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The Slush Pile: Common Mistakes First-Time Writer’s Make

Pick a creative industry, any creative industry, and the one thing they all have in common is competitiveness. An aspiring writer, just like any other artist, requires a portfolio that encompasses their best body of work. It will ultimately be judged, scrutinized and compared to millions of others who are just as talented and just as dedicated.

So how do you put your best foot forward when submitting your “baby” to agents? Like many in the agency world, I’m also a writer and an avid reader. Here are some of the most noticeable common mistakes I’ve encountered when reading various manuscripts submitted by debut writers.

Querying Too Early

I believe the biggest issue for most writers is querying too soon. Likewise, tinkering with a manuscript to the point of its death can spell disaster. At some point the fear of rejection must be shoved aside. However, plunging into the dreaded slush pile, where your email might be one of hundreds or even thousands, requires that your first ten pages and sample chapters be as polished as possible. Some of the things I’ve seen in the first ten pages or more:

  • Grammatical mistakes and other syntax errors. Everyone needs an editor; yes, even the best writers require a second or third pair of eyes. Hiring an editor is one alternative if self-editing isn’t your strength. Usually agents will tend to forgive small errors here and there. However, with fierce competition, you want to ensure you’re submitting your best work.

  • Beta Readers and Critique Partners: The importance of obtaining a beta reader is huge. You need people to give you honest feedback and let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Make sure you pick readers who will provide genuine feedback and not tell you what you want to hear. You may well have written the next bestseller, but “everything is great, don’t change a thing” isn’t helpful feedback and it certainly isn’t specific enough. If you want to grow as a writer, you must be willing to take honest criticism. So, your CP and beta reader need to be brutally honest with you. Purposely picking a “yes” person or a friend who thinks you’re the best thing since sliced bread will not serve you well. Instead, pick readers who are not your family members or life partners.

  • Some writers will skip the beta reading stage because they’re impatient or they feel like they can’t find reliable readers. Do your research. Beta readers and critique partners can be found in most writing groups and on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Goodreads has a beta reader thread, as well.

Mistakes In Sample Pages

One of the more frustrating things about sample pages is that, often times, they can open up too beautifully. Sweeping prose uncovers great stakes, perhaps an inciting incident occurs and then, the next chapter… the action drops off. I’ve encountered this momentum swing from both multiple and single point of view stories. However, if you’re a first time writer and you are writing multiple POVs, I caution you to get a few critique partners and beta readers for feedback on flow.

Momentum has to flow and be retained throughout the manuscript. Here are some common issues that can often times slow momentum and lose readers:

  • Multiple POVs, when done incorrectly, can be jarring. I have read manuscripts with powerful openings, where major reveals are made, only for the next chapter to completely lose the momentum with an awkward switch in storyline or new character and POV that doesn’t remotely fit the feel of the setup. Make sure that if you are writing multiple POVs and “head-hopping” your beats flow seamlessly and don’t jar the reader in an unintended way, which can take them completely out of the story. Switching moods too drastically can also create consistency issues. It’s okay for your story to have both ups and downs, but weaving between drama and comedy in a manuscript is a delicate balance that requires much skill.

  • Internal rumination that tells more than shows the action. Describing a character’s feelings verses bringing the reader into the action is a big issue that pops up all the time. Sometimes, telling does have its moments, when it is explicitly required and fits within a particular scene. For example, a novel that might lean more towards literary fiction will tend to have intimate moments, but the writer may opt to summarize a sex scene. After You’d Gone, by Maggie O’Farrell is a women’s fiction, romance novel that never really details or shows love making. The scenes are summarized and told verses shown, but it’s done in a way that works. Other more heavy and heated commercial romance novels will show and not tell. The general rule to follow when breaking writing rules is to know when and how to do it in a tactful way.

  • Lengthy stretches of internal thoughts can be pulled off. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins has large sections of internal thoughts, but they are written expertly. The same goes with The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick. For nearly the entire book, you’re inside the character’s head. Understand, that Matthew Quick and Paula Hawkins are seasoned writers. I caution debut and newer writers to stay away from large chunks of “diary-esque” ruminations. Also, lengthy stretches of dialogue where it becomes a bunch of “talking heads.” If a dialogue-heavy scene feels too long, it probably is too long. You might think you’re the next Paula Hawkins, but the execution must be done well or you’re apt to bore the reader. I have lost interest when reading manuscripts because a main character is constantly complaining or inside their own head for nearly the entire manuscript. Again, plenty of best-selling authors have done this well, but I’ve seen sample pages where the execution is just not there. Again, long stretches of dialogue can equally reap the same affect. So, breaking up dialogue with prose and description/world-building is key.

  • In the first few chapters it is vital to move the plot forward. Something needs to happen. Sometimes there can be too much going on in a manuscript, at which point one should consider taking out unnecessary sub-plots, especially if they detract from the story rather than add to its flow. In the same way, not having enough tension and stakes in a manuscript can make the story fall flat.

Overpromising and Under Delivering

Some writers are great with queries and synopsis. Ultimately, the pages are what count the most. The important thing to remember, and it’s said repeatedly, is this industry is subjective. The success of most creative products relies on personal preference.

Sometimes, your work might be unfairly judged and dismissed. Some might not like your words, while other readers might love what you’ve said and how you said it. It is unfortunate, especially since you’ve worked so hard on your book. Despite personal tastes, you never want to overpromise and under deliver, so when querying it’s okay to champion the manuscript. Just make sure your comp titles (if you use them) match your story and try not to overpromise. While you might have very well written a bestseller, focus more on ensuring you’ve revised and polished your manuscript and have it in the best condition possible.

At the end of the day, this applies to all aspiring authors: Ultimately, our work should speak for itself.

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