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I am a writer - late developer since I wasn't published until I was 50. I have now written 23 novels, numerous short stories and articles.


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Saturday 20 February 2010
This week I have to thank Hilary Johnson the doyen of authors' advisory services ( ) on whose list of ten problems with typescript this post is based. This continues from last week’s first aid blog. I thought it might help to have a check list. 1.Weak and ill thought-out plot, often of insufficient strength or complexity to sustain a novel of any substance. HJ. With a novel we aim to satisfy and entertain. a sloppy, weak plot will bore the reader. If we make it too far-fetched or a plot which is too predictable, we will lose them. 2.Lack of pace/narrative drive. A tendency to dwell upon unimportant detail and irrelevancies. HJ. How often have you put a book aside because the author’s obsession with minutiae bores you rigid. I call it ‘shopping list’ writing. Endless lists of what is in a room, a shop, a garden the unimportant detail – making tea, opening and shutting doors, getting in and out of car. 3. “Failures of ordinary logic, both in characterisation and the development of a story.” HJ. The problem occurs when the writer, to enable the plot to work, makes the characters behave out of character. And when it is the author’s opinion and not the fictional one. 4.“Disregard - or ignorance – of the principles of narrative viewpoint.” HJ. Head hopping, as it is sometimes called, distracts from the story. One of my editors has said that she turns down more novels because of inconsistent and muddled VP than any other reason. 5.“Mixing genres.” HJ. It can be difficult to decide which genre your book is, difficult but important since when submitting you will have to say where it slots in. If you have mixed your genres then it will be even harder. A mixed book is a difficult book to place. 6.Wooden and dull characterisation, also uninteresting dialogue heavily weighted with co“ntent which fulfils none of the functions of good dialogue.” HJ. Do try and avoid the cliché characters, your reader will recognise them immediately – the feisty red head (they nearly always have improbable green coloured eyes.) a cliché character is often Hilary’s wooden one. New writers often think that dialogue is the same as real conversation, it isn’t. Dialogue in a novel is a tool – it gives pace, it moves the story on, it is not cluttered with inconsequential talk – “Good morning, how are you?” “Fine thanks, and how are you?” 7.”A major one: problems with moving characters around, resulting in a compulsion to describe the opening and shutting of every door and similar. Also, too many static scenes in which characters do nothing but sit around talking, often over meals . . . of cups of tea/coffee.”HJ. How right Hilary is. If a character leaves, they leave, there is no need to show them crossing the hall, opening the front door, getting in the car and switching on the engine. It is unnecessary padding. I recognise her irritation with tea and coffee, my editor once queried if a character of mine was an alcoholic with the number of G &Ts I gave her to consume. 8. "Lack of awareness of the publishing/bookselling industries,” HJ. Would a doctor not know about opinions and discoveries in his speciality, or an actor what is going on in the acting world? A professional writer should know who is buying what, who is working where (it’s fun too, or not, to see what people are being paid!) with The Bookseller and Publishing News, it’s a pleasure more than a chore. 9.“lack of warmth, nobody in the novel you can like.” HJ When you start a book you are with the characters for a long time, would you choose to spend hours with someone you have no empathy with? No, you would avoid them. So why would you want to accompany a fictional character you do not like? 10. A cluster, including: bad writing; disregard or ignorance of the rules of written English; unoriginal ideas and thinking; lack of an individual voice or, disastrously, a dull one; lack of verve, combined with an inclination to focus unrelentingly upon life’s miseries. HJ I love Hilary’s cluster. It says it all. To which I would add sloppy, badly presented typescripts – and I’m not seeing nearly as many as she or the editor or agent. It is human nature to discard the messy, the badly laid out ones, and go for the well presented. In any case I think it is sheer bad manners.


  1. Brilliant - a great check list.

  2. Anita, I'm so glad I stumbled across your site. Great advice. Back to my ms to check on door opening/shutting, etc. Thanks.

  3. A really useful checklist of things which I'm 'sort of aware of' but constantly need to be reminded to look for in my own work. Oh, those blooming cups of tea and coffee...some of my characters could support a Kenyan tea plantation singlehandedly. Perhaps it's because I find it so difficult to describe the housework they should probably be doing instead of sitting around the biscuit tin...

  4. Useful checklist, thanks. My characters are about to have their tea taken away!

  5. This is a brilliant check list.
    It would be the perfect mantra with which to start each day of writing.

    Many thanks for blogging about it.