Rayne Hall returns with advice on how to avoid the tell tale signs of a newbie writer. Happy to have you back, Rayne!
Editors can tell if a writer is a novice or a veteran from the words appearing on the first page. New writers unconsciously share the same word set.
No matter how much you polished your prose, it probably still contains ‘beginner flags’ – and you may not want to draw attention to your inexperience.
When I worked as an editor for magazines and book publishers, I could spot a novice’s submission by simply glancing at the first two paragraphs. If they contained certain words, I knew this was a beginner who had not developed a unique voice yet.
For most acquisitions editors – who may routinely scan two dozen manuscripts in the first hour of their work day – this is sufficient reason to consign your manuscript to the ‘reject’ pile. They won’t tell you the reason, because they don’t have the time to explain, and they don’t want deal with irate writers’ protests. They just send you a standard rejection note.
If you’re an indie (self-publishing) author, you may think that beginner flags don’t matter, because books pass directly to the readers without a gatekeeper. The average reader perusing samples is unaware of ‘novice words’, and doesn’t use them as a filter – not consciously, that is.
But the reader’s subconscious registers that all the samples they’ve downloaded sound the same, with the same words and phrases. After reading several same-sounding book samples, their interest perks up when they gets to one with a fresh, original voice.
So, what are the ‘beginner flags’?
I’ve compiled a list of words, phrases, and sentence structures. They’re not wrong, but they’re stale. Several of them on the first page of your manuscript submission or your published sample can doom your book.
Here the main ones to watch out for:
could see, could hear, could feel
Go over your manuscript, and weed them out where possible. Keep only the ones you need.
If you’re submitting your book to an agent or editor, try to present a first page without any of these words.
Watch especially for combinations of these words, such as ‘He/she turned to look at him/her’ and ‘He/she nodded slowly’ – they are an obvious signal of your novice status.
How you structure your sentences can also reveal that you’re a newcomer to the craft.
Consider these two sentences:
Grabbing her coat, she ran down the stairs.
Clenching her fists, she fought for composure.
Nothing is wrong with them – but if both appear on your manuscript’s first page, the editor knows you’re a novice.
That’s because new writers often start sentences with a Present Participle (the ing-form of the verb), while veteran authors seldom do. Once per chapter is fine. Once per page is ok. But more than one per page reveals the beginner. I’ve received manuscript submissions where almost half the sentences began with a Present Participle.
Best reduce the number of sentences beginning with Present Participles in your whole manuscript, and avoid them altogether on the first page.
In the above examples, you could use simple past tense:
She grabbed her coat and ran down the stairs.
She clenched her fists and fought for composure.
Of course, you could also structure these sentences in less predictable ways, showing your individual author voice. But I can’t tell you how exactly you should do this, because this would defeat the object.
Another sentence structure to watch out for is parallel actions linked with the word ‘as’.
Melanie reached the bus stop as the number 94 was leaving.
As she ran down the stairs, she heard a sharp crack.
These sentences are not wrong either – but this construction is more popular with beginners than with veterans. If you don’t want to be classed as a newbie, use it with restraint.
Now brace yourself for the challenge. Open the file of the manuscript you’re working on – or, if you’re brave, the one you’ve submitted! Which of these ‘beginner flags’ appear on the first page?
THE WORD-LOSS DIET – Tighten and tone your writing style, and use simple revision tricks to slim down your manuscript. Shed thousands of words without changing the plot. Strip away the word fat and reveal the muscle of your unique author voice. This book is short, but potent. It is perfect for – self-editing before you submit your book to agents and publishers, or before self-publishing – understanding why your stories get rejected, or why so few readers buy your book after downloading the sample chapters – taking your writing craft skills to the next level – polishing your writing style for the move from amateur to professional The book is based on Rayne Hall’s popular class of the same title which has helped many writers shed word weight and develop a leaner, stronger writing style. Some authors say the class was the best investment they ever made. Now you can study the techniques in book form at your own pace. Please note: This book assumes that you have some fiction writing experience. You’ll benefit most if you’ve already mastered the basics of the craft and want to learn specialist techniques. It is not recommend for absolute beginners.
Rayne Hall’s Writer’s Craft books are for writers who want to take their craft skills to the next level.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in RayneHall – Fantasy Horror Author – reduced size Portrait by Fawnheartseveral genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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