Aug 01 2008
This short article will help beginning novelists avoid another five common mistakes that will usually cause publishers to throw out a manuscript.
41. Please make sure that all the characters in a scene play a distinct role. If you have many characters talking in a scene, do you need all of them? If two serve essentially the same role, probably not. For example, if you wanted to write a scene about a teen getting chewed out by his parents for underage drinking, it probably wouldn’t make sense to include both parents unless they each added something. For example, if one parent were more lenient than the other, then having both would allow the teen to play the two parents against each other, which could be dramatic.
Likewise, it’s very important to make sure that all of the characters in your book serve a distinct role. If you can merge two characters into one, it will probably tighten your manuscript and improve your characterization.
42. Don’t let your title misdirect readers. For example, don’t refer to another work in your title unless your story is actually related to that work. If I were writing a story about lambs seeking refuge, calling it Asylum of the Lambs would be spectacularly ineffective. My title may be a witty play on “Silence of the Lambs,” but unless my story actually has something to do with crime or psychological drama or serial-killing, or a SOTL parody, I’ve completely mismarketed my book.
Symbolic language can also misdirect readers. For example, if I were writing a story about a solitary guy, calling it Lone Wolf might convince some readers that it somehow includes a wolf. That may turn off your target audience (“good God, why would I want to read a talking animal story?”) Is there any way that a chunk of your audience might misunderstand a word or phrase you’ve used in your title? If so, please revise it.
43. Please avoid flat protagonists. Readers are generally more interested by characters that grow and develop over the course of the story than by flat characters. I have no doubt that your action sequences are helluva interesting, but what do they show us about the characters? Flat characters usually lead to disappointing conclusions.
44. Try to keep your book consistent. Although your plot will undoubtedly grow and expand, it will jar readers if it changes in such a way that it appeals to a different audience. For example, if you’re writing a mostly light-hearted story, writing in a murder-rape sequence would be unwise. The people that want a light-hearted story are going to drop out, and anyone that actually wanted to read about a murder-rape wouldn’t have gotten past the first chapter. Here are some ways your story might shift away from its starting audience…
1) Changing the genre. Please do not suddenly throw paranormal, mystical or magical elements into a mostly realistic story. I’ve also read a few fantasy manuscripts that suddenly swerved towards science fiction by introducing advanced technology or magic that looked a lot like advanced technology (magic… in space!)
2) Switching main characters. This suggests that the story’s substance and focus have changed dramatically. Be careful. Will the new character interest the same readers? Probably not.
3) Changing the mood or weirdness level. Some beginning authors let their writing grow too dark and/or weird.
4) Suddenly including the author’s political or religious beliefs. Books with a political or religious message can work (sometimes spectacularly) but usually only among a well-defined, pre-established audience. To successfully write such a book, you have to appeal to the audience from page 1.
45. Please avoid forms of the word “got” as much as possible. According to a friend in the publishing industry, words like “got” and “gotten” may trip up a publisher. If you remove them, it will probably enhance the rhythm and flow of your sentences.
This article was the ninth part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, you’ll find the links just below.