FIVE BIGGEST MISTAKES
NOVELISTS SEEKING COMMERCIAL PUBLICATION
THAT GOOD WRITING ALONE IS THE KEY TO COMMERCIAL PUBLISHER ACCEPTANCE
Most unpublished writers focus their efforts solely upon becoming better
craftsmen of sentences, their assumption being that the stronger writers
they become, the more likely they will attract a publisher. This philosophy
alone will get you nowhere. Yes, any writer should strive to become more
proficient, but the key to success is not to just write better, but to also
write smarter. After all, filling pages with words alone is not writing.
Publishers want far more than good writing alone from new writers. The
list is quite long as to the characteristics of a commercially acceptable
first novel. For instance, are you aware of which tense is favored and which
are taboo? Could your manuscript be riddled with viewpoint problems? Does
your story come across as unfocused? Are there inconsistencies, faulty
motivation, ineffective characterization? Are you aware of the danger of
writing in dialect? Is your conflict strong enough to maintain reader
interest throughout? Is there clarity and progression throughout your
storyline? And what about your manuscript's length? Do you realize that some
manuscripts are rejected on the basis of length alone, regardless of how
well they may be written?
Never get so caught up in the quality of
your writing that you lose sight of lucidity. Above all, you must
consistently maintain your readers' interest in such a way that they
understand what's going on. After all, writing is communication.
TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH TOO MUCH IN A
Don't try to write like a best-selling author because
you're not one. It's entirely possible to be too ambitious in a first novel.
The acronym KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) is never more applicable than in
the crafting of a first novel. Stick with the basics and don't try to
be experimental. Most commercial novels are written in third person,
multiple viewpoint. Fewer are composed in first person from only one
character's perspective. Probably 98% of published commercial novels are
written in past tense. If you vary from any of these, your chances of
commercial acceptance plummet dramatically.
Trying to jumpstart a writing career with a series
of books is likewise too ambitious. In fact, you could turn off reputable
literary agents and publishers by pitching a series. Historically, first
novels haven’t performed well in the marketplace, so the thought of a series
based upon the questionable success of a first volume could seem
pie-in-the-sky to industry professionals. Establish yourself first with
stand-alone novels, then pitch a series after you’ve developed a name for
3. FAILURE TO FOCUS
ON ONE PRIMARY CHARACTER
Novels are about people, not places or
things, and first novels should evolve around one central character who
faces a significant conflict. Supporting characters are, of course,
desirable, but none should upstage the lead character. It’s also possible to
feature too many characters. The more characters who populate your story,
the less attention that the lead character receives.
movies. When Tom Cruise stars in a film, whose image appears predominantly
on the screen? Your novel should likewise treat your lead character as if
he/she is cast in the starring role and dominates the storyline.
RELYING TOO HEAVILY ON PEER REVIEWS
I have nothing against participating in a critique group or having beta
readers as long as you fully understand the ramifications of doing so. There
can be an inherent danger.
Listening to what your peers have to say
can possibly make you a better writer in terms of grammar and sentence
structure, but will it move you closer to professional publication? Highly
unlikely; in fact, it can push you further away.
I invite you to
re-read item number one above; good writing alone won't get you published.
Meeting the needs of commercial publishers goes far beyond that. Legitimate
feedback that you receive from peers is highly limited. After all, they
rarely know any more about getting published than you do. Sure, they can be
knowledgeable about grammar and sentence structure, but they know little to
nothing about what commercial publishers are looking for when evaluating a
submission. When you tamper with your plot structure or focus, manuscript
length, or tense, you could be unknowingly going against the grain of what
commercial publishers want. Only professionals with a high level of
commercial experience can tell you what your novel needs beyond grammar and
Keep in mind that your target audience is not your
peers. Readers who would be attracted to your novel are not also writers.
They evaluate what they read differently than you or your peers would.
Remember that there's a simple secret behind getting published; if you
give the publisher what he/she wants, he/she will buy it. Will you learn
what publishers want from your peers? Not at all, unless they happen to be
best-selling authors, and possibly not even then. If you want to be accepted
by a commercial publisher, what is more important, what you want, what your
peers say, or what publishers actually want?
The quickest, most
reliable way to learn what you need to do to be published is to hire a
professional editor with extensive commercial experience.
DISCOUNTING THE IMPORTANCE OF
Your first draft, no matter how well written, is
similar to a sculptor’s slab of marble. It’s in raw form and some must be
chiseled away and/or reshaped to make it a work of art. Too many new authors
finish filling pages with words and think that they’re done, when in reality
the work has only begun. Rewriting is the key to making your work
The great Truman Capote once said that putting
words on paper without rewriting is only typing. Take a look at Capote’s
work. Could it possibly have been done that well without polish after
polish? I think not.
Rewriting is, of course, not starting over, but
analyzing your complete manuscript sentence by sentence, paragraph by
paragraph, to determine if everything is as it should be. I probably rewrote
my own novel more than fifty times, and that’s not at all unusual for
Becoming a professional writer requires hard work,
determination, and patience. Rewriting, not just making corrections, is a
I couldn't limit the mistakes to only five, so here is a sixth:
ASSUMING THAT LITERARY AGENTS AND
PUBLISHERS WILL READ EVERY PAGE SUBMITTED
Literary agents and
publishers are incredibly busy. They only accept a fraction of what is
presented to them, therefore they simply cannot devote the time to read
every single word of every manuscript submitted. Typically, they read
submissions from a negative perspective, looking more for what's wrong than
what's right. They will usually read far enough into a manuscript to find
sufficient reasons to reject it. That can occur as early as page one.
What does this mean to you? You've obviously got to start impressing
them on page one. If you feel your novel really kicks in at, say, chapter
three, that's far too late. They may not stick with your manuscript that
long. It's your challenge as a new writer to hook industry professionals, as
well as your reader, immediately and never let up.
It also means
that any glaring violations can be subject to immediate rejection,
especially when they're obvious from the beginning. Your manuscript can be
brilliantly written overall, but industry professionals may never know it if
they reject it prematurely due to some highly visible major infraction.
Brilliantly written manuscripts are rejected every day, whereas
manuscripts reflecting only average writing skills are accepted, usually
because the average manuscripts address overall publisher needs more
Help and Advice For Unpublished Writers
The Five Biggest Mistakes of Those Who Self-Publish
How to Find the Best Editor
Basic Manuscript Standards
Manuscript Format Specifications