After critiquing hundreds of poems, short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels, I’ve noted many manuscript killers over the years and wanted to share the list I’ve compiled so far. I call these the Overts. They can be both obvious or sneaky, and there are a lot of them. Let’s consider a few in Part I of this series.
Plot holes are parts of the story that just don’t make sense—whether factually, chronologically, contradictorily or any other way, plot holes are ideas, words or events that go against the laws within the book (legal, natural, magical, character code etc).
Plot holes are probably the biggest Overt of them all not only because it can ruin the book, but because it includes topics of Plot, Setting, Character, Theme (and let’s just throw in Style). These can be painfully obvious, but they can also be quite sneaky and even trick your readers into believing they don’t exist (until someone reads closely).
For example, we’re given a real-world setting that couldn’t have existed. Maybe in the 1940s a couple meet at a European bistro in a town that had been blown up in real life, or someone refers to California as a state in 1845. (This does not apply to spec fic.)
A sneaky example: a fire is set in a hospital, but the sprinkler system never goes off (however, the author has gripped us in the moment with the flames, so we don’t notice… yet. But when we do, we realize the system would have quenched the fire and prevented Bad Guy from escaping, and thus, Story from moving to its next plot point).
Over-editing as the all-knowing author (rather than a first-time reader)
You’ve written a great story, but as you edit, you think Chapter 10 would be happier as Chapter 6. However, there’s a scene in Chapter 8 that *must* happen before Chapter 10 can take place. (A character introduction, a slap, a tryst…)
Or, maybe, you’ve deleted a few key sentences. Because you and your betas already know this information, you overlook its necessity—however, without those words, new readers struggle with context and clarity. This is especially true for queries.
Or you’ve written a gorgeous narrative but want to make it shorter/snappier, and end up editing out the addictive voice that would have grabbed your readers. This is especially true for queries—a lot of writers of various skill will give you feedback in forums. Be careful in applying it—I’ve seen many an author edit out beautiful voice.
Focusing too long on the wrong thing, dragging out a scene that should’ve ended pages ago, or being too abrupt with a depiction that needs more time are pacing issues.
Pacing can be an issue for both internal and external movement. Too many actions can be crammed into one day, or too few actions across chapters (depending on the plot and what drives the story). A subplot love story that happens too quickly (an emotionally rounded couple marry two months after meeting) or too slowly (it’s page 300, and for the thirtieth time, two good friends “almost tell each other” what everyone else knew by page 20) can be equally frustrating for readers. On the one hand, readers may find a sixty-day true love romance between two strangers unconvincing. On the other, dragging out the admission of love just so it can happen on the last page can be overkill. These are common tropes and work when done well, but the key is doing it well.
Cramming in too much
It’s okay to make a Part II, a pamphlet, a “further reading,” a mini-series, a bonus story, a double novella, a novel + novelette in one book binding etc. It’s also just fine to take some of the points from one book and put it in a different book altogether.
Non-spec-fic novels at 120,000+ words can be very problematic. Few people are willing to read 500 pages of romance. Have mercy on our attention spans and let us feel more accomplished by reading two novels featuring these protagonists at 60,000 words each. Or, learn to love that delete button (which to be honest is more likely the issue).
I prefer to read novellas. If I could buy a 350-page book consisting of either two standalone novellas in a series or a single story, I’d choose the double novellas. Personally, I’m more likely to finish a so/so novella than a so/so full-length, let alone a so/so bloater.
Disclaimer: sometimes it’s okay to write the bloater (which wouldn’t work as two shorter stories unless they were in a non-standalone series/volume, which can come with its own set of issues if readers don’t know to expect this from the beginning. Dust by Kara Swanson, The Restorer by Amanda Stevens, and Snow White and The Civil War: Survival of the Fairest by Cathleen Townsend are the first books in non-standalone volumes for stories told across multiple full-length novels. Check them out).
Titanic is a very beautiful movie, however, few people are willing to devote three hours to it. Your Titanic may be beautiful and have a strong audience, so if it makes sense, by all means… Word of advice? If you choose to write the one-book bloater, consider this: the length may not be attributed to story and development, but to verbosity. You’ll definitely want honest betas who aren’t shy to pinpoint where exactly they’d stop reading, and why. You’ll also want Audience betas who read such books regularly.
If you’ve shown us once, then you don’t need to tell us again. Usually readers can connect something at the end of the book to something from the beginning, especially if the author grabbed our attention the first time. However, if hundreds of pages separate the two points and betas show a disconnect (and the first instance can’t be written any clearer), then go ahead and remind us.
In conclusion, there are many Overts, and several ways to avoid them. Make sure your story isn’t moving too fast, or spend a third of its word count repeating itself. If you’re writing a historical, make sure the items, nouns/words, culture and places match up. Keep laws (legal, magical, moral, character’s code…) consistent. And if your word count is significantly higher than the average for its genre, consider either separating it into two pieces (even if they’re both sold in one) or—the more likely issue—get out your red pen and don’t be shy.
In the spirit of avoiding cramming, there will be a Part II and Part III of Beware of the Overts. Keep an eye out for them.