Blue Pencil Agency offers editorial reports to writers who want their manuscript to be in the best shape possible before they approach a literary agent or self-publish. Our editors are bestselling authors and industry experts with shrewd eyes and a passion for supporting upcoming writers.
We asked Sara Sarre, Oliver James, J. David Simons, Saskia Sarginson, Iain Maloney, Lesley McDowell, Fiona Mitchell and Frances Merivale about the most common mistakes they see in drafts writers send to them – hopefully they will help you to think about your own work, even before you get a second pair of eyes on it.
Where do most issues tend to be – in the story, the structure or the writing itself?
It really depends on the writer. Every writer has a weakness and a strength. I think structure is a hard nut to crack for many writers, but then you’ll come across a writer that has an innate sense of structure but doesn’t know how to develop character, or create narrative tension. Some writers understand the power of a really good sentence but don’t have an innate understanding of story. One thing I have come to realise is that many writers fail to understand the importance of literary technique and it doesn’t seem to be something that is taught either.
One of the main issues I see in first drafts is that people tell rather than show. This quote from Terry Pratchett sums it up: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
When people are working on their first books the most common issue is often in the writing, and it’s finding the balance between what the reader needs to be told and what can be left unsaid. Part of the problem is that usually we are finding our way through the story as we write, so we are in effect telling ourselves the story. We don’t know what might be important later and what will turn out to be incidental. A first draft should just be getting everything down on paper. It’s the editing where the magic happens. Most editing is removing scaffolding. You need scaffolding when you build a house, it’s there for support, for safety, for convenience, but the house isn’t finished until all the scaffolding has been packed away.
We all know the struggle of transferring what is in our imagination into language, but we need to keep in mind that our readers are intelligent, well-read people. They will understand subtext, will know how narratives work. If you are writing science fiction, you can assume that your readers have read other science fiction books, so they understand the tropes and techniques. It’s the same with every genre. They are also real people who live in the real world, so they will understand the complexities of human relationships, the conflicting urges and desires that motivate our behaviour, the contradictions in our existence. You don’t need to explain how the world works to them as if they were just off a flying saucer. Treat your reader with respect and you can remove the scaffolding that surrounds the story.
The first paragraph in a novel is hard to get right. What are your tips for working on an opening?
I often encourage my writers not to worry about this too much to begin with. Absolutely, the first paragraph is important, and by extension, the first page and chapter. But getting any of those right is much harder when you haven’t got the whole story down. An ideal first paragraph frames the central dilemma perfectly, but it’s very hard to do this if you’re not entirely sure what that central dilemma is. You may think you know, but novels evolve through the writing of them. I often see secondary characters become protagonists, books change from first person to third or vice-versa, or inciting incidents and hooks that emerge out of necessity during the writing process. Any of these changes could sabotage a “perfect” opening paragraph that you spent a long time writing and rewriting. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of perfecting nooks and crannies of your novel whilst avoiding the bigger picture.
If you have written one or two (or three!) drafts and you’re ready to start finessing, then you should look to give the reader an enticing glimpse of the central conflict straight away. Don’t wait! First paragraph is good, first line is better. I’ve read so many openings that start with the weather (setting the scene…) or worse still, a hangover (establishing that your character is indeed a Homo Sapiens) that completely fail to show me what the story is about. You don’t need to tell us exactly what happens, but we need strong clues about character and conflict. Look at the opening of The Stranger by Albert Camus:
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure.
Character and problem in ten words!
My last piece of advice would be to remember to look for the opening paragraph elsewhere. Sometimes it takes a while to warm up when you’re writing, and you might find that whilst paragraphs one and two are a little flabby, paragraph three hits the nail on the head. The answer is often in the text.
A good opening drops the reader into a clear scene. Imagine the start of your novel as the opening of a film and write as if you are tracking the live action on screen. This is instantly more engaging than opening with internal thoughts or feelings. Save that for when you’ve hooked the reader into the drama of the story and have room to pause and reflect. Physical description is great too, as is setting, but this should be a backdrop to the action. If you give your readers a moving picture, they will find it harder to turn away.
This may sound obvious, but make sure your protagonist is in the opening and that any other characters mentioned are significant.
A strong voice and sense of authority are important too. The reader wants to feel the writer is in command of his or her material. This comes mostly from practice – the more you write the more authoritative your voice will become. A good opening can also embody the main themes of the novel in some way. This can be fairly subtle, but if done well it will resonate for the reader as the story goes on. For example, if a journey is integral to the novel, it can be good to see a ticket or passport early on. I also like it when an opening hints at or touches on something that is important at the end as it gives a sense of wholeness – though of course the reader will not pick up on this until the end.
How can an editor help a writer to find their voice?
Your unique writer’s voice is what sets you apart from other writers – it will help lift you out of the slush pile, help you to find an agent and a publisher. It will attract readers, and those readers will hopefully want to hear your voice again, and again. It’s your signature style. It’s contained in the sound of your words – in their cadence and rhythm – in the vocabulary you use, your tone, syntax and structure. Your editor will already value your voice. It’s what she or he fell in love with, and a large part of why they acquired your novel in the first place.
Their job is to give you confidence in your voice, to enhance it, but not to tamper with it. They should, in my opinion, never replace your sentences or words with their own. But by working with you to refine your story through character development, structure, and plotting, they’ll help your true voice shine through. My own editor is brilliant at this. She is always tactful and encouraging, even when suggesting major cuts or changes, so I remain confident about my voice. And I trust her judgement. I literally hear a ring of truth inside her suggestions, like a bell. But if I didn’t trust her, if I disagreed with her edits, she wouldn’t be the right editor for me. Instead of strengthening my voice, she would be interfering with it, even destroying it.
What are the most common mistakes Crime writers make?
When it comes to crime, the mistake I see the most is writers crossing over the line between suspense and confusion. You understand, as a crime writer, that your job is partly to keep the reader guessing. But you simply have to give them something to work with. If you just leave out chunks of information the reader is going to be groping in the dark, and nine times out of ten they will give up on your book. This is a very difficult balance to get right – you can’t give everything away, but you have to give something away! A good rule of thumb to follow: readers don’t need to know exactly who, where, what, when or why. But they need to have a theory. Otherwise they will lose interest. So give them something to hold on to, either the wrong information, or partial information. That will keep them reading. No information at all will alienate them. Think of it as a game of Cluedo. You want to be fairly sure that it was Professor Plum in the dining room, but have no idea how he did it (or why). If it turns out it wasn’t Professor Plum at all, even better!
Another big one is not including enough world building. You might be writing a fast-paced crime novel with characters as tough as nails, but we still need to know where they are. Too often, I read shoot outs and car chases and murder scenes and have no idea what the scene actually looks like. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because your novel is about crime the description is less important. It’s absolutely imperative that you ground the reader continuously in the world of the novel. Otherwise, they will not experience the thrill of ‘living’ in the criminal world you’re writing about.
What are the biggest issues you see in Literary Fiction?
One of the biggest issues concerns plot. I find that a lot of budding authors of literary fiction can write beautifully. However, while their writing style is much to be admired, their manuscripts tend to lack narrative drive because they are much weaker at creating coherent storylines beneath their wonderful prose. Some writers compensate for this by creating complicated plots because they feel that the sheer complexity of their storylines will be what is needed to attract the discerning reader. Others will abandon plot altogether in the hope that their style and their characters will see them through.
My advice to writers therefore is yes, you do need to have an interesting and engaging storyline but don’t get bogged down into thinking that a complicated storyline is necessarily a good storyline. Keep it clear and coherent, taut and tense, but don’t make it complex just for the sake of it. Well-rounded characters and a simple but strong storyline on top of this beautifully written prose will go a long way to producing a compelling novel.
The biggest issue is that people aren’t buying literary fiction in sufficient numbers so publishers are shying away from publishing literary fiction by any but established authors, but that aside, the act of writing a novel is the same whether it’s ‘literary’ fiction (by which we tend to mean contemporary realism), or ‘genre’ fiction like crime, sf, romance and horror. At the heart of every book is a story and the writer’s job is to tell that story in the best way they can. Sometimes that requires stylistic gymnastics, sometimes it requires a minimalist approach, sometimes it requires intricate plotting, sometimes it’s attention to detail, but it is always about the story first.
I’ve read so many writers (published and unpublished, established and beginner) who relegate the story to a secondary position behind egotism. By this, I mean using the book as a vehicle to show how well-read they are, or how verbose and erudite they can be, or how witty they are. All those things are great in their place, and their place is in service of the story. This problem exists across the spectrum but I’ve found it most often in literary fiction where plot is often less central than character and style. Plot isn’t story. Even honest-to-goodness plotless novels are still stories. Every word on the page should, in some way, move the story along. If it doesn’t, however brilliant it is, then it is redundant and should be erased.
Which pitfalls should writers of Women’s Fiction be wary of?
Stories Need Tension – Whatever story you’re telling, don’t forget to inject it with tension. Tension is that state of uncertainty and doubt over what is going to happen to your characters. It is this that will keep your reader turning the pages. Keep the stakes high – your character must be in some kind of crisis that threatens to destroy his or her world. Piling the pressure onto your protagonist – i.e making her face what seem like insurmountable problems – will also increase tension. In order to build tension, you must create an emotional pull towards your characters. They don’t need to be likeable but they do need to be scintillating.
Beware of Going Off on Tangents – Once you’ve come up with an idea for a novel, think about your hook. Ask yourself what is the way into your story. What would be the question you would pose in a blurb on the cover of your novel which would encapsulate the essence of your story and make readers want to buy it? Giving a good deal of thought to this will help you stick to the crux of your story and stop you veering off on tangents.
What advice do you have for writers of Historical Fiction?
How important is it for writers to know what genre their work sits under?
Choosing a genre for your novel may seem like an oversimplification, or a way of boxing yourself in and stifling creativity, but understanding what genre or genres your book falls under is important for many reasons. It’s the first thing that someone will want to know about your book, the first step in establishing what you’re offering, where you’d fit on a shelf, what readers you’d appeal to, what agent/editor/publisher might be right for you.
Genres fulfil reader expectation. It’s how many people choose what to read. It makes your work easier to categorize for everyone else: agents, publishers, libraries, book shops, both real and virtual, and readers. Most agents and editors specialise in certain genres, so you’ll need to know what genre your work is before you approach them. They, in turn, will need to know in order to sell to a publisher.
Of course, novels often span more than one genre. For example, my novel, How It Ends, is a historical family drama, with romance, mystery, and a touch of sci-fi. But it’s a good idea to take one genre as your base. In my particular case, it would be family drama.
I think genre is a tricky thing to grasp, especially when so many novels are cross genre. The best way to get a greater understanding of genre is to spend a few hours in a book shop. However, another way to look at genre is to have a clear idea of your audience. I was once told by a publisher at Chatto to imagine I am writing for someone special – a best friend, a parent or partner. Well, if you take that idea one step further and imagine who you are writing for, so that when you write, you are writing for your reader, not yourself. The reader does half the work, they build an imagined world by interpreting your work, so it’s important to understand who your reader is.
A clean manuscript helps an editor get straight to the bigger issues – what are some grammar and formatting edits writers should make to their own work?
In terms of formatting, you might be surprised by how many manuscripts I’ve read that don’t include chapters. Occasionally novels are published like that, but it can make for a difficult read, especially if your novel is in the early stages. A novel without chapters looks like one unappealing, homogenous mass on the page and can suggest that a writer does not appreciate how important structure is.
Sometimes writers forget to number their pages too – this is an absolute must.
In terms of grammar, here are some easy changes that you can make to your work which will help to improve it:
When writing dialogue and guiding the reader as to who is speaking, use simple verbs such as ‘she said,’ ‘she called’ ‘she shouted’. When you start employing verbs such as ‘she laughed,’ ‘she sighed’ ‘she exhaled’ etc, it is distracting for the reader. And if the reader is distracted the fiction comes tumbling down.
The ability to show rather than tell is one of the most fundamental techniques a writer can master. One way to identify whether you are telling is to spot all the adverbs that you’ve used. If any of your characters have ‘said angrily’ or ‘shouted impatiently’ – you’ve fallen into ‘telling’ territory. Instead of ‘said angrily’ ‘show’ this emotion, for example: ‘“I’ve had enough,” she said, slamming down her glass so hard that the water inside splashed onto the table.’ Try to eliminate as many adverbs as you can because they are a red flag to telling.
In what ways do writers struggle with characterisation, and how can these be worked on?
Good characterisation is vital as characters drive plot. Even for very plot-driven novels, such as crime and mystery, we want to see the characters being active in uncovering the truth. The most common mistakes I see are characters that are too passive or too nice, and who do not change enough over the course of the story. Protagonists must drive the action forward – and through the action they must grow or change in some way. This means they need to cause things to happen rather than simply react to events around them. They don’t need to be likeable, but they do need to be interesting. If they behave abominably, show their vulnerabilities too so the reader can empathise with them.
Drama often comes out of good characters making bad decisions. By ‘good characters’ I don’t mean well-behaved characters, I mean convincing, flawed and complex characters who engage the reader. Be bold and let them make mistakes that cause upset or disaster, then watch how they deal with the consequences. A good way to work on your character is to sit her in a hot seat on a platform and imagine you’re a reporter flinging questions at her. Take notes – not only of her answers but also of her body language and her reactions to certain questions. What does she answer freely and what does she want to keep private? You can easily pull up ‘100 questions to ask your fictional character’ online as a starting point. At every crucial turn, grill your characters to the bone. If the action comes from them you will have a more convincing narrative.
All too often, writers will hear back the comment – you need to make your characters more rounded. But what does this actually mean? I often refer writers to the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall.
There is a very famous scene in the movie where the Woody Allen character and his lover, played by Diane Keaton, are trying to cook lobster together. Woody cannot cope with handling the live lobsters and having to drop them into the boiling water. Diane is finding Woody’s timid antics to be hysterical and rushes off to find her camera (she is a singer and photographer) and starts taking pictures of Woody’s struggle with the lobster. It is a funny and touching scene and is meant to represent a high point in their relationship.
Later on, after the couple have split up, Woody rushes over to her apartment in an emergency and after she lets him in, the discerning viewer will notice several framed photographs of the incident with the lobster. Now it is a very small and subtle detail, but it immediately creates the sense of a character and the arc of her life. Yes, of course, if Diane Keaton’s character was a real person, this is what she would do with the photographs – she would frame them and put them on her wall. And if they are still there when the relationship is over, then Woody must still mean something in her life.
Authors might go to great lengths to creating wonderful psychological profiles of their characters, intricate backstories and elaborate descriptions of them, but these characteristics are not worth anything if they are not used or developed within the narrative. Each time your character appears, you need to be able to get inside their psyche and work out how they would behave in such a circumstance or what they would say. And once you are able to do this, then you could end up with that wonderful experience of having such well-rounded characters that when you put them in a scene they will take on a life of their own and do all the things and say all the words they are supposed to without any prompting from the author.
Any final thoughts on common mistakes writers make?
I think not getting to know your characters well enough is a big one. You might know what they are doing in the present, but what about the years leading up to your novel? Your character is an iceberg, and it’s your job to see the whole structure, not just the tip poking out. You should write a detailed timeline of their life and flesh it out with important moments that really shaped them. Their first kiss, first major break up, first job. Think of your own life. When you scroll back through the years, which events stand out as being really important and formative? List them. Could you come up with as many for your protagonist? In my experience, the chances are you couldn’t.
Read. Read until your eyes hurt. Read widely. And read as a writer. Don’t sit back and enjoy a book. Sit up and learn how to write one. I often suggest books and hear comments like, ‘that’s not my sort of thing.’ I generally feign deafness at this point.
- A problem I come across frequently is the habit of withholding information believing it creates mystery – it doesn’t; it creates confusion.
- Writers often steer away from a moment of conflict or resolution. Knowing the stakes and creating conflict (even if it’s internal) is integral to story.
- Hemingway said: “writing is rewriting.” Few writers produce a perfect first draft they are happy with, but many writers underestimate how many drafts they will have to write to complete a novel. Editing is a layered process, you may read your novel with a character arc in mind, and then when you’ve worked on that, another flaw will appear. So in order to become a good writer, you need to become a thorough reader of your own work.
Structural problems are by far the most common challenges in almost every manuscript I’ve critiqued. It’s not surprising. Trying to make 70-90,000 words hang together as a single compelling narrative that drives towards a climax is a massive feat. And anyone who has done writing courses, whether they’re casual evening classes or more rigorous MA programmes, will find you very rarely get anyone reading more than 5,000 words of your novel at a time. However brilliant a chapter may be, it’s impossible to know if it truly works without seeing it in the context of the whole book.
The hardest thing for most writers to learn is how to hang their scenes together, how to make sure one event causes another and builds towards a satisfying climax. Even a series of dramatic events won’t read dramatically if one action is not leading to the other, if the events do not force the character to act again and again in ways that ultimately change him or her over the course of the novel. A novel is a long journey and every scene needs to earn its place and feed what comes next. Often writers miss opportunities for drama because the more material you have, the harder it becomes to see how one scene can affect another and push the character further. Having an experienced editor read your manuscript closely from beginning to end can really help you hone the structure and make your story the best it can possibly be.
Thank you to Sara Sarre, Oliver James, J. David Simons, Saskia Sarginson, Iain Maloney, Lesley McDowell, Fiona Mitchell and Frances Merivale. You can find out more about each editor on the ABOUT US page.