What’s Wrong with my Book?

As you can imagine, we see hundreds of proposals and manuscripts each month. And, as you can also imagine, we must decline most. However, there are a few mistakes you can avoid to help your submission rise above others:

Not beginning the story in the right place.

All too often, an author will tell us about the main characters’ backgrounds before getting to the crux of the story, where the propelling action begins. I realize you need to know your character. Her past does affect how she’ll behave in the future. However, as a reader, I don’t need to be brought up to date for one or two chapters before getting to the action.

This may seem confusing since oral storytellers use this technique. For example, “You remember Buffy from high school? Uh huh. Well, she married Josh. Remember how he was the water boy for the baseball team? Well, yeah. Well, they had three kids. The youngest one just started first grade. You know they got a divorce, right? Everyone was so sad because no one had any idea he had a second family in Atlanta. I know! Shocking. Okay, so now that you’re up to date, I can tell you about the secret baby, kidnapping, and blackmail…”

You don’t mind listening to the buildup about Buffy since you knew her from high school. But your reader is just now meeting your character. She doesn’t necessarily want to sit through the character’s backstory before getting to the secret baby, kidnapping, and blackmail. Show us this terrible and exciting event first, then fill us in on her backstory gradually, as the reader becomes invested in the action and urgent situation propelling the book forward.

Defying your target market’s unwritten rules and expectations.

I can usually discern when a new writer is taking cues from the general market, not realizing that what is normal for them may not work for the Christian market. For example, a Christian character’s love for a glass of aged port wine and menthol cigarettes will not fly with most of CBA. Some CBA publishers will permit very mild curse words but most still won’t.

My rule of thumb is to write by the most conservative standards. No smoking, drinking, cursing, sexy double meanings, overemphasis on physical features and pleasures, and so forth. If it helps, imagine writing for your very strict grandmother or an aunt who’s easily shocked. Then you won’t knock yourself out of the market – at least not for that reason.

Stilted dialogue.

Read your story aloud to yourself. See how easy or hard it is to say what your characters are saying. If it sounds awkward to you, it will read funny to your audience. Be as natural as you can.


Your turn:

What mistakes did I miss?

What tips can you offer writers to keep from making mistakes?


41 Responses to What’s Wrong with my Book?

  1. Jackie Layton July 14, 2016 at 3:18 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    Years ago an agent told me he liked my story, but I needed to find my voice. After I thought about his comment for a few days, I realized I had lost my voice. I listened to others who had critiqued my story and then I paid an editor and in the end I lost my voice. I learned it’s we’ve got to balance listening to advice from others and still maintain our voice.

    Thanks for the advice to start our story at the right place!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 6:35 am #

      Jackie, it’s easy for that to happen! Glad you were able to identify the issue so you can keep your voice.

  2. Renee McBride July 14, 2016 at 5:30 am #

    Your tip regarding stilted dialogue reminded me of the time I entered a Christian historical romance in a contest. The judge told me my dialogue was stilted, but I wasn’t sure how to process the comment since my heroine was Chinese using broken English. And since the story was set in 1850, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the English speaking characters also spoke in a more formal manner than today’s English. I didn’t know whether the judge was accustomed to reading historicals or how seriously to take the critique comment. Do you have any suggestions for me as I continue to polish the manuscript?

    Thank you.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 6:39 am #

      Renee, without seeing the manuscript, I can make a couple of suggestions. One, if this is the opinion of one judge and the others were fine with it, let it go. If more than one reader has a problem with the language, you can either say that the character spoke in broken English and just use a couple of markers to remind readers throughout, or just make that statement and stick with the formal language only. Maybe try one or both of these techniques for a chapter or two and see how it reads then before changing the entire book. I imagine the character’s voice will still be distinct even after the changes, should you decide to make them.

    • Carol Ashby July 14, 2016 at 7:43 am #

      I got that type of comment as well, Rene. I write in the Roman Empire around AD 100 with a mix of Roman and provincial characters. One judge complained that some of my characters had stilted dialogue while another judge of the same entry complained that the speaking patterns weren’t formal enough for upper- class Romans. I got a chuckle out of that even though it wasn’t good for either overall score.
      One problem in evaluating judges’ comments is no knowledge of the background qualifications of the judge making the comments. Some are obviously experts, and others are just as clearly not, but even the less qualified ones still make comments worth considering if I want to improve.

  3. Darlene Bocek July 14, 2016 at 5:49 am #

    I find it interesting that Christian literature needs to be written to the most “conservative” group. With regards to alcohol, there is a division in the church between the tee-totalers and the wine-drinkers. Sometimes the more conservative groups ARE the ones who are not afraid of alcohol in moderation. Do you find this is a very tight rule with publishers?

    If we are talking about historical fiction, let’s say in Europe, and if in history a man like Martin Luther actually owned a beer factory, is even mentioning that taboo? In European history wine was used in place of water because of the lack of good sanitation. How does that work with the American reader? Is the American Christian audience really that much against alcohol that history must be changed for them to read the book or like the book? You will “Knock yourself out of the market” is an amazing threat when we’re talking about revising history for an issue that is neither universal nor tied to orthodoxy.

    I’m sorry to hear this, because my story is intricately tied to historical accuracy. I suppose I must accept the consequences because I’m more historian than not.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 6:56 am #

      Darlene, I don’t think you need to change historical realities. In fact, don’t.

      When I wrote historical fiction, I simply didn’t mention beverages unless they were important to the plot.

      I started to elaborate for you and then realized I was writing the equivalent of a blog post. Since this is a good topic, please stay tune for my complete answer in the next couple of weeks.

      Thanks for asking!

      • Darlene Bocek July 14, 2016 at 7:10 am #

        I look forward to your post. Reality is reality. Self-censorship on issues like this is why Christian readers have abandoned ship and gone over to popular fiction, where these kinds of big topics are addressed. I appreciate we’ve got Grandma and Aunt Martha reading books. But in the age of social media and internet, really, how many readers do you lose by bringing up death, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, parties, drugs, etc.

        Christians SHOULD be writing about this. Christians should be having their characters model the correct solutions to the real problems going on in life. The big problems in life are NOT “am I going to marry Johnny?” They are bigger. And if Christian fiction is presenting a false reality–readers are not dummies–they’re going to find another set of solutions.

        In fact, I even made an infographic about this last year. https://darlenenbocek.com/musings/what-should-christian-literature-be In particular mirror neurons are significant for Christian writers to be aware of.

        We have a responsibility to the reader to use their time wisely, as they read our books, not to waste their lives away. I am trying to get my head around this self-censorship. It just feels like we’re missing an opportunity to impact the world because “maybe” Aunt Martha will be offended and not buy the book for Jimmy.

        • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 7:27 am #

          Darlene, your infographic is good and I can see where your heart lies. It’s in a good place.

          But choosing a marriage partner, or the equally valid choice of not marrying at all, is one of THE most important decisions anyone will ever make. This decision is right behind accepting Jesus as your personal savior, in my view. I chose my husband wisely thanks to undeserved grace from the Lord. If I had not chosen wisely, my life wouldn’t look as it does today.

          Christian romance in particular offers a respite for women whose other choices in romance reading usually don’t reflect Christian values. In reading God-honoring fiction during their leisure time, they are uplifted and see the example of characters living out Christian values. I love this!

          I realize that light fiction doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s why we have so many choices. To God be the glory!

          • Darlene Bocek July 14, 2016 at 8:00 am #

            I am glad I met and married my particular husband, too! 🙂 We often see believers here making poor choices, and living with the harsh consequences, as you say. It is truly a critical decision. Life-determining.

        • Elizabeth Maddrey July 14, 2016 at 8:05 am #


          Reality in the Christian life is being addressed by myself and other Indie writers, as well as some of the brave small presses. And we are finding that yes, there are Christian readers who crave tackling tough topics of Christian living today.

          So take heart, there’s an audience for these books. You just might not be able to reach them through a large press.

          • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 8:24 am #

            Good point, Elizabeth. Of course, I am speaking for how I see the market for writers seeking publication with a legacy publisher.

            Reality, though? A lot of Christians have/had courtships that could be written as romance novels. Mine was very romantic.

            Romance novels present obstacles to the couple’s romance, and romance novels (such as my character’s redemption from alcoholism) sometimes — even often — tackle tough topics.

            I just want to discourage readers from writing off all romance novels as frivolous. Far from it. 🙂

          • Darlene Bocek July 14, 2016 at 8:40 am #

            I realized the irony of my saying what I did in this post. “Defying the market.” That was the big no-no. It says effectively that you’re shooting yourself in the foot to not bend to the status quo. Geez. Hard realities.

            There is the business-mindset of the practical SALE of the book. And there is the ministry-mindset of the HEART-need of people out there, to find every need met in Christ. The essential problem is what people buy isn’t necessarily all they need. So do you write what will sell, or what they need? The goal is to do both, isn’t it? That’s the great challenge for Christian writers. Not to waste their time with junk fiction. Light reading doesn’t necessarily mean junk fiction. It depends on the end-product. Big themes without preachy preach.

            That’s the point of good Christian romance fiction, and the point of good Christian crisis fiction, that we as Christian writers have a higher responsibility than nonbeliever-writers. By the very fact of us being Christians, we must not waste our own lives even in what we produce with our moments, and we must stand before God to give account for how we impacted this world. To build up the church, not to just keep them occupied.

            We all want to do big things, don’t we. When even Jesus did his work one-by-one and word of mouth. Very indie.

            I picked up your Wisdom to Know book. Looks like what I’m talking about. I also liked Zach Bartels’ book Playing Saint (click on my name above for a review), especially because in the context of an out of control life the main character is finding his way through knowing Christ.

            Of course, Zach is a pastor. He’s got a pastor’s heart. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth.

            • Iola July 14, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

              “Crisis fiction”

              I like that term. I can’t see it ever being a genre on Amazon, but it describes a style of novel that needs to be written, published and read (although, as Elizabeth so rightly says, this might be through small press or indie publishing).

              But all any of us can ever write is what we’re called to write, and God has a different call for each of us. Some are called to write light entertainment for the choir. Some are called to challenge the choir. And some are called to write for those who aren’t part of the choir and don’t want to be.

        • Chaka Heinze July 15, 2016 at 8:09 am #


          I appreciated your thoughtful response. I struggle with the “hard” rules of Christian fiction. I know there is a market for the more light-hearted fiction, but one of my manuscripts is what I call “urban Christian fiction” and these rules seem to preclude the reality of what people of color growing up in the inner city are dealing with on a daily basis. I hope that some day the Christian market will rise up to meet the needs of readers who need the truth spoken into their lives via a reality they can relate to. I hope that some of the bigger publishers will be brave enough to embrace books written by Christians, not for a Christian audience, but for world-weary wanderers needing to hear that they are not beyond redemption’s call.

          • Darlene Bocek July 15, 2016 at 9:21 am #

            Chaka, thanks for your encouragement. I came across a great article (actually the transcript of a lecture) by Simon Mordon: Sex, Death & Christian Fiction lecture (http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/sex-death-and-christian-fiction/) He talks about the reasoning behind the CBA’s rules, as Tamela is bringing up.

            The CBA, he calls the “gatekeepers” of the industry. The rules of the market are actually written by the Aunt Marthas. Not because they are buying the books, but because they can get a book (and author and even publisher) blacklisted by enough complaints. Most of the Christian bookstores are CBA bookstores.

            In the end, if you want to publish and have your book available in the CBA bookstores, you have to fit the genre. You have to be “Safe reading.”

            I’m not in favor of having sex and drugs in my books. That’s not my complaint. In fact, the pressure in that direction took me off of writing a very interesting spy novel. I just have offense to their neglecting (or shunning) the alcohol-drinking Christian population. But they have to. I get it. Some people call it sin, so they can’t promote it. (I specifically remember a scene where Ben Hur is drinking wine, so I guess it wouldn’t make the cut today, either by CBA standards).

            The market is a false goal. We all know it. Of course when you’re in the industry, you walk within the guidelines. So having market in mind is essential or you won’t end up getting anyone to read your book, I guess.

            But, the market is not the goal. “If Luther and Calvin had written to the level of the people there would have been no Reformation” (Fikret Bocek). Our only goal must be Soli Deo Gloria. As we milk cows and drive a semi, as we change diapers and teach calculus. As we write. No one would disagree with me there. So within the parameters of our selling that book, we weigh the pros and cons of CBA goals with our own vision for our book.

            That’s what Simon Mordon and Tamela are both saying. Tamela’s blog article is why the “industry” is not picking up your book. She’s speaking CBA facts. Thank you for making it clear for us, Tamela.

            Chaka, I wonder if secular publishers would take an interest in urban Christian fiction? They seem to be pulling their chairs up into the other aspects of the Christian publishing industry.

  4. Shannon July 14, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    Curious about alcohol when it pertains to a definitive struggle a character is facing…and overcomes. Is this a “no no” in CBA? Or what about an antagonist with a drinking problem? Is the allusion to these types of things okay, but outright description is generally not? Thanks for the great post!

    • Darlene Bocek July 14, 2016 at 6:21 am #

      The false dependence and reliance on alcohol is a point ALL Christians would agree. I think that tapping into these kinds of issues actually shines light on what Christians want to shine light on in the first place. Which is: find your strength in God. I’d love to hear an agent’s take on this.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 7:07 am #

      Shannon, I once wrote a romance novel where a drunkard from a previous novel found redemption. So yes, there is a time and place for CBA fiction to address these struggles.

      By the same token, when I first started writing for CBA, one of my novels was rejected in large part because I opened with a party that took place in the 1920s. The negative consequences of the party’s excesses were the point of the book. But the editor didn’t want to witness the party, just the consequences.

      So, yes, of course you need to allude to the party or whatever; just don’t take your readers to the party.

      • Shannon July 14, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

        Thanks for the clarification, Tamela and Darlene!

  5. Joy Avery Melville July 14, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    As a story critiquer and line-by-line editor, I think the biggest thing that pops out at me is the REDUNDANCY issues. It takes LOTS OF WORDS from what can be a much deeper story to repeat the same thing many times within a novel.

  6. Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 7:11 am #

    Joy, I have done this myself as a writer. As I progress in creating thousands of words from day to day, I forget I already said that! I had to delete many a paragraph as a result.

    Reminders a few chapters later can help a reader. Being told every three pages that the hero has blue eyes — not so much.

    Good caution, thanks!

  7. Carol Ashby July 14, 2016 at 8:18 am #

    I know we’re supposed to write in deep POV where the reader feels like they are inside the character’s head, thinking their thoughts and being true to their fundamental natures.

    I write historical in a violent time period where human life had very little value. Through the eyes of my antagonists, some people are only barriers to be removed, and they do their best to remove them quickly and without a qualm. You don’t have to look very far today to see this is like many real people. How much effort should a writer expend in making such a person more “likable?” The humanizing parts don’t flow naturally from their actions in a tight plot. My husband suggested rescuing an injured bunny (to make into stew later), but that’s not the solution.

    Some of my protagonists have such deep faith they would die for it without flinching, and prayer is as natural as breathing. I had one judge in a Christian contest who complained that my believers actually pray in their italicized thoughts. The gist of the comment was “I get it; she prays, but don’t put me in her head when she does it.” What are your thoughts on portraying genuine faith in the thoughts and conversations of characters?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 8:35 am #

      Carol, I think any faith element needs to feel natural and organic to the character. I don’t mind reading prayers when that works for the story.

      Without reviewing your specific work, I speculate that you may be writing about anti-heroes. This type of character can actually be quite impressive in conveying a writer’s message, and can be engrossing when written well. Your characters are forced to do what they have to in order to survive, and there’s a lot to be said about examining that type of person through fiction.

      I review and market all types of fiction, but I must admit, the anti-hero is not my specialty. The romantic lead in a romance novel cannot be an anti-hero. He must be a hero. And a great deal of violence usually doesn’t occur in a romance novel, even a trade length one. Now I’ve opened up myself to having people list wonderful romance novels with lots of violence. And that’s okay. I don’t have enough time to read every book available. If only!

      My general advice is to concentrate on one or two characters and make them more human. Let the rest be what they will. Hope this helps.

      • Carol Ashby July 14, 2016 at 9:01 am #

        Thanks, Tamela.
        I do have a question. Why did you call the evil ones anti-heroes instead of villains? That seems to be the standard nomenclature, but why aren’t people driven by evil motivations called villains anymore?

        • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 9:15 am #

          Carol, judging from your post, you seemed to say that the protagonists live harshly, and you didn’t mention any upright characters. I only detected devout (and not-so-devout) people murdering others. An anti-hero is a main character, hence my designation. A villain is a foil to an upright character. You seem to be drawing characters that don’t fall well into either the good or evil camp. Instead, their bad actions are motivated by the need to survive. Tony Soprano, a fictional mob boss, is often cited as an anti-hero, if that helps.

  8. Carol Ashby July 14, 2016 at 9:21 am #

    Thanks for the clarification. That helps a lot. I guess my bad ones are anti-heroes because they play major POV roles. They aren’t trying to survive, however. They are trying to become even more successful, as they define success.
    My heroes might have to kill , but they never murder.

  9. Linda Riggs Mayfield July 14, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    I think a common mistake is thinking one’s own literary voice must also be the voice of the characters in fiction. I work very hard to give each character an identifiable voice that is realistic and not stereotypical, without using so many weird spellings of accents’ pronunciations that the reader has to sound out what was being said in order to figure out the meaning. Most of us have our own speaking idiosyncrasies, like adding “Ya know?” after every third or fourth sentence, or using a favored word like, “Well,…” to start sentences, or ending with “in” instead of “ing” sounds. My husband often hesitates so long before answering a question that I ask, “Are you thinking about it?” Yup. He is. Part of his charm. 🙂 I strive to have dialogue so true to character that anyone reading it could tell who was speaking, even if I didn’t include, “…said Jane,” or “…John replied.”

    I always enjoy your posts and the challenges posed by the questions you ask us.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 14, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      Linda, that’s a good point. And another good reason why it’s helpful to read your manuscript aloud to yourself — to hear these distinctions and see how they’re working.

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee July 14, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    Thanks for the information, Tamela. I started my book in the wrong place, got rejected, and then flipped the book around. It makes more sense to start in the middle of where I was before and it works much better.

  11. Loretta Eidson July 14, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    I love the fact that we can learn through blog posts. I received a critique from a contest one time where one of the judges was so thorough with his critique that he rearranged or changed almost every sentence of my first three chapters. As much as I appreciated the time he spent working through those pages, I realized his way with words weren’t my way with words. I was losing my voice and my style of writing. I quickly backtracked and refocused. My resolution was to read and study his suggestions, then utilize the ones I felt was applicable to me, my story, and my voice. I love good, informational critiques that help me grow as a writer.

  12. Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux July 14, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    Loretta, my editor did the same kind of line editing in my first published novel. At first, I was quietly set aback (like you, I thought that she was “messing with my voice”) , but then I took a good overall look at what she had done and discovered she had tightened the writing as well as put it into deep 3rd person point of view. Frankly, she trimmed 2000 words off a 70,000 word manuscript. I put my trust in her, since she represents my publisher and my publisher knows what their readers want. I accepted all changes she proposed. Furthermore, I learned from her editing skills and implemented them into my second manuscript. By doing so, my writing has markedly improved. My beta readers and critiquers are telling me that my writing is more professional, more polished.

    Just a thought. God bless you in your writing career.

  13. Beverly Brooks July 14, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Ahhhh a blog by a professional that helped and then started the conversation. I love it!!

    My two cents for helpful … reading other authors always … and learning to pace a story.

    Sometimes in my chase to keep adrenaline high and interest charged … alas my reader could fall to the floor in need of a breath.

    I enjoyed all the comments and examples this time – favorite suggestion – read aloud … so true!

  14. Lois July 15, 2016 at 9:54 am #

    Tamela, thank you for your helpful comments! One issue came up which concerns me. I’m working on a trilogy that runs from the 1850s to 1890s. It’s deeply researched and uses the more formal language and manners of the time. While there’s a dash of colorful speech from mountain men and town folk, I fear that using the language of the time might cause some to find my work stilted. What would you advise?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 18, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

      Lois, I think you can strike a balance by showing more formal language and still maintaining readability. If you find yourself having to read your own sentences twice, see if there’s a way to make those passages more friendly to readers. Also, look to authors you feel are doing this well and don’t feel or sound stilted, and use their example. Hope these ideas help!

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