15 common mistakes novelists make

Neil Gaiman quote

And Neil Gaiman should know …

Here at the Writers’ Workshop we see a lot of novels, many hundreds of them every year. And, on the whole, our writers are a pretty admirable and successful bunch. At a rough guess, the average writer has about a 1 in 1000 chance of being traditionally published. Our own success rates are something like 10-30 times better than that. Certainly, our own rigour and editorial excellence plays a part in those successes, but we are also lucky enough to attract gifted, determined and persistent writers. (Or, as we like to call them, real writers.)

But still: hundreds of novels. Years of experience. Loads and loads of time spent understanding what agents wants and what they really, really don’t … it all adds up to a pretty good idea of the commonest mistakes made by would-be novelists. So here goes with a checklist of what mistakes are most often made – and, more important, what to do if you think you’re guilty.

To make it more interesting, we’ve taken a stab at guesstimating how many manuscripts commit these errors – and given them a howler rating according to how hard they are to fix.

1. A terrible concept
Some concepts just don’t work. An ‘educational’ novel for Young Adults with reams of explanation about climate science stuffed into a creaky plot. A book for adults that features the life history of the author’s parrot. A sad story about a woman’s not-very-terrible mid-life crisis that ends with her deciding to work part-time and take up baking. None of these books stand any chance of interesting an agent. (Well, OK, if they were handled by an out-and-out genius, perhaps, but you’re not one of those. Almost no one is.)

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: *****
Comment: You can’t fix this error. You just have to start again. Sorry!

2. A book that doesn’t ramp it up enough
Surprisingly, this is something we see a lot. Thrillers that don’t quite thrill. Comedies that don’t really make you laugh. Romances that aren’t actually all that romantic or sexy. Literary fiction which doesn’t really attempt to dazzle the reader. And you can’t be so-so about these things. If agents and editors are faced with a choice between (a) a really thrilling thriller, or (b) one in which someone gets thumped, a bit, two-thirds of the way through, which one do you think they’ll pick? Ramp it up!

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ****
Comment: Still bad. You can fix it in theory and with a lot of work, but sometimes it’s better just to pick a better idea

3. A manuscript that’s written for a different era
Peter James, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, no? So if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right? Well, actually no. Those guys wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market. Unless you do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book over theirs. Same thing with kids books that hanker after the 1950s. Or comedies that reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or people who are rewriting Stephenie Meyer as though they haven’t noticed there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since then. Just don’t do it. Either invent a time machine or write for the world as it is now.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ****
Comment: This error is all but unfixable in truth. Sorry!

4. A manuscript with no discernible USP
Sometimes, a manuscript ticks the boxes. It’s a love story with genuine warmth. It feels contemporary. The writing might be perfectly fine. The manuscript might even, in quality terms, be in the top few per cent of an agent’s slushpile. But so what? You have to be in the top nought point something percent of that pile to get taken on – and the thing that marks the winners out is usually an angle, a concept, a pitch that’s immediately captivating. Time Traveller’s Wife? I want to read more. A school for wizards? Tell me about it. An Aspergers Swedish computer hacker? If your book doesn’t even have the breath of such a concept, you have seriously disabled yourself in the search for an agent. (More clues on building a strong elevator pitch/USP here.)

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ****
Comment: It’s a lot of work, but you can fix this. Usually you need to take some already-extant aspect of the novel and simply push it much further than you’ve so far dared to go. Thinking big and bold is a big part of the answer.

This isn't a book. It's a device for generating rejection letters

This isn’t a book. It’s a device for generating rejection letters

5. Lousy presentation
Those manuscripts written in purple ink? With awful spelling or weird fonts? And punctuation that forgot to turn up for work? This is less common than folklore would have you believe, partly because computers and spellcheckers eliminate the most egregious faults. Nevertheless, tell-tale clues can often be enough. For example, let’s suppose I were an agent, and I received a manuscript, and that manuscript had loads of run on sentences, which is where you have independent sentences separated by commas rather than full stops, and let’s say I was quite busy, then maybe I would think I had better things to do with my time than read any further, and if you were the author, you might be quite upset that I never got past the first page.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ***
Comment: On the one hand, punctuation is simple to fix – that in itself earns a one-star rating – but the problem is that poor punctuation is almost always allied to sloppy prose, which takes a lot more work. But both things matter. If you are sure that your prose and story are OK, but know you need input on presentational matters, you could think about getting copyediting. But beware: most manuscripts don’t need copyediting, but do need better writing.

6. Lack of clarity in prose
The first job of your prose is a simple one: it needs to convey meaning, clearly and succinctly. That sounds simple and it is. If you read the work of John Grisham, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, you’ll notice that their prose is workmanlike always, but seldom good. There are few strong, quotable, breathtaking sentences. And that’s OK. Those writers have other glories. But you can’t be worse than competent. Your meaning must be clear. You must know the meaning of the words you use. When you use pronouns (‘it’, ‘she’, ‘he’, etc), it must be clear who or what is being referred to. The reader needs to know where they are and when and what’s happening (unless, of course, you ae being deliberately mysterious.) This is so simple and so basic, but not all manuscripts achieve success.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ** to ****
Comment: Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but often sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking and that is a lot harder to address.

7. Writing is not economical enough
Most writers don’t think enough about making every sentence as economical as it can reasonably be without loss of meaning … Or, as we’d prefer you to say: Most writers aren’t economical enough. That first sentence used 20 words; the second one used 5. Extrapolate that difference to book-scale and you can easily be talking about many 10s of 1000s of extraneous words. Very few books can bear that weight of excess verbiage, so prune ruthlessly, then prune again. If you haven’t cut at least 10,000 words from your manuscript, then you haven’t really tried. We see plenty of manuscripts that need to lose 30,000 words or more.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-50%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: * to ****
Comment: Sometimes, a rigorous edit is all that’s needed, but often sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking and that is a lot harder to address.

8. Writing is over-the-top
Before I started editing manuscripts, I just didn’t know this was an issue, but it really is. We get so many manuscripts that are just loaded with extreme language – scream, agony, torture, yelling, misery, overwhelm, fury … all on the first page, sometimes even all in the first paragraph. And obviously strong language is vital, but you need to be careful and moderate with its use. A surprising number of manuscripts just cram it all in on page one … then carry on cramming.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ***
Comment: Easy to fix in theory, except that the issues are nearly always much broader than just poor word choice.

cliche dustbin

Thanks to thoughtsfromtheterrace.com for this

9. Writing is cliched
Full on cliches are (thank goodness) relatively rare in the manuscripts we read. So we don’t get all that many wet blankets, sick as a dogs, or giving it a hundred and ten per cents. But cliche is much more insidious than just those howlers. You can have passionate flame-haired Irishwomen. Or scenes of domestic bliss that involve log fires and crumpets. Or killers who are steely-eyed and probably have craggy jaws. In the end, a cliche is anything which makes us feel we’ve read this before … and, sorry to say, in that broader sense, we see a LOT of excessively cliched manuscripts.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ** to ****
Comment: Once you’ve identified that a particular phrase / character / plot device is cliched, it’s pretty simple (if time-consuming) to fix. It’s finding the dang things that’s pesky.

10. Points of view are mishandled
We read quite a lot of work where one character is thinking and feeling something … then all of a sudden we find that we’re in the head of some completely different character, sharing their thoughts and emotions. And obviously, it is OK to move about between characters, but the transition has to be properly handled (normally by moving properly out of one head, before moving into the next one. More here if you’re interested.) When those transitions aren’t correctly handled, you cause giddiness and confusion in the reader and are likely to cause rejection letters to come a-fluttering down onto your doormat.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ***
Comment: Very fixable, but there are normally a whole slew of changes that will flow from the initial set of corrections.

I read a novel set here once.

11. Descriptions absent or bland
Doesn’t need much explanation, this one. We’ve read some novels where all the action seems to take place in a white and featureless void. Also novels where any description is bland or muted. Readers want to be transported to a different world – so transport them, OK?

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: **
Comment: easily fixed – but make sure that weak descriptions aren’t just masking a broader problem with prose style.

12. Unliterary literary writing
We get plenty of ‘literary’ novels that aren’t actually very well written. And, if your book relies on a wonderful plot or a stunning premise to hook its audience, that might not matter. But if you want your novel to sell as a ‘literary’ one, it has to be well-written. Basic competence is not enough: you must demonstrate something more.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-30% (of literary novels)
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ***
Comment: You need to pay much more careful attention to prose style, but the exercise is usually manageable

Missing a plot by any chance?

Are you missing something?

13. Um, what happened to the plot?
Strange but true: some writers complete an entire novel without really knowing what their story is. And stories don’t create themselves you know. It’s your job. (Tips here and here, if you need a refresher. If you do have a plot, but the book still seems saggy, then you have committed mistake #7, on economy in writing. Ruthless cutting is the answer to many a writing ill.)

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ****
Comment: Don’t monkey around with your story. A strong story matters in all genres and for debut novelist especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens weren’t too posh for plot, so you’re not either.

14. Unbelievable/bland characters
Sometimes everything seems to be moving along all right in technical terms – story, check; descriptions, check; prose style, check – yet somehow a manuscript is failing to connect with its readers. That’s very often because the central character(s) simply aren’t really showing up for work, and that in turn is usually because you, the author, don’t yet know them sufficiently – almost as though you don’t trust your imagination to feel out the limits of the people you’re writing about. Needless to say, such books can’t succeed.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%
Howler rating (5 stars is worst)
: ***
Comment: Easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved Try our Ultimate Character Builder here. Oh, and make sure your character gets an Inner Life.

A long and winding road … with a book deal at the end of it

15. You haven’t really finished your novel
Yes, we know: you’ve reached the final full stop. But when you reach that milestone, you are perhaps, if you’re lucky, halfway done. Most novels need to be reworked and re-edited and reworked again. That’s how they get better – that’s why all professional authors work closely with a professional editor, supplied via their publisher. As a newbie, you don’t yet have that vital support and advice from  publishers – but you can get editorial support right now and right here from the Writers’ Workshop. It’s what we do! We’ll check your manuscript for all these mistakes and many more. We’ll explain them so you understand them – and help you fix them. We also run an awesome self-editing course so that you can develop your own editorial skills.

How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say!
Agents reject 999 in 1000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending their work out too soon. That seems a bit harsh, though …

This entry was posted in How to write a book, Literary agents. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Excellent summary.

    I suspect most of us tend fall in trap 4.

  • Spot the typo competition; ‘tale-tale’ should be ‘tell-tale’. Actually, someone else pointed it out first, but I figured you should know, so you could fix it.

  • Harry

    Thanks! Duly fixed.

  • Greg

    Heh. You just gave me a checklist for reading slush and writing rejection letters.

    To add to your list:

    — no discernible audience.

    — it’s been done before (a variant of “written for a different era”).

    — Too many/too few characters (or subplots, or settings).

    — lousy storytelling. The plot may be terrific, but the writer has no idea how to engage the reader.

    — it breaks rules that can’t be broken. The love interest in a Harlequin can’t die in the last chapter. Ever.

    And so on. The list is endless. Every day of reading manuscripts brings fresh insights into the ranges of ways that writing can go wrong.

  • Oh dear, how daunting. . .oh well back to the beano!

  • And as hard as you try to avoid all of the above…you might still struggle to get your book into print!

    Good blog, Harry… thanks for sharing, especially the numbers. Wonder which category I fell into with my very first WW critique, x years ago?! (And am still working on now…)

  • Harry

    Thing is, we probably all of us fell into multiple categories with our first efforts. Which is fine, because most errors (not that #1 error above) can be fixed – and writers just get on and fix them.

    I remember Katie Fforde at the Festival a few years ago saying that her first novel was actually pretty good. Decent writing, people you cared about. A bit of sex, a bit of warmth, a bit of humour. Only, when she completed her first draft she realised she’d forgotten to put in a plot. So she had to go back and put one in – kind of like building a house from the roof downwards. But that first book got Katie a spectacularly good agent, sold very well – and launched a career. So who cares that she made a mistake to start off with? No one, certainly not her. (She just advises new writers: hey, don’t forget to put in a plot.)

    The list above isn’t meant to crush spirits. Rather the opposite. It’s FINE to make mistakes. All writers do. Authors are the ones who sort them out. (And editors are the guys who help!)

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  • Excellent list! I’ll be sharing this and sending my novelist clients here to read this. Thanks for sharing these great tips!

  • Great points! Thanks for your clarity.
    Wee typo: point #6 line #3 (ae instead of “are”).

    It felt great editing my MS and cutting back words after my first draft. Dropped four chapters worth of content. Made the story/memoir too long and wasn’t necessary.

    Thanks again for your helpful information!

  • Harry

    Thanks for the spot – and oh, the joy of deletions! I love writing the most, and cutting surplus text the second most.

  • George Woyames

    Thanks for sharing these notes.

  • Commas seem to be my worst nightmare, and I was so good at English in school! I also have to watch the head hopping! Thanks for the list

  • This is a great list. I’m glad I found it on my G+ feed.

  • Good list – thanks. I’m having trouble with too many secondary characters who I’m reluctant to kill off. I expect I’m not the only person to make this mistake.

  • Jim

    Great article. Very useful.

    Just checking my own proof-reading skills:

    Point 2. (b) line 2. “Which one do you they’ll pick?”
    Point 3. line 6. “-rewiting-” (Spellchecker should’ve got that one)
    Point 15. line 5. “-Publishe-” (Spellchecker should’ve got that one)

  • Harry

    Thanks for the spots – duly corrected. And I never use a spellchecker. Silly me.

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  • Daunting indeed but conspicuously true.

    The worst is that “My Brilliant Prose” is too vivid inside my own head for me to read it as others see it. Painful it is to look back at earlier work only to groan with dismay.

    Glad to see you picked up on A Lees “tale-tale” & Jim’s three points but you’ve yet to take up the typo mentioned by Lesley Donaldson:
    “of course, you ae being deliberately mysterious.”

    Good luck with your digging for gold.

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  • ana

    This is all so true