I spend about a hundred hours a year reading writers’ manuscripts and doing content edits on their stories. I’ve seen it all–stories that ramble on for 400+ pages, never really getting to the point; stories that start off pretty good and then about a quarter of the way in change into a totally different story; stories where the voice changes so many times you couldn’t keep up if you wanted to… I could go on.
And this is true for every editor on the planet.
We’ve all seen a wide array of stories from “decent start but still needs work” to “total diaster” to “what the fuck were you thinking?” You name it, it’s out there.
But there are also many stories that have a pretty good start and just need tweaking and revising and editing to mold and shape it into the story it’s really meant to be.
My author and editor friend, Sarah Fox, and I got together the other day to talk about what the most common problems are that we see in writers’ drafts (we’re doing a revision workshop together–see the bottom of this message for more). And we came up with five things that are the most common manuscript problems:
1. Episodic Narrative (AKA: No Structure)
An episodic narrative is when a writer shows you the day to day occurances in a character’s life, yet there’s nothing actually happening. There may be drama and conflict, but there’s no true story going on.
A story is a very specific thing. A story is: a Protagonist who wants something, an Antagonist who opposes what the Protagonist wants and a journey that ensues because of it.
It has a purpose, a goal. There are stakes. And there’s a resolution where an ordinary Protagonist is then turned into a hero.
Most importantly, there’s a true end point. In an episodic narrative the story could keep going forever.
Most drafts that we get hired to edit are missing the key element that turns something from an episodic narrative into an actual story: structure.
Without structure you don’t have a story.
The next most common problem is inconsistencies, in both the story itself and with elements in the story. For example, in the beginning of the story a character is named Bob and later his name changes to Bill. Or the first part of the story is a mystery and then it turns into a romance and the mystery somehow disappears.
The goal for a completed novel is to have an engaging, cohesive story that’s consistent from beginning to end.
3. Point of View/Voice/Narration
Next up is how writers handle Point of View/Voice/Narration. Sarah and I agreed that we both see so many manuscripts where the Point of View (POV) is all over the place–we’re bouncing from one character’s head to another every few paragraphs and we’re going from First Person to Third Person and back again.
Oftentimes writers think this makes the story more interesting and exciting. But what it really does is make it confusing as fuck for a reader.
4. Info Dumps/Backstory Problems
The next problem is how writers handle backstory. Most drafts I read have “info dumps” happening throughout. What that means is they’ll drop a whole bunch of backstory all at once and it goes on and on for pages.
Backstory should always and only be peppered into the story as you go, when and if it’s needed. The “if” being an important thing here. If it’s needed.
Because it’s not always needed.
Which is why you don’t want to give the reader more backstory than they need to have the current story make sense.
The other backstory problem is when the backstory ends up becoming the current story (which then turns it into an episodic narrative). This is a huge problem!
I see this a lot in flashback (which should be used rarely, if at all). Writers will write a flashback scene that’s merely backstory to show us something that happened to the character. Don’t do that.
We only want to see a flashback with backstory if that somehow adds new information to the current story that’s needed for it to move forward and make sense.
Otherwise leave it out.
5. Unnatural Dialogue
And the fifth problem we came up with that we see across the board in most stories is dialogue that sounds weird or that isn’t written how people really talk.
For example, not using contractions. People talk in contractions–don’t, won’t, ain’t, can’t. They don’t too often say I will not, do not, cannot… because it’s too proper and slow.
Dialogue is a huge part of what makes a story engaging. So you want your dialogue to pop.
These are the top 5 issues Sarah and I see in manuscripts over and over and over again. Hopefully now that you’re aware of these issues you can change them in your own writing.
Dream life or bust,