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I decided to create an addendum to this article, originally posted in 2010, due to insights that I wanted to add. I understand from feedback that this checklist has been quite helpful to my readers. I hope the additional comments will make it more so.

As writers, we all need to start somewhere. Ask anyone who writes for a living, and they’ll tell you: they’re a better writer today than they were a year ago. The simple fact is, do anything long enough, and your skills improve. The same goes for writing.

I’ve worked as a fiction editor and story analyst since 1996, and have judged adult fiction in writing competitions. Many of my writing clients have been first time writers. In analyzing their manuscripts, I’ve noticed some recurring writing tendencies, what I call “habits of prose,” that severely limit the content – sometimes rendering the manuscript unmarketable.

If you have your first fiction manuscript in hand, try checking your work against the list below of the most common writing omissions and errors made by first time writers:

Proper Formatting

Don’t let something so simple and basic hurt your chances of being well-received by anyone who holds your manuscript. Standard formatting is so easy: Times New Roman or Courier font in a 12pt typeface. 1″ margins on top/bottom and sides. A SMALL header containing your: last name/book title followed by 5 spaces and the page number, all on one line in the upper right hand corner of each page. The header makes it easier for any reader to track where they are in your manuscript and what/who they’re reading throughout. For a busy professional, this ease of management can make the difference between being read or rejected, so don’t let your hard work be demolished by a lack of attention to expected details out in the real world of publishing. Also, use hard page breaks to eliminate hanging windows, phrases or sentences that run from one page to another. Having a little extra space at the bottom of a page is okay if it means keeping a thought coherent. If you are using Chapter Headings, make sure to put a hard page break at the end of each chapter. A new chapter should start on a new page. There are other small tricks to formatting that are more about personal choice of the author, such as extra spaces between paragraphs to indicate a time or scene change, but you don’t need to get into that until your final line edit, although seeing this device properly used beforehand is always a joy. Just make sure that your manuscript is formatted to allow for the greatest ease of reading, tracking and managing before you submit it to anyone, even casual readers, so you don’t burn bridges.

Characters/Back-Story

You may think you don’t need to go through this common writer’s exercise, but the fact is, the better you know your characters, the easier it will be for you to know what he/she will do in any given situation, and the clearer your character will be on the page, even if, and especially if, you don’t use all the back story you create. Knowing what shaped your character into who they are when your story opens is a key exercise for inhabiting your story with memorable characters. And, unfortunately, when a writer omits this step, sooner or later in the story, it shows.

Engage the Reader’s Senses

Many beginning writers fail to utilize taste, smell, touch and hearing in their storytelling. I once read a thriller by a first time writer, which took place in India. The entire time I felt as though the story was taking place in some gray zone. Here I was in India, and it felt like the clouds! Ground your reality with the things we all pick up on in our environments everyday. Use weather, smells, sounds, how something feels in one’s hand…to bring realism and place to your story. After all, if your story takes place in an exotic locale, it’s your job to take the reader along!

Give Every Character an Arc

Although some of us never learn, it’s irritating to a reader when your characters don’t. Nobody wants to read about a character who goes through some great adventure only to have them end up no different than they started once the smoke clears. Even minor characters should be shaped by the events you put them through.

Clear Definition between Characters in Dialogue

Again, this is a benefit of doing back story on each character. Many new writers end up creating characters that all talk the same way, even when they come from supposedly diverse backgrounds. You don’t expect a southern belle to express herself the same way as a mercenary soldier, and you don’t want your characters all sounding like you! Back story helps you know your characters so well that they cannot express themselves the same way. If you’re still stuck, try creating a simple scenario and situation, put each of your characters in that, and write how each one feels about it and expresses what happened.

Organic Flow of Time and Scenes

When you watch a good movie or read a good book, there is an element working that you may not be consciously aware of, and that is the logical and organic flow of one scene to the next, of one element of your story leading logically into the next element. The flow of information should always be a conscious and deliberate choice of the author. This gives the reader/viewer a sense of time within which the story unfolds. Many new writers struggle with a cohesive alignment within their story and I believe it comes from a reluctance to eliminate scenes that do not serve the whole story during the self-editing process. There is a wonderful literary quote, with conflicting sources cited if you look it up online, but it’s a quote all writers should live by: “For good writing, you must be willing to kill your darlings.”  As writers, we all get caught up in the excitement of our ideas, scribbling them down as fast as possible on any surface available. But the thing is, even some of our most brilliant ideas will not serve a story as a whole, and we must be willing to sacrifice those brilliant little darlings on the altar of good storytelling. It’s probably one of the hardest lessons in developing your craft, and one of the most difficult disciplines to enforce on your writing, but it must be done if your goal is to create a quality product.

Your challenge is to look at each scene to determine the flow of your story and to be ruthless with yourself when a scene you’ve written (that you just LOVE) really does not work, does not serve or stands out awkwardly from the rest. Cut them out and paste them in a separate document so you can refer back to them if you must, but cut, cut, cut. It’s your best friend. And use formatting tricks for indicating big time leaps or POV changes.

Clear Sense of Place

In a way, this vital element of good fiction relates to the item cited above, using the senses. Every story unfolds somewhere. We are sensory beings who experience our environments through our physical being. Ensuring that your readers experience the environment of your story is just as important as ensuring they experience your plot or premise.  So many new writers dash about from scene to scene without grounding the reader firmly in each place. My intuitive response to this common omission is, if it’s not important to ground me where the action is, maybe the action isn’t so important.

Most of us spend years working on a story. We can get so close to it, know it so well, that we often forget to include important information for those who know nothing of our story. It is a fine line, deciding what you can allow a reader to “fill in” and what must be presented as a full painting. Make sure to review your scenes with this sense of grounding in a solid “place,” whether your story unfolds on a wildly-advanced, organically intelligent, interstellar space ship – or a quaint  and sunny sidewalk cafe on the ancient island of Malta. Creating vague locations well get you a “no-pass” from publishers and readers alike.

Defining Your Premise

Why are you telling this story? What do you want a reader to walk away with after reading it? Is there an understanding or basic underlying philosophy to your story? Maybe you’re writing about courage in the face of great adversity (a common element for any drama). Maybe you feel that doing “the right thing” pays off in the end, no matter how it looks, and this is your underlying message. Maybe your story is more literary, full of angst and condemnation of the human race or western culture. Many great writers have taken on that challenge, framing the human dilemma within one character and using his environment as metaphor to deliver a subtle or not so subtle message about ourselves.

The thing is, most new writers don’t think of their story in this manner, from such a remote overview. If you had to boil down the message of your story into one line, what would that be? It’s actually quite helpful to gain clarity on your premise before you start writing. You can tape it to your computer as an anchor that keeps you from wandering too far. Knowing your premise is like having a glue that will keep all elements of your story relevant and connected to each other. Knowing your premise can help you eliminate ideas that have the power to pull you from your narrative path, wasting time and brain power on ideas that don’t quite fit.

There is a wonderful book I have on my reference shelf titled “A Story is a Promise,” written by Bill Johnson, manager of Willamette Writers, (the largest and oldest writer’s group in the U.S.), teacher, author and friend. If you feel at all fuzzy about the concept of a premise or its importance, I highly recommend this book. Heck, I recommend it to all storytellers, no matter your level of craft.

Sending Queries before a Book Proposal is Complete

Ah, the dreaded Book Proposal. Unless you plan on self-publishing, a book proposal is a marketing tool that your agent needs to shop your manuscript to a publisher. You must have this ready to send out along with any other sections of your manuscript that an agent wants you to send. There are plenty of books and information on how to create a book proposal, so I won’t go into that herein. However, I will share the cautionary tale of one writing client of mine who lost representation by a well known and very busy agent, because he was scrambling to assemble his proposal. He wasn’t prepared to respond immediately to her interest from his query, and she wasn’t interested in representing an unprofessional writer.

* * * *

It’s an unfortunate fact that, even if you’ve never been published, all agents expect professional level manuscripts and materials from any writer they represent. This means your work must compete against an enormous and never-ending slush pile of submissions. The good news is, if your writing is any good at all, you stand a chance of “getting the ink.”

So check your manuscript to see if your story has all the necessary elements required to transport the reader into your world, whatever world that is. Make sure you get a professional editing job done on your manuscript before submitting it anywhere. And compile a book proposal to have ready to send out to any positive responses you receive to your queries. Once an agent is contacted, and disappointed, it’s extremely rare that they will be bothered with you again, so make sure your materials represent your best abilities right out of the gate.

Break a pen!

May 2017
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Brooke Monfort - Find me on Bloggers.com