Wednesday, March 25, 2020

5 Ways Newbie Fiction Writers Can Improve Their Manuscript

by Alycia W. Morales

As new writers, we dream of the day our work will see publication. Some of us desire to gain the attention of agents and acquisition editors. And in order for those things to happen, we need to present our best work. Not our first drafts. Not even our second drafts.

In order for our writing to be read, we have to make it the best that it can possibly be.

How do we do that? Below are five mistakes newbie writers tend to make and how to fix them.

1. Telling Instead of Showing

Instead of putting the reader directly into the story (showing the story), the writer will tell what is happening. It may be done through the character, but by telling what is happening around that character instead of showing the reader, the author shortcuts the story.

How can you tell if you are telling instead of showing?

Look for these words: felt, saw, heard, watched, made, caused, etc. If you're using these words, you are telling the story instead of showing it. The simple fix is to remove these words and rework the sentence.

For example:
She sat at the window bar in Starbucks and watched as the man she despised crossed the street toward the bank. If only he knew what waited for him on the other side of the glass doors. Her handiwork would cause his life to change in a matter of minutes.

She sat at the window bar in Starbucks, waiting patiently for the man she despised to show up for work. As she sipped her red eye, Gerald crossed the street. He wouldn't know what hit him once he passed through that glass door. Her handiwork would ruin his life. It wasn't like he didn't deserve what was coming.

Lack of dialogue and action. When authors go into telling mode, the story becomes a series of sentences or paragraphs without movement and/or dialogue. It's as if the author is trying to get information to the reader but doesn't want to take the time to write it out as a story. It may remind you of a synopsis. If your chapter is lacking true action or dialogue, you may want to rework it and include those two things.

2. Confusion

What do I mean by this? I mean that the story hasn't been fully worked out. The author may have a concept for the story, a theme, something they want to get across to the reader. But the story lacks important elements, like plot or characterization.

Maybe the world is underdeveloped. Maybe the plot line has holes or elements that drop off. Maybe the characters aren't developed yet. For example, I've seen manuscripts where I couldn't tell who or what the antagonist was. There were so many elements to the story that could possibly be the true antagonist, but none were clearly defined as being such. Even in a thriller or suspense, the reader should have a solid clue who the hero or heroine's antagonist is.

The fix? When you review your manuscript before sending it to a friend or editor, be sure that you have clearly defined all elements of your storyline. Plot. Subplots. Hero or heroine. Antagonist. Character arc. Setting. Everything.

You don't want to confuse your reader to the point where they can't figure out the story.

3. Believability

Confession: This is one that I personally struggle with in my own writing.

As fiction writers, we tend to think we can make the story go any direction we want it to, because, after all, it's fiction. Right? If it isn't true to begin with, anything is believable.

That would be false.

Your story and it's twists and turns must be believable. You can't write anything you want to and have everyone who picks up your book believe it. Your twists and turns must resemble reality or perceived reality.

If you're writing sci-fi or fantasy, for example, your characters must operate within a world that has laws and consequences for breaking those laws. The environment must be set so that it can interfere with the character's mission. But that interruption has to be believable. It can't come out of the blue from some unknown force that hasn't been introduced before. As if the author put themselves into the story as God.

Everything has to be believable. If it isn't, the reader will stop reading.

How can you fix this? If you don't believe it, chances are the reader won't either. Go back and develop that part of the element that needs the work. If you're still wondering if it's believable or not, have a fellow writer or your critique group review that section of your manuscript. Tell them what you are trying to figure out and that you want their brutally honest opinion. And listen to what they tell you.

4. Too Much or Not Enough Description

In order for our readers to imagine the story we're writing, to watch it play out in their creative mind, we have to give some detail to our characters and the setting. The issue resides in whether we give too little or too much.

If we give too little description, the reader won't have any guideline for what our characters or our settings look like. We may know exactly what simple Susan looks like and how her stale office is arranged. But if we don't clarify that to readers, they may have a completely different idea of what Susan looks like and how her office is arranged. Maybe her personality is the only stale, simple thing about her and she covers it by adding color to every other area of her life from her purple-tipped hair to the rainbow curtains in her office. How is a reader supposed to know unless we show them by adding that color to our writing?

On the flip side, if we give too much description, we leave no room for the reader to use their creative mind to interpret the story. Avoid flowery, purple, extravagant, ornate prose. (Did you see what I did there?) In other words, don't use five adjectives that mean the same thing. Actually, don't use five adjectives. Period. Use one or two to get the image across to your reader and let their imaginations flow from there.

It's a really fine line between too much and not enough description. The best authors learn how to balance on it.

5. Timeline Issues

One thing to keep in mind when writing from multiple points of view is that the timeline of your plot must continually move forward. You can't write a scene in one person's point of view, switch to another character's point of view, and back up in the timeline of the scene. You have to pick up with one character where you left off in the other.

The fix? Figure out whose point of view is most important in the scene, and write from theirs. Who's POV is going to have more significance, drive the story forward because of what they know or how they experience that scenario, or set up something coming?


I realize that a lot of editors will tell you that grammar isn't as important as story, but in reality, it is. It's very distracting to have a ton of spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure errors in a manuscript, no matter how good the story. And between Grammarly, spell check, and other helpful tools available to authors today, there's really no excuse for it.

That said, please don't solely rely on those to fix your grammar issues. Sometimes we use phrases instead of full sentences to remain in a character's voice or to make a point in the action. Sometimes the spell checker won't pick up on homonyms that are misused and we need a second set of eyes to find them in the manuscript. We have pet words that we repeat throughout the story, and they need fixing.

A clean manuscript is better than one full of glaring mistakes. If you aren't really good with spelling, punctuation, and grammar, hire a proofreader or copy editor who can clean things up a bit so you have the best presentation of your story that you can. The agents and acquisitions editors you are trying to impress will be grateful for it.

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What issues do you face when writing fiction? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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