Friday, November 30, 2012

As NaNoWriMo ends, we've got advice: Avoid the 7 deadly sins of bad fiction!

For all of you out there participating in National Novel Writing Month, go go go! You're almost done!  As agents, we are so glad you're writing.  But before you immediately submit your new novel to agents on December 1, we have some suggestions :)  First, once you've made it to the finish line, jump for joy, eat celebratory chocolate, or whatever else floats your boat.  Second, take a good look at that manuscript you've been working on and delve right back into it with revision!

Below are some revision tips put together by our fabulous agent Elizabeth Evans:

Writers often ask me what agents look for in a submission.  How can they get their work through the gates and onto an agent's list?  The short and oft-quoted answer to that question is that agents want to "fall in love."  But what does that mean, really?  Is the writing riveting or suspenseful in a way that makes our pulse race?  Maybe.  Does a character reach out and grab us with a voice that commands attention?  Perhaps.  Or is the prose so achingly beautiful we just can't help but admire it?  Couldn't hurt.

Maybe it's one of these, maybe it's none of them.  The point is, it's hard to define, and it usually leads to other exasperating, oft-quoted agent phrases such as, "I don't know what I'm looking for until I see it."  Well, here's a little secret—we agents hear this from editors as well, and it drives us a little crazy, too. Fact is, it's true.

So it's not a science, and there's no proper equation to get your work through the door.  But to increase the chances of finding representation, what writers can do is avoid common mistakes and agent pet peeves that make it easy for us to turn down submissions.

When I was working as a tutor in my college writing center, the director created a handy sheet for students outlining "The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Grammar."  The sheet identified such no-no's as Passive Voice and Misplaced Modifiers, and it provided a helpful list students could check their work against before turning in papers to professors.  When I started agenting, I thought there ought to be a list like this for aspiring authors.  Hence, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Fiction."

Avoiding these common pitfalls will eliminate pesky mistakes that can distract agents from the story at hand.  By taking heed of them, your writing might shine just a bit more brightly and bring you one step closer to publication.

“The Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Fiction” is available as a convenient, downloadable pdf file.  Click here to access it.  And to whet your appetite, below is a quick list of what the seven deadly sins are.  Download the pdf for explanations!

1. General Sloppiness

2. Ignoring the Setting

3. Wordiness

4. Bloated Diction

 5. Passive Voice/Overuse of "To Be"

6. Too Much Telling. Too Much Showing.

7. Pedestrian Narrative Eye

In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written.  My pencils outlast their erasers.” Now, don't get stressed out by this statement, like the guy below.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

Do, however, take the time to rewrite and revise, because doing so will not only make your novel more polished and attractive to all the publishing people out there, it will also, most importantly, make your novel more rewarding for your readers and yourself.


  1. Uh oh, I'd better go check all my manuscripts! :-) Really great tips. Thanks!

  2. The point (when I went and got the .pdf and read the expanded version of the Seven Deadlies) that struck me like a leaky dollar-store pen was the "Too much showing//Too much telling" point. I'm a big "show, don't tell" guy; this comes from my alter ego as a poet. I have often criticized the greats for too much telling, and wondered "What am I missing?"

    Thinking back over Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, for instance, I recall wondering why I wasn't bored or put off by the telling that introduces almost every chapter. Now I get it. When you master the art of showing, then you are free to tell with artistry and insight, even if your narrator only has a limited perspective (Nick Calloway in Gatsby, for instance.

    1. We're glad you found the tips useful! Showing vs. telling is a tricky balance to strike, but it sounds like you've reached a breakthrough. Thanks for reading and good luck with the writing!