Most books aren't rejected because the stories are "bad." They're rejected because they're not "ready to read." In short, minor stuff like typos, grammar, spelling, etc.
I don't mean places where we, as authors, deliberately break the rules. Those are fine. That's part of our job. Language always changes with use, and we can help it on its way. No, I'm referring to places where someone just plain didn't learn the rule or got confused or overlooked it during the self-edits.
I've been editing novels for over three years. Looking back at my experiences, I feel like sharing the most common mistakes I've seen. If you'll go through your manuscript and fix these before you submit it to a publisher, your odds of publication will increase dramatically.
Once you've found a publisher who publishes what you write, you want to present yourself in the best way possible. Submitting an unedited manuscript is a bit like going to a job interview wearing a purple Mohawk, no shoes, torn jeans, and a dirty T-shirt. Your resume may be perfect, and your qualifications impeccable, but something tells me you won't get the job.
The publisher is investing a lot in every book it accepts. E-publishers tend to invest loads of time, and print publishers tend to invest an advertising budget and the cost of carrying a large inventory. Why ask them to invest hours and days of editing time as well? If the publisher gets two or three or ten nearly identical books, you want yours to be the one requiring the least editing.
The first thing you need to do, and I hope you've already done it, is use the spelling and grammar checkers in your word processor. This will catch many of the "common mistakes" on my list. But I've been asked to edit many books where the author obviously didn't do this, and I confess that I may well have been lazy and let a couple of mine get to my editors unchecked. Bad Michael!
There are some other valuable lists at the following websites:
Common Errors in English http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors
Words That Are Often Confused http://lbarker.orcon.net.nz/words.html
Here's a list of the mistakes I see most often.
* Dialogue where everyone speaks in perfect English and never violates any of the bullet points below. Okay, I made that up. That's not really a common problem at all. But I have seen it, and it's a terrible thing.
* It's is a contraction for "it is" and its is possessive.
* Who's is a contraction for "who is" and whose is possessive.
* You're is a contraction for "you are" and your is possessive.
* They're is a contraction for "they are," there is a place, their is possessive.
* There's is a contraction for "there is" and theirs is possessive.
* If you've been paying attention to the above examples, you've noticed that possessive pronouns never use apostrophes. Its, whose, your, yours, their, theirs...
* Let's is a contraction for "let us."
* When making a word plural by adding an s, don't use an apostrophe. (The cats are asleep.)
* When making a word possessive by adding an s, use an apostrophe. (The cat's bowl is empty.)
* A bath is a noun, what you take. Bathe is a verb, the action you do when taking or giving a bath.
* A breath is a noun, what you take. Breathe is a verb, the action you do when taking a breath.
* You wear clothes. When you put them on, you clothe yourself. They are made of cloth.
* Whenever you read a sentence with the word "that," ask yourself if you can delete that word and still achieve clarity. If so, kill it. The same can be said of all sentences. If you can delete a word without changing the meaning or sacrificing clarity, do it. "And then" is a phrase worth using your word processor's search feature to look for.
* Keep an eye on verb tenses. "He pulled the pin and throws the grenade" is not a good sentence.
* Keep an eye on making everything agree regarding singular and plural. "My cat and my wife is sleeping," "My cat sleep on the sofa," and "My wife is a beautiful women" are not good sentences. (I exaggerate in these examples, but you know what I mean.)
* I and me, he and him, etc. I hope no editor is rejecting any novels for this one, because I suspect that most people get confused at times. In dialogue, do whatever the heck you want because it sounds more "natural." But for the sake of your narrative, I'll try to explain the rule and the cheat. The rule involves knowing whether your pronoun is the subject or object. When Jim Morrison of The Doors sings, "til the stars fall from the sky for you and I," he's making a good rhyme but he's using bad grammar. According to the rule, "you and I" is the object of the preposition "for," thus it should be "for you and me." The cheat involves pretending "you and" isn't there, and just instinctively knowing "for I" just doesn't sound right. (I think only native English speakers can use my cheat. For the record, I have great admiration for authors writing in languages that aren't their native tongues.)
* Should of, would of, could of. This one can make me throw things. It's wrong! What you mean is should have, would have, could have. Or maybe you mean the contractions. Should've, would've, could've. And maybe 've sounds a bit like of. But it's not! Of is not a verb. Not now, not ever.
* More, shorter sentences are better. Always. Don't ask a single sentence to do too much work or advance the action too much, because then you've got lots of words scattered about like "that" and "however" and "because" and "or" and "as" and "and" and "while," much like this rather pathetic excuse for a sentence right here.
* On a similar (exaggerated) note: "He laughed a wicked laugh as he kicked Ralphie in the face while he aimed the gun at Lerod and pulled the trigger and then laughed maniacally as Lerod twisted in agony because of the bullet that burned through his face and splattered his brains against the wall and made the wall look like an overcooked lasagne or an abstract painting." Now tell me this sentence isn't trying to do too much.
* Too means also, two is a number, to is a preposition.
* He said/she said. Use those only when necessary to establish who's speaking. They distract the reader, pulling him out of the story and saying, "Hey look, you're reading a book." Ideally, within the context of the dialogue, we know who's talking just by the style or the ideas. When a new speaker arrives on the scene, identify him or her immediately. Beyond that, keep it to a minimum. Oh yeah, and give every speaker his/her own paragraph.
* Billy-Bob smiled his most winning smile and said, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" I don't like this. Use two shorter sentences in the same paragraph. Billy-Bob smiled his most winning smile. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Same effect, fewer words, no dialogue tag (he said).
* In the previous example, I don't like "smiled his most winning smile," because it's redundant and also cliched. Please, if you find yourself writing something like that, try to find a better way to express it before you just give up and leave it like it is. During the self-edit, I mean, not during the initial writing.
* "The glow-in-the-dark poster of Jesus glowed in the dark." This editor won't let that one go. Much too redundant, and it appeared in a published novel.
* Lie is what you do when you lie down on the bed, lay is what you do to another object that you lay on the table. Just to confuse matters, the past tense of lie is lay. Whenever I hit a lay/lie word in reading, I stop and think. Do that when you self-edit. (Note: Don't fix this one in dialogue unless your character is quite well-educated, because most people say it wrong. I do.)
* Beware of the dangling modifier. "Rushing into the room, the exploding bombs dropped seven of the soldiers." Wait a minute! The bombs didn't rush into the room. The soldiers did. To get all technical about it, the first part is the "dependent clause," and it must have the same subject as the "independent clause" which follows. Otherwise it's amateur, distracting, and a real pain for your poor overworked editor.
* If you are able (many readers are not), keep an eye out for missing periods, weird commas, closing quotes, opening quotes, etc. When I read a book, be it an ebook or a printed book, I can't help but spot every single one that's missing. They slap me upside the head, which makes me a great editor but a lousy reader. If you're like me, use that to your advantage. If not, that's what editors are for!
Michael LaRocca's website at http://freereads.topcities.com was chosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2001 and 2002. He published two novels in 2002 and has two more scheduled for publication in 2004. He also works as an editor for an e-publisher. He teaches English at a university in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter Mad About Books.
Copyright 2004, Michael LaRocca
About The Author
Michael is an American who's lived in Asia since 1999. He currently teaches English at Shaoxing University in Zhejiang Province, China. He telecommutes to Hong Kong as a legal transcriptionist, edits for Books Unbound, and he published four novels in 2002.
His website will show you how to improve your writing, find the right publisher, and promote your book after the sale. It explains why you should never pay to be published. It has won two Sime~Gen Readers Choice Awards and was listed in Writers Digest's The Best 101 Websites For Writers in 2001 and 2002. http://freereads.topcities.com firstname.lastname@example.org
The Top Five Writing Mistakes Professionals Make by: Judy Cullins
Yes, you know your subject. You also need to think about entertaining your audience, and making your book or other writing easy to read. If your writing lacks organization and compelling, vital sentences that convince your readers to keep reading, they will leave your book or Web site immediately. There goes your "word-of-mouth" promotion.
Try my "Check and Correct" for These Top Five Mistakes
1. Stop passive sentence construction.
When you write in passive voice, your writing slides along into long sentences that slow your readers down, even bore them.
Before you put your final stamp of approval on your writing, circle all the "is," "was" and other passive verbs like: begin, start to, seems, appears, have, and could. Use your grammar check to count your passives. Aim for 2-4% only.
Correct: "Make sure that your name is included on all your household accounts and investments." "Make" and "is included" --the culprits. Create more clarity with this revision," Include your name on all household accounts and investments to keep your own credit alive after your divorce."
2. Stop all pompous language and phrases.
Well-meaning professionals often use the word, "utilize." You see this criminal in resumes, military directives and medical or lawyer documents. "Utilize not only puts people off because we don't relate to "jargoneze," but because we want simple language. Think of Hemingway who knew that one or two syllable-words work better than longer ones.
When you aim at 10th grade level, you make it easy for your audience to "buy." Attempts to impress your audience with research babble or long words fail because they sound unreal and create a distance from the audience. Your reader wants a savvy friend, not an expert.
3. Show, don't tell to keep your audience reading.
When you take the lazy shortcut using -ly words like suddenly, or the adverb "very," your telling makes your reader yawn a "ho hum" and stop reading. Instead show "suddenly." For example, "When she saw the pistol, she ran and slammed the door behind her, shows "suddenly." Instead of "Alice was fat," say "Alice's girth prevented her from buying just one airline seat."
Circle the -ly and very words and sit down with your Thesaurus and replace them with power words that describe or show emotion.
4. Reduce your passive -ing constructions.
Think of a title that inspired you in the past. I like "Jump Start your Book Sales" by Marilyn and Tom Ross. "Jump Starting" lacks power because it doesn't ask for action. "-Ing" construction implies passive. Next time you think heading, title, or even compelling copy, think command verbs as sentence starters as well as using other strong verbs and nouns. Keep your sentences active using verbs in either present or past tense.
5. Take the "I" out of your writing to satisfy your reader
Whether you write a book introduction, biography, chapter or web sales message (did you know these are part of the essential "hot-selling points?"), keep the "I's" to a minimum. Your audience doesn't care about you, only what you can do for them. Think about where your audience is now--their challenges or concerns. Remember to answer their question, "Why should I buy this from you?" Put a big YOU at the top of each page you write. Write three or four paragraphs. Then, circle the "I's" and vow to replace them with a "you" centered sentence or question.
So instead of telling your story, (I know that's important to you) put your story in the third person. Use another name, maybe a client's or friend's. If you think your bio is important, instead of placing a long passage on your home page, place it instead, on your "About Us" page. On your book's back cover, put your longer bio and photo inside the back cover page, so you can put more of what sells on your back cover--testimonials and benefits. Get everything you write checked by a book or writing coach to make sure it sells.
You cannot only get more sales from what you write, you can put yourself out there as the savvy friend to your audience who wants a problem solved. In the long run, these satisfied readers will return to you again and again--even buy your products and services.
Judy Cullins, 20-year book and Internet Marketing Coach works with small business people who want to make a difference in people's lives, build their credibility and clients, and make a consistent life-long income. Author of 10 eBooks including "Write your eBook Fast" and "How to Market your Business on the Internet," she offers free help through her 2 monthly ezines, The Book Coach Says...and Business Tip of the Month at http://www.bookcoaching.com/opt-in.shtml and 140 free articles. email@example.com
So it’s your dream to write novels? Be a freelance writer and make a living off of your articles? Or maybe you nurture an ambition to write and sell enough short fiction to put bread on the table, like those writers of the golden age of the pulps?
Well, those are all noble dreams to have. I’m smitten by the writer’s glamour myself. Also I’m grateful for the others who were, those authors whom I love to read and return to time and again. I’m grateful that they possessed not only their artistic vision, but also the sheer stubbornness and will to persevere and see their dreams become reality.
So we’ve settled on the fact that we want to be writers, and that no other dream will do. Now let’s take a look at what this is likely to mean in terms of the sacrifices we’ll have to make along the way.
Make no doubts about it – even those closest to us may not understand or even sympathize with our dream. Young authors still in school or living at home should prepare themselves for the advice of well-meaning but frightened parents; which typically will be encouragement in ANOTHER direction. With all that time spent on the computer, you could build a career as a typist. How about data entry? Web design? They have a lot of great courses at the college for that.
Adult writers can oftentimes expect a similar reaction from their significant others; though in this case, the motivation might be someone different. Why don’t you pursue something that there’s a FUTURE in?
People who give this sort of advice are doubtlessly well-steeped in all the lore of the suffering artist. Parents don’t want to see their children go through it; husbands and wives aren’t all that eager to see their spouses get caught up in that trap either.
But the real question here is this: are YOU ready to believe in yourself enough to persevere even in the face of this negative (though well-meant, perhaps) feedback?
2. A social life? What’s that?
To finish a novel could easily take up a thousand hours or more of your time. That means almost three hours a day if you want to get it done in a year. And this is a modest estimate. Now maybe you’re willing to give up T.V. time, leisure reading, evenings out with your sweetheart, etc. You want to be a novelist that badly. But wait! The trials don’t stop there.
Your friends and family will want explanations. WHY can’t you go over to Lucky’s and hang out tonight? Why do you never pick up the phone at night (or in the morning or whenever you write)?
Now it’s one thing to have college papers to write, or mid-terms to study for, or overtime hours at work. Those are all socially acceptable obligations. But tell your friends that you’re staying in every evening to write and probably the best reaction you can hope for is a blank stare.
Are you ready to say: “Too bad if they can’t understand”?
3. Rejection upon rejection.
Let’s say we pass the first two hurdles. We don’t listen to people’s attempts (however well-intentioned) to dissuade us, and we plug away at our stories even though it means we can’t enjoy the leisure and down time of “normal” people. We put those thousand-odd hours into our work, and when it’s all done we’re proud of it. We write query letters, mail submissions, and sit back and dream of that fat advance, the book signing tour and the movie offers.
Then the unthinkable happens. We get one return letter after another, and all of them are variations of this: “Thank you for sending us [our work]. It was indeed interesting, but not quite what we’re looking for at this time.”
This happens to everyone. It has happened to me numerous times, and if it never happens to you then you will be entered into the history books of publishing. You may reach the point where a PERSONAL rejection letter instead of a pre-printed rejection feels like an accomplishment.
Remember the dream. Remember the passion that drove you to devote all those hours to writing in the first place, at the expense of your social life and leisure. Then send your work out again, because you didn’t pass the first two tests for nothing. When and if you get feedback, see if there’s anything constructive within it and learn for next time. You’ll be another rung up the ladder to success.
We writers survive and find our way because we weren’t meant to BE anything else.
This article is free for republishing Seth Mullins is the author of "Song of an Untamed Land", a novel of speculative fantasy in lawless frontier territory. His nonfiction includes dissertations on the craft of writing, as well as the inner meanings of mythic and fantasy stories.