention, but then it fizzles, and they dive into backstory. It seems as though they’re toying with the reader, saying, here’s my fabulous hook, then yanks it away and goes into backstory. Nice try, Sparky. A brief opening hook will wear thin if the subsequent narrative slows down. The reader may resent the maneuver, and thus, put the book down . . . for good. A strong opening with great pacing is what will keep the book in your readers’ hands.
2.) Too much backstory. We’re writers: we have a story to tell and characters to introduce—who have history. Sadly, most aspiring authors drop it all on the reader at once—in long narratives. Get to the action and weave in the backstory through dialog, inner thoughts, and character mannerisms. You have a whole book, so spread the information out and only use what’s important to the story and to the character. The last thing you want is for the reader to start skimming and miss that one crucial tidbit you threw in. Good novelists will space out these details, periodically feeding you just enough breadcrumbs to keep you reading.
3.) Passive voice. This is usually a big killer. Do a word search for “to be” verbs, especially “was” and “were” and replace them with active verbs. Check out my post for The Writing Bug yesterday where I discuss how to eliminate passive voice. Passive writing is one of those things that can out you as an amateur pretty quickly, so be discriminatory when it comes to “to be” verbs.
4.) Bland characters. I get that it’s a challenge to create fleshed out characters without diving into backstory, but it can easily be done through dialog; character gestures and mannerisms; their inner thoughts; and how they react to their surroundings, as well as others. Don’t tell the reader every detail about their childhood in order to tell us why the character has this one particular habit. You can show that through other more concise ways, rather than going into his/her past right off the bat. Dialog is a fantastic way to accomplish two things: it reveals character traits, quirks, and history, while at the same time, it moves the story along.
5.) Poor Dialog: Dialog should always have a purpose, so leave out conversations that won’t lead anywhere, or don’t have a point. It’s there to move the story along and to create tension. It’s okay to have your characters say hello to each other, or to have a line or two of formalities once in a great while, but keep it to a bare minimum. Dialog must serve a purpose, by moving the story along, and ideally, creating tension and conflict. While we’re at it, mainly use “said,” and “asked” as tags, and remember, “smiled,” “laughed,” “grimaced,” and “smirked,” are not tags. Another big mistake is that punctuation often gets overlooked. Don’t forget that a comma goes before a name. For example: “I don’t know what you see in her, Bob. She’s can’t conjugate her verbs.” Same with: “Hi, Phil, you look dashing in that track suit.”
Bonus: Overusing certain words. I think just is the most overused word. Ever. Even manuscripts that are otherwise well written, have a plethora of justs. Stop it. Most of the time, the word adds nothing to the sentence, so take it out. Also look for really and very.
Bonus Bonus: (sorry, I can’t help it) Poor formatting. Lots of entries show up with poor indentation, two spaces between sentences (the standard is 1) or it’s done inconsistently, improper punctuation, and typos. These should be freebies! So many authors get marked down for these mistakes and unfortunately, can ruin an otherwise strong submission. There’s no excuse for poor mechanics—there’s typically one way to do these things. Learn them, so your story doesn’t get rejected. It’s like losing the game because of a missed free throw.
There you have it.