I was floored to receive so many #Pitchwars entries from writers asking for my help. And while I unfortunately just don’t have the ability to send personalized feedback to everybody, I did see a lot of common issues in many of the entries. Now, first, let me stress: Deciding to pick someone else is not necessarily based on the writing. There were plenty of well-written entries that I didn’t choose simply because the work it needed didn’t fit within my skill sets. So never assume it’s the writing. At the end of the day, I picked the voices I connected most strongly with combined with premises I think will appeal to our agents. I didn’t pick entries with perfect writing (I didn’t see any entries with perfect writing).
- Beats or dialogue tags, not both. I realize that I’m not a huge fan of said. But when you replace every single instance of said with another tag, or when every single bit of dialogue has a beat, that gets distracting. Look at the following:
- White space, white space, white space. When I see a wall of text, my eyes glaze over. I want to skim to the end. Do me (and yourself) a favor and add a paragraph break when someone new speaks or when the topic of a paragraph changes. If you truly have page-long paragraphs that are all about one thing and you don’t think a break is appropriate, start cutting. A critique partner can be extremely useful for that.
- Too many “I” statements. This is an easy trap to fall into when writing in the first person. I did this, then I did that. It’s how you’d tell a story to your friends sitting around a campfire while making s’mores. But in writing, it’s distracting. Try to vary the start of your sentences.
- Overuse of “was” and “had.” These are both evidence of passive voice and telling. They’re also both weak verbs. Which sounds better?
- The man was tall, and he had a present for me.
- The tall man clutched a gift, holding it toward me like a peace offering.
- Too much backstory/exposition in the first chapter. Pretend you’re the CIA. Give the reader information on a need to know basis only. All the rest of the history is classified. If you tell us, you’ll have to kill us. It’s great that you as the author know all the exposition and backstory. But the reader wants the current story, not what happened in the past.
- Too many filler words. That, just, really, only, very. Those are some of the most common. These words are not your friend. Services like www.autocrit.com or www.wordle.net can help you see words that you over use. AutoCrit lets you check 1,000 words at a time for free, and Wordle will give you a visual of how often words are used.
- Over-use of filtering. I saw, I heard, I thought, I felt, I knew. None of these are necessary. Here’s a great blog on filter words and why to avoid them.
- “As you know, Bob.” This is an extension of the two above. It’s where the author uses dialogue to convey exposition and backstory. People rarely say things like, “As you know, Bob, when I adopted my puppy last year, I chose him because of his shiny red coat….” Nope.
- Word count. Maybe this sounds harsh, but I said repeatedly to be familiar with marketable word counts and to seek to get things within that range before submitting. A couple thousand off isn’t a deal-breaker, but sending me three books disguised as one (or a novella) was an almost automatic pass for me.
- Things I Specifically Said I Didn’t Want. Most of you were pretty good about this, and I appreciate it. But I wrote a really long bio that said what I did and didn’t want, so when I found things that were explicit no’s, I moved on to the next entry. Do your research. An agent who says they don’t want Yeti romance isn’t going to change their mind because of your Yeti romance. Assume you’re the rule, not the exception. Follow the rules.
“How was your day?” he said, opening the fridge.
“Fine,” I said, turning on the stove.
“Just fine?” he asked and pulled milk out of the fridge and opened it. “Or did something go wrong?” Rather than get a glass, he drank from the carton.
I winced and said, “Don’t let Mom see you doing that.”
That shouldn’t read like stellar dialogue to anyone. Check out this blog on beats vs. dialogue tags (and how to punctuate both!) for more information.
To those who made it, AWESOME! CONGRATULATIONS! Still look out for these things in your writing and do your best to eliminate them. For those who didn’t make it, taking another editing pass with these things in mind will really improve your manuscript.