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10 Writing Tips for New Authors Wanting Their Manuscript to Shine

    Writing can be hard. 

    I find writing these blog posts hard. 

    But people who can write an entire book? I bow down before them and throw flowers at their feet for accomplishing what is, to me personally, the unthinkable.

    That’s probably why I’m an editor—I don’t have to do the work of writing. Instead, I can help writers get their words on the page.

    When it comes to folks who are new to the writing world, I’ve noticed some trends. My hope is that pointing out these trends will help new writers understand the ways they can improve their books before the manuscript ever gets to an editor.

    If you think your manuscript is at a place your editor will love, these are the top checks to do before you send your book to an editor or publisher.

    1. Know your audience

    As a writer, who are you thinking about when you’re writing your book? Is it a minority teenager wrestling with coming of age in the United States? Is someone getting a divorce, who has kids, and is trying to decide how to return to the workforce? 

    These ideas may seem crazy specific, but specific ideas are how writers define their audience. A successful book isn’t always about mass appeal (but it’s great if that happens!). A successful book appeals to the audience that it’s meant to serve.

    Always keep in mind who it is you’re speaking to and write for them.

    So before you start writing, figure out your audience. Figure out who you’re writing for.

    2. Solve a problem

    Every great story needs a conflict. Harry Potter had Voldemort. In the Saga graphic novels, the conflict is animosity between the wings and the horns. 

    Not all conflicts have to be the protagonist (the main character) against the antagonist (the person who is in the main character’s way).

    It can be more complicated, sort of like Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: two men who believe in saving mutants but have very different beliefs about how to accomplish that goal. 

    The conflict can also be internal (the main character is going through something big, and that something big is an obstacle in the story’s plot). 

    Whatever the conflict is, make sure it’s clear at the beginning of the story and it continues to its resolution to the end of the book. It shouldn’t fizzle out a third of the way or halfway through the book. If it does, what is the rest of the book about?

    Decide what the conflict is going to be and nurture it throughout the entire book.

    3. Develop your characters

    It’s very easy to focus on the narrative and dialogue to make sure the story gets told. And that’s great for a first draft.

    But then you need to go back and make sure you’ve created well-developed characters. Characters need to have thoughts, feelings, reactions, and reasons why they think and feel and react the way they do.

    Ways of creating developed characters can include descriptions of their reactions to situations, ways of dressing, mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, and patterns of speech (e.g. formal language vs. lots of cussing). 

    All of these elements help readers relate to the characters in a story, engage with those characters, and care about what happens to them. If these elements are missing, the characters fall flat and readers might lose interest.

    So the goal is to create well-developed characters that readers relate to and want to read about.

    4. Maintain a POV

    There are a lot of thoughts around point of view (POV). Just for background, POV refers to the character perspective the reader is watching/understanding the story from. For example, if the story is from a first-person, present-tense POV, the story would say something like I saw the monster approach me.

    A story can also be told from a third-person perspective, and that’s where POV can get complicated. Here’s an example.

    Jamie sat on the couch and sighed, trying to rid himself of the exhausting day.

    The phone rang. He saw the number on the phone and thought about whether or not to answer. It was Tobias. He relented.

    “Hello,” he answered. “What do you want?”

    Everything the reader sees is from Jamie’s POV and in the past tense. And most of the time, that’s the way it should stay in a story—following one character’s POV.

    Here’s an example of how the POV gets messed up:

    Jamie sat on the couch and sighed, trying to rid himself of the exhausting day.

    The phone rang. He saw the number on the phone and thought about whether or not to answer. It was Tobias. He relented.

    “Hello,” he answered. “What do you want?”

    Tobias scowled, teeth bared.

    What just happened? If the reader has been following the story from Jamie’s POV, why can the reader see Tobias scowling on the other side of the phone? Are they FaceTiming? Is there some tech that the reader hasn’t been told about? 

    This is an example of head hopping, which is switching the character POV in the middle of a paragraph, section, or chapter. It can take a reader outside the story if the switch doesn’t make sense (for example, a character is on a traditional phone call and the other person on the line is making a face, which can’t be seen on a traditional phone call).

    Keeping the POV of view with one character is important for most new writers. For experienced writers, there are exceptions, but I’m not getting into that here. 

    A single POV is what most readers expect, and it helps writers create well-developed characters by being forced to stay in one character’s head. That means developing a character’s thoughts, feelings, and choices throughout the book to create a well-rounded and developed character.

    So stick with one POV for now. You can always experiment with other POVs in the future.

    5. Maintain the same tense

    Your tense options are past tense and present tense. I’ve yet to read that book in the future tense, so I can’t comment on it.

    Past tense is easiest. Most books are written in the past tense. It’s what I’d recommend for new writers. 

    But you can’t switch tenses unless it’s done strategically. For newbie writers, I highly suggest writing in a single tense. Let’s go back to the example of Jamie and Tobias.

    Jamie sits on the couch and sighs, trying to get rid of the exhausting day.

    The phone rang. Jamie turned, staring at the phone and trying to decide whether or not to answer. He sees the number and finally he relents. It’s Tobias.

    “Hello,” he answers. “What do you want?”

    Tobias scowled, teeth bared.

    Did you have a wtf moment when reading that? It may not seem like much, but readers will likely see the difference and wonder what is happening.

    As a new writer, always keep in mind what readers are used to. That means readers are going to find random changes in the tense off-putting. Readers might see these changes as errors, so they might not be interested in reading the book.

    6. Write what you know

    This may seem obvious to experienced authors, but it may not be obvious to some newbie self-publishing writers. 

    Write what you know. Write about the communities, the people, and the experiences that you know. 

    One example: If you’re a well-to-do white woman, don’t talk about drugs in minority communities. If you’re a white man, don’t try to replicate how you think a Black woman speaks. You’re always going to get it wrong because you don’t live, breathe, and eat in these communities.

    It doesn’t work, and it can come across to readers as offensive. So don’t do it.

    Write what you know. 

    Write stories about your people and your community. Your target audience will appreciate it.

    7. Include your sources

    I recently learned that citing sources isn’t a global practice. Well, whatever the practices that happen in other countries, in the US, if you want to use content, a quote, or an idea from someone else (that’s not your own), you have to cite it. If you don’t, it’s considered plagiarism.

    And plagiarism is a very big deal in the US. You can even be sued for it. 

    Luckily, there are tons of different ways to cite a source to make sure you’re covered. You can use footnotes, endnotes, a bibliography, or a reference list.

    Whatever method you choose, the main thing to keep in mind is making sure it’s easy for your readers to find the source of your information.

    8. Get permission for music lyrics

    Sometimes music lyrics seem like the best way to show what a character is thinking or feeling. But there’s just one problem: music lyrics are copyrighted, so you can’t include them in your book without permission unless you’re analyzing the lyrics or the sounds for academic purposes.

    That means if you (the writer) want to include music lyrics in your book, you’re probably going to need to get permission from whoever holds the copyright.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around using music lyrics in your book. While I’m not an expert on copyright law, I recently read a book that was amazing at referring to popular songs without actually including the lyrics.

    When all was said and done, the author needed permission for only one song out of the many that were referenced in the book. That’s because you can still reference the song title and artist without needing copyright. If you’re looking to do something similar, I suggest reading My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix for examples of how to use music without needing to get copyright permission.

    9. Show, don’t tell

    “Show, don’t tell” is a kinda complicated concept to explain or understand. However, once a writer gets it, they never go back. It’s the difference between having someone tell you what Star Wars is about versus watching the movies for yourself. 

    It happens in books as well. It’s the difference between being told what’s happening in a boring, detracted way compared to reading (i.e., seeing) what’s happening from the character’s point of view.

    Here’s an example:

    Tony covered the body and told Adam, the witness, to call his boss and tell them he might be late.

    Here’s an alternative version:

    Tony covered the body. He looked at Adam, the witness. “You might want to call your boss and let them know you might be late.” Tony saw Adam nod in agreement and pull his phone from his pocket. Tony went back to examining the crime scene.

    In the first example, the reader knows what’s happening, but they’re not seeing it through the character’s eyes. The reader is being told what happened rather than being shown what’s happening.

    In the second instance, the reader is with a particular character. The reader is seeing what’s happening from that character’s perspective. The reader is being shown what’s happening, rather than told.

    10. Understand dialogue tags

    If your book includes dialogue, then it’s important to know how to use dialogue tags. 

    Here are some examples of dialogue tags:

    Said

    Whispered

    Murmured

    Exclaimed

    Shouted

    Replied

    Asked

    Answered

    Yelled

    Screamed

    This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of the most common dialogue tags.

    Here’s an example of what’s not a dialogue tag:

    Smirked

    Laughed

    Looked

    Pointed

    Gasped

    And pretty much any other verb that doesn’t involve speech.

    These are examples of action beats. These can be used between bits of dialogue to show the reader a character’s action while they are speaking. Here’s some examples:

    “Yeah, that party was wild.” He laughed awkwardly. “You ready for the test Friday?”

    “Yeah, that party was wild,” he said, laughing awkwardly. “You ready for the test Friday?”

    Laughing awkwardly, he said, “Yeah, that party was wild. You ready for the test Friday?”

    All of these examples are acceptable ways to include actions when writing dialogue. 

    Here’s an example that every editor is going to either call out or fix:

    “Yeah, that party was wild,” he laughed awkwardly. “You ready for the test Friday?” 

    “Laughed” isn’t a dialogue tag. It’s hard to laugh and talk at the same time. I’ve tried it. When things get really funny, speech is almost impossible.

    Conclusion

    These are the top issues I see when working on books from new authors looking to self-publish. If you’re an author new to self-publishing, I hope you find this checklist useful and that it helps you publish a successful book.

    There’s no one right way to write a story. As a writer, the best you can do is know who your audience is and keep them in mind.

    This isn’t an exhaustive list for new self-publishing writers. But it is a list of things new writers should keep in mind before sending a manuscript to an editor or publisher.

    The hope is that this checklist opens closed doors and helps you, as a new writer, get your book published. Let me know if it works out.