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Stephen King's first editor can be YOUR editor, too!



Most unpublished writers focus their efforts solely upon becoming better craftsmen of sentences, their assumption being that the stronger writers they become, the more likely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.

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 yourself.

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.

Think about 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.

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 sentence structure. 

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.


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 publishable.

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 serious writers.

Becoming a professional writer requires hard work, determination, and patience. Rewriting, not just making corrections, is a must.

BONUS! I couldn't limit the mistakes to only five, so here is a sixth:

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 effectively.



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Manuscript Format Specifications