We’ve all been amateur writers at one time, but when you want to attract an agent and an editor, you need to conduct yourself like a pro. When I read a manuscript with amateur techniques, they stand out like red flares. They take the knowledgable reader directly out of the fictive dream and confirm the writer hasn’t yet learned the craft and customs of writing and submitting a novel. Here are a few that really annoy me:
1. Don’t use speech taglines like “replied,” “interjected,” “explained,” “proclaimed,” “declared” and “questioned.” It should be obvious from the sentence whether it’s a declaration, explanation, or question. The speech tag, “said,” works best 99% of the time.
2. Don’t use words like “smiled,” “gestured,” “blushed,” and “sighed” as speech tags for dialogue. These are actions. None of these is the same as speaking.
3. Don’t use cliched internal physical reactions to describe emotion, such as “her stomach lurched,” “his spine tingled” or “her breath came in gasps.” If the scene is intrinsically frightening, traumatic, startling or sad, you should not need to tell the reader what the character is feeling. Show the character’s emotion through plausible behavior and dialogue. An occasional physical reaction may work if it’s not cliched, but don’t make it a habit and don’t describe three or four physical actions in a row. I often see manuscripts that read like this: “John couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He gasped, then swallowed hard. Bile rose at the back of his throat and his entire body trembled. He felt as though a hand had seized his brain.” You get the idea.
4. When only two people are in the room, keep your speech tags to a minimum. Use the character's action instead. However, avoid unnecessary stage direction, such as “He got up from his chair, pushed it closer to the table and, chewing on his lower lip, walked across the room to stare out the window.” Instead, just say: “He walked to the window and stared out at the snow-covered trees.” Even better, the action should reveal something about the character. Is he trying to avoid something? Is he looking for someone?
5. When only two people are in the room, don’t continually have them use each other’s name in dialogue. (“What color did he paint it, John?” “I don’t know, Mary.” “Well, you should have asked, John.” “Gosh, Mary, you’re sure grumpy today.”)
6. What goes first comes first. For example: “What are you doing with that knife?” Bob asked, entering the room. Bob should enter the room first and then see the knife.
7. Don’t have your characters tell the other character or the reader something they already know. For example: “Jake, that fight five years ago made us enemies.”
8. Avoid the name “Jake” for your main characters. My agent says that for some reason it’s the most common name for male protagonists, and it drives her crazy.
9. Avoid adverbs, as in “…she commented naively” or “…he said rudely.” If the comment is rude or naïve, it should read that way.
10. Don’t tell and then show or vice versa. “John was having a really bad day. He dropped his computer. He ran over a man in a pedestrian zone. His mother revealed she has cancer.” The first sentence isn’t necessary.
11. Don’t open chapters with “throat clearing.” Leap into the action. That technique is called “in medias res” or “in the middle of.”
12. Don’t open your book with obscenities.
13. Don’t open your book with the weather unless it's truly important to the story.
14. Don’t use exclamation points to excess. (Only Anne Rice can get away with that.)
15. Make all your scenes advance the story. If you can remove the scene without losing anything significant or if you can put the information into another scene, delete it.
16. Make sure all your characters, even your villains, have some redemptive qualities.
17. Get yourself a dictionary and a guide on grammar and punctuation. Use them.
Let me know if you have a few examples to add to the list.