Saturday, August 30, 2014
Advice From a Literary Agent
by Lois Winston
Whether you're writing mysteries or another genre, your manuscript needs a great story, great characters and great writing. The quality of the writing determines the difference between an acceptance and rejection. As a literary agent and author, I see too many submissions where the writer needs to place her manuscript on a diet.
Before you submit your manuscript, make sure it's not bloated with excess wordage that drags down the pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. Your writing must be crisp as well as succinct to catch an editor's or agent's eyes.
The Bloated Manuscript Diet:
1. Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot, or goals, motivations or conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or does it tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene.
2. Repeat #1 for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit chat, ditch it.
3. Do a search of "ly" words. Whenever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive word to replace an existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.
4. Instead of using many verbs to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun.
5. Say it once, then move on. It's not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, next paragraph or next page.
6. Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet words that need to be eliminated.
7. Avoid a laundry list of descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.
8. Do a search for "was." Whenever it's linked with an "ing" verb, omit the "was" and change the tense of the verb.
9. Choose more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.
10. Omit extraneous tag lines. If it's obvious which character is speaking, omit the tag.
11. Show, don't tell. Whenever possible, you want to "show" your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than "telling" the story.
12. Let your characters' words convey their emotions, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive "said" in tags. You can't grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh or sigh before or afterward, but not while speaking.
13. Avoid non-specific things like "it" and "thing."
14. Describe body movements only when they are essential to the scene. Don't break up dialogue every other sentence with having your characters shrug, giggle, smirk, glance, nod or drum their fingers.
15. Don't fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of filling our speech with "well" and "like" but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.
(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, now in print, ebook and audiobooks editions, which includes Lois Winston's interview.)