I run a business whose core service is simple. We offer feedback to writers. We work on everything from picture books through to memoirs, but probably ninety percent of what we deal with is novels.
Needless to say the same old issues come up time and again. They’re issues which writers could easily correct themselves. That’s not to say that getting feedback isn’t massively worthwhile – it is – it’s just that you’ll get better value from feedback if you’ve put in the hard yards yourself first.
And naturally, like all professional authors, I practice what I preach. Although I’ve had more than ten books published over the years, I still rely deeply on the feedback I get from my literary agent and from my editors. My most recent novel, probably the best one I’ve written, still benefitted from some 6,000 words of written notes from my editor. I didn’t need those notes because I’m a poor writer. I needed them because feedback makes a good book better.
But enough of that. If most writers coming to us are making the same old mistakes – what exactly are those mistakes? And how do you avoid making them?
Error #1: a failed concept
Mistake number one, a killer mistake, is coming up with an unsaleable concept.
You might think that any story was in principle saleable – but you’d be wrong. Consider a children’s book that has pages and pages of didactic text on eco-catastrophe. Kids won’t wade through that and their parents won’t buy it. Or consider a personal memoir which as well as talking about a period in your life which was incredibly interesting (those two years undercover in Afghanistan …), also throws in chapter after chapter about your adventures at school. That also won’t work commercially.
So: be tough with yourself. Research the market, think of what sells and what you have to offer. Remember that most book purchase decisions will be made off a mere 20-100 words of blurb. So what is your pitch to the reader? Your unique selling point? Get that right and you have the start of something very saleable.
Error #2: the absent story
Mistake number two is losing the story.
That ought to be impossible, right? Except that at least 50% of manuscripts we see will lose the story at some point. And the rule is simple. Figure out who your protagonist is, what they want to achieve and what obstacle stands in their way.
Once you’ve done that, make sure that every single chapter alters the relationship of those three factors in some material respect. Sometimes it’ll be a big advance for the protagonist, or a big setback, or a major new piece of information which puts things into a different light. But if there’s no change, there’s no story – and if there’s no story, there isn’t any reader either!
Error #3: the unworkable prose
When literary agents assess manuscripts in their slushpile, they are normally able to weed out 75-90% of submissions after about a minute’s scrutiny.
To some writers, that suggests that agents are crazily random. To any good quality author (whether indie or mainstream), that simply shows that good writing matters. Is every sentence economical? Does the writer avoid cliches? Are there flashes of evocative, crisp and original writing?
These things can be assessed very rapidly. And if a writer takes genuine care with their prose, they will – at the very least – deliver good, competent prose. Which is fine. John Grisham or Steven King don’t offer any more than that. Their excellence lies elsewhere. But if you fall below that ‘good, competent prose’ benchmark, you are implicitly telling the reader that you yourself don’t care about your own work enough to make it right – so why should the reader care?
Getting it right
So get it right. Whether you are aiming to try your luck with agents or whether you are wanting to self-publish or e-publish, quality matters. No book has sold strongly which doesn’t deliver good value to the reader.
What’s more, if you do decide to solicit feedback at any stage, there’s no point in sending out your manuscript until you’ve nailed the basics yourself. Check your concept. Check your story. Check your prose. That’s the Holy Trinity of self-editing. There will still be areas where you can improve – because there always, always are – but at least you won’t be paying to be told the obvious.
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Harry Bingham is an author of fiction and non-fiction, notably an upcoming crime series with Orion (UK) / Bantam Dell (US). He also runs The Writers’ Workshop which helps with literary agents and offers feedback on writing.