Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Manuscript Disease Top 10 Symptoms

Continuing with the hard-hitting Tuesday posts this month, let's think about symptoms that show your story isn't ready to be shopped yet. Note, this doesn't necessarily mean you aren't ready for beta readers. As I said last week, don't give beta readers an early draft and never give an early draft to industry professionals. Not unless you've got a few published books under your belt already or are one of those rare closet finds. You know, the writers who have toiled alone for years and worked hard perfecting their craft to where an early draft from one of them comes out like draft number twenty from someone new at the game.

What are some signs that your story needs more editing and polish? (This list is aimed at genre fiction.)

#10—Word Count:
If you don't know the standard word count for the genre you are writing in, start looking that information up now.

If you do know the standard word count for your genre, adhere as closely to it as you can. Cut out unnecessary words, phrases, even scenes and chapters. Don’t think of yourself as the exception to the rule because you probably won’t be.

#9 Spelling and Grammar:
Contrary to a much beloved writing myth, editors and copyeditors still expect you to do your own editing. Editors and copyeditors still edit, but they aren't going to take something incoherent and make it gleam for you. Do you know how many other great stories are out there that they could be pushing through instead?

#8 Narrative Flow:
Read your manuscript out loud from beginning to end and make note of the places where you stumble over your own phrasing. Stilted exposition and dialogue reveal a lack of editing.

#7 Description:
Less is more in most cases. Reader skimming will commence if you go on too long about how someone looks, what they are wearing, the exact schematics of an invention or vehicle, what every aspect of a view or setting is, the exact play-by-play of a dance or martial arts match, etc.

Keep to the necessities, the details that matter to the actual story and characters. Maybe it's raining but your protag is only seeing the gap in the clouds where the sunshine is pouring through because that's what counts to your protag at that moment.

On the flip side, too little description also cripples a story. I've read a story or two where the writer devotes lots of descriptive energy into clothing, setting, or the dreamy boy across the classroom but when an action scene comes up the writer doesn't give me much to work with. In one case the writer had written down the action but I had no clue what the protag's setting was so it was hard to envision the scene.

#6 Tangents:
Things to look for:

You don't know how it happened. The story started in one direction and ended up far from where it was supposed to go.

Side characters overpower your main characters. Likewise side plot overpowers main plot.

World-building or scientific information butts into the narrative, demanding analysis but doesn't further the storyline or character growth. These are also known as info-dumps.

#5 Bad dialogue:
Things to look for:

Pleasantries like, "Hi, how are you doing?" "Fine, thank you. How are you?" "Oh, I'm fine." You get the point.

Double check to make sure you're not quoting a movie you've seen a zillion times, or any popular film for that matter. At least, don't pass off well known movie dialogue lines as originals in your story. I read a really fantastic story that only threw me in one spot. They used a line that had been overused in Star Wars. You want to keep the reader in your story world.

Look for places where dialogue is there merely for the sake of talking, rather than to further the story line.

Watch out not to info dump or talk to the reader through dialogue.

#4 Plot holes.:
Things to look for:

Transition gaps between key scenes.

What happened at Point B doesn't logically follow Point A. See this previous blogpost for an explanation.

A revelation, burst of character ability, or some other high moment toward the end of the story comes out of the blue. You're missing the build-up or foreshadowing. Maybe the whole journey.

The climax doesn’t resonate with the main conflict of the story.

The resolution or ending of the story is incredulous.

A lack of plot. You only want to write about a couple of characters and have them end up together. What happens between when they meet and when they end up forever in each other’s arms doesn’t matter much. Or—you have a superhero who gets their powers and beats up the bad guy at the climax but there is no training, awareness, or inner conflict to build up to this epic battle.

#3 Flat characters:
Within the story there are characters, they act, they react, they get the job done. End of story. Not really.

Things to look for:

2-D, cliched, or sterotyped characters. Whether they be the main characters or the side characters.

Real people (or creatures) are more than just appearance, words, and actions. What lies behind those words and actions? What is this person deep down? Why are they doing what they are doing? What do they believe? Why does the conflict matter to them? What makes them react the way they do?

#2 Non-sympathetic characters and storylines:
Not all stories are meant for the mainstream market and bestsellerdom. Some are niche situations and storylines which will have smaller audiences. And some storylines, only a handful of people are interested in reading about. Know your market and what to expect.

Look out for:

Depressing characters.

Characters that turn readers off rather than on. A constant goody-goody isn't as sympathetic as a charming klutz who means well, for instance. An abrasive character isn't as sympathetic as someone who relishes a good debate but respects the people they debate with.

#1 Lack of tension and conflict:
Things to look for:

Everything's rosy for the protag.

They can easily conquer every obstacle that dares to get in their way.

They go from success to success with little effort.

Scenes happen in order to showcase descriptive or other info dumps.

Too much drooling and not enough dueling, romantically speaking.

These are the top ten symptoms that I've run into when beta reading for other people and when I go back through and work on editing my own stories. They're all red flags that your manuscript isn't ready for industry professionals. You may still be ready for beta readers though. In some cases, you might have one or two of these red flags and not know it until your betas give you their feedback.

Know any other symptoms not in my top ten? Want to add more detail to any of the top ten? Mention them in the comments.


  1. Really good list here. I'm tweeting this. Seriously, people need to come here more often. Such a load of wonderful information. Thanks, Joyce!

  2. Great post. I wholeheartedly agree with these :)

  3. Great to find this! Thanks for the tweet, Cherie!

  4. Great post!
    Just found your blog, and so happy I did. I love when advice is laid out in such a fashion that I don't have to spend hours trying to find the nugget of help in a ton of other nonsense.
    Definitely a must read post.

    (P.S. Go to my blog and pick up your award, that's how much I love this blog already, LOL!)

  5. This is a WONDERFUL post, Clipper! Tweeting.

  6. Wow. Hi everyone. Thanks for the kind words. =) I go away to write for a few days and come back to this. Very cool. I'm glad you found this post helpful.