February 29, 2012

Stupid Mistakes My Agent Found in My WIP

Anyone who is out there writing every day, putting their thoughts and skill on the line, studying and improving their craft, is going to succeed. Maybe not as an NYT best-seller or a

writers mistakes

Did I really do that? (Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos)

Tom Clancy read-alike, but if you truly study the art of writing and use what you’ve learned, you will succeed.

In my case, I’ve taken classes on writing (no MFA, though. My college brain was focused on an MBA, back when I thought I’d be a tycoon of business), attended more than a boat-load of conferences and seminars, submitted to the agony of having my writing critiqued, shared my secret life with friends and colleagues, read a library full of how-to-write books, and gotten a few books published along the way–all steps that establish me as a writer in my mind’s eye. I know the rules and believe I’ve paid at least a part of the considerable dues required to be declared ‘writer’.

And still, I make stupid mistakes. I thought I’d share a few my agent sent back for rewrites. You’re going to say, I wouldn’t do that. I know you’ll at least think that because it’s what I thought. But there they were, buried in the hours of writing that went into my current WIP, hidden by the wordsmithing I’d read  hundreds of times. I thought I knew what I’d written, but I didn’t. Here are a few mistakes that snuck through my self-editing sieve:

  • Avoid backstory in the opening to a thriller, even in the name of sharing character motivation. Figure out a place later to fit it in. In thrillers, it’s action action action until the reader is hooked.
  • Avoid multiple names for new characters. It confuses the reader when they’ve just met your people


  • Distinguish each character. Their voices and personalities must be unique or they’ll blend together in the reader’s eye
  • Damage your main characters. No one relates to a perfect person. Readers will think they don’t know your character before they think he’s perfect.
  • Place the reader in time and geography in every scene so they don’t get distracted trying to figure that out. In my case, I actually went through each scene with that rule in mind and still–likely because I was too close to the story–failed in at least one case.
  • Describe clothing, but not clinically. Have these give the reader a better understanding of the character’s personality while sharing what he wears
  • Make sure the actions and thoughts of your actors are in character. Always. For example, you may have a ruthless killer who acts indecisive. What you as the writer intended to be a peek at another side of his/her personality may come across as out-of character

What edits have you received from agents, critique groups, or friends that you knew were obvious and still, you missed them? Take a moment to share. Let’s make a check list we-all can use before thinking we’re ready for prime time.

PS–Lest you worry (I know you’re worried), I did a lot right. I’ll share that in a future post.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersIMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in EducationCurrently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

Follow me