If you’re serious about being a writer, then you should probably keep something important in mind. I guarantee you that ignoring the advice in this article will destroy your chances at being published.
Arrogance? No. Simple common sense and you’ll see why when you read further.
There are many things that you have no control over when you try to get a short story or novel published: Did the reader have a bad day, so nothing got past his or her circular file that day? Did the reader not like your work, even though you believe that you’ve written the masterpiece of the Millennium? No matter how much you’d like to, you can’t prevent these sort of thing from happening.
What you can prevent is your story being discarded for errors that make the publisher believe that you are either unintelligent or simply don’t care. I’ll take them in no particular order.
1 ) Spelling
Always reread your documents, and get someone with a good vocabulary to read through them as well. DO NOT RELY ON YOUR COMPUTER’S SPELL-CHECKER! I cannot stress that point enough. The reason is clear: Eye can rite a sentence that past the spell-checker and still doesn’t make real cents.
See what I mean? That last sentence did, in fact, make it past my spell-checker. If all you’re doing is looking for a wiggly red line under the word to tell you it’s wrong, then you’ll get a story bounced so fast that you’ll probably hear the BOING! at the publisher’s.
You need more than your own eyes and the “eyes” of your computer to get the spelling right in your story. I won’t belabour this point overly much; this very sentence involves a different issue -; spelling variations. There are many words that have what are referred to as “British” spellings, such as the form of “belabour” I just used. I could also have written “belabor” and been just as correct. The problem arises when you flip back and forth. If you’re typing “colour” early in the manuscript, do NOT suddenly switch to “color” elsewhere. If you’re an American writing for the American audience, it’s best to avoid the British spellings altogether.
There’s a further point to make regarding spell-checking on a computer: as I write this, my computer is telling me that “color” is incorrectly spelled. That’s because it’s currently set to UK English. As soon as I switched it to US English, it told me that “colour” was the incorrect one. Yet another reason to avoid trusting the computer’s spelling suggestion as the right one.
2 ) Grammar
I’m going to rewrite the sentence from above to see if you can catch the other error in it. Obviously, spelling isn’t part of that error. The error in question was put in there intentionally.
I can write a sentence that passed the spell-checker and still doesn’t make any sense.
I’m not going to throw out all those terms that some people do -; not everyone understands what you mean when you refer to a “pluperfect” tense -; but I will tell you that I changed time sense in that sentence. “I can write” implies that it is not written, or is about to be written. “That passed the spell-checker” states that it has been written already.
Get your tenses right!
3 ) Homophones and similar-looking words.
A homophone is a word that sounds like a different word. The most common examples are “through/threw” and “two/too/to”. Several were used in that sentence I keep coming back to – “eye/I,” “rite/write/right,” “past/passed.”
A similar situation comes with words that are close in appearance. “Breathe/breath”, “loose/lose”, and even things like “tome/tomb”. Be very careful when writing these. They are terribly easy to slip in and not notice, which can lead to a sentence such as the following:
“John found Marsha in the library pouring over an old tomb.”
She should be “poring” over a “tome”. Either that, or John should be asking why she’s pouring some liquid over the place where someone was buried, and what that burial place is doing in a library.
I won’t stress this point too much, because you either get it or you don’t. If you don’t see the problem with “Take a deep breathe,” or “Faster, or else we’ll loose him!”, then there are other obstacles in the way of your getting published.
4 ) Commas
This one is a big deal. Usually punctuation is a problem because people either use too much of it or not enough. People will either pepper their documents with commas, or use them sparingly. (There are other punctuations that are misused. I’ll deal with them shortly.)
I have been known to overuse commas myself. This comes down to my hearing the words as I write, so I place the comma where I would pause a sentence if I were speaking it. This is actually a BAD way to write, as I find myself removing commas when I reread the work in question. Others will write a sentence that should pause at some point but doesn’t which leads to a slightly breathless feeling at the end of it if your reader is actually still reading the thing. (See what I mean?)
Another aspect of commas is using them in a list. Some say that it replaces an “and” in a sentence, as in “John, Mary and Joseph stepped out” replaces “John and Mary and Joseph stepped out”. Others use what is called the Oxford comma, which would place a comma after “Mary” in the first version. This is a matter of style, and you should find out the publisher’s position on it. If the publisher has no official position on it, then your only worry is consistency, because switching back and forth between them will be noticed. Most American publishers tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style as their “bible” for punctuation and grammar. It would be money well spent if you buy a copy.
5 ) Semicolons
There are three main uses for semicolons: to connect two clauses that have equal weight, to separate items in a list that contains commas, and when using a comma to separate would lead to confusion. A), B), and C) are examples of each of these.
A) Proofreading a document will help catch errors; this should never be done when you’re tired.
B) The meeting will be in Dallas, Texas on April 26, 2008; in Boulder, Colorado on May 1, 2008; and in Los Angeles on May 15, 2008.
C) The inventory request was for 3-ring binders, cellophane tape, and ballpoint pens; but toner, legal pads, and pencils were sent in their place.
6 ) Colons
Colons are used in five places: to announce a list (such as this one); to announce an important clause that needs a stronger break than a semicolon; in a quotation of a biblical verse such as John 3:1; marking subdivisions of time such as 6:30 a.m.; and to separate a title and subtitle such as Harpo Speaks: the Autobiography of Harpo Marx.
7 ) Dashes
The most common usage of the dash is to hyphenate a word. The other two most common usages are to be inclusive in a list, such as saying “October 13-19,” which tells the reader that the writer is referring to every single day from October 13 through October 19; and to be a slightly more informal version of a colon when announcing a list or important clause.
There is one further usage, which is to make what is known as a parenthetic comment. This is usually author intrusion into the work in question, such as the times it has been done above. In something informal–such as this work–using the parenthetic comment isn’t a bad thing. When it’s used in a work of fiction to give information that should have been given already, a writer reveals his inexperience. It would be like saying: “John jumped on his motorcycle (which he’d learned to ride the previous summer) and rode away.” The writer should have let us know in another way that John had learned to ride the motorcycle. That sort of sentence tends to mark the writer as an amateur. (Using them to make comments to the readers DEFINITELY marks the writer as an amateur.)
8 ) Perspective or “Point of View”
This is a mistake that beginning writers always seem to make. It sounds easy to avoid, but it can be surprisingly hard to write with consistant perspective (or “point of view”).
When you write, you must decide on the point of view. Is it simply from a single character’s perspective? Does the reader only see what the character sees, and never learns anything that the character doesn’t remember?
There is nothing wrong with using multiple people’s perspectives. Many excellent books do this. Tom Clancy does this in all of his books. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is another example. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen does this as well.
All of the books above share a trait, however: the perspective changes are clearly marked. The reader can always tell when the point of view has switched to a new person. It is when you fail to mark these shifts that problems come in. I have read amateur works where the writer shifted to the thoughts of four separate people in one scene. A scene should focus on one character, and only his or her innermost thoughts should be available to the reader in that scene. If the innermost thoughts of a different character are needed, then a new scene should be written. Perhaps the same incident as seen by another person would do well, if it is vital that the reader get those deepest thoughts. Publishers watch for this sort of mistake, however, and doing it in a scene is a sure-fire way to kill your chances at getting published if you’ve managed to get them to read past your first hundred words.
* * * * *
John strode into the room confidently, smiling as he saw his girlfriend Lisa sitting on the couch. From the small ticking noises she made, it was obvious to him that she was knitting, which she only did when very nervous.
It’s probably the fight I just had with David that has her worried. I’d better ease her mind.
He walked over and gently touched her shoulder, murmuring “Hey,” as he touched her, hoping to avoid startling her.
She was obviously startled despite that, as her knitting shot skyward and she spun, her mind racing at the possibilities–why was someone touching her? Her eyes filled with happy tears as she realised that it was her John, and not David who had caught her attention.
He grinned widely. “Sorry about that,” he said, walking around the couch and pulling her into a hug.
* * * * *
The example above is heavy-handed. I wanted it clear that the first three paragraphs and the last one are from John’s perspective. We even see his thoughts. The problem is in the fourth paragraph, where the perspective suddenly shifts to Lisa. If we are seeing everything from John’s point of view, it can be jarring to suddenly see another character’s thoughts.
That snippet with John and Lisa might not seem bad to you. A publisher, though, is going to look at that and realise that you don’t have a solid grasp on writing because of that unexpected perspective change. The scene might not be confusing to you, but if you don’t train yourself to write a single scene from a single point of view, then you will never get published by more than a vanity press. I have heard this directly from published authors who have worked closely with their publishers.
This article is certainly not the entirety of the subject. There are punctuation mistakes I have not gone into, various grammar mistakes that need to be avoided, and a slew of other things that will kill your chances to be published. But these are the ones that cause the most trouble, in my opinion. Pay heed to these points and you will improve your chances.
This blog posting was originally posted on January 4, 2008 at http://whspubs.blogspot.com/2008/01/eight-ways-to-avoid-publication.html
I wrote the original post, and have permission from that blog owner to reprint my posting here at my own blog.