So I'm going to list the most commonly occurring problems, and then I'll save the BIG PROBLEM for last. I think it might surprise you (unless you, yanno, scroll ahead to the end of the post).
1. STARTING WITH ACTION INSTEAD OF CONFLICT OR CHANGE
This remains the most prevalent--and frustrating--problem we've encountered. I blame the hundreds of online resources that urge writers to "start with action!" or "start with excitement!". Of course, I also blame the writers for not further investigating what these well-meaning resources are actually saying.
Here's the TRUTH: It's INHERENT CONFLICT that keeps a reader reading. And "conflict" is not synonymous with "action". If I've just met your MC for the first time, and she's jumping off a cliff or smashing her car into a tree or shooting somebody or lying on the ground bleeding from every orifice, I'm not going to care a whole lot about why. I need a reason to be invested in your character BEFORE she's bleeding or running or crashing or killing.
In these instances, Jodi and I often made the note, "starting at the wrong place". Which means, the writing may not have been bad at all, and the idea might've been awfully good, but it was impossible to jump into the action the way it was presented.
It was too much, too soon.
2. CRAMMING TOO MUCH INTO THE FIRST PAGE
This is closely related to #1, since all that action is too much to handle when we have no idea about characters or setting. But it can also mean, simply, that too much is going on -- too much description, too much backstory, too much exposition, too much action. It's simply TOO MUCH for an opening page.
3. NO GROUNDING
This means, "We have no idea what's going on here." And this, too, is related to #1. Opening paragraphs need to provide us with a clear sense of WHERE and WHEN we are, as well as WHO we're dealing with and WHAT is happening. If your opening pages are all about the WHAT, and nothing much about the WHERE, WHEN, and WHO, then nobody is going to really understand what's going on. Except you, of course. And that's what we mean when we say, "This is too much in the author's head." You've got to get it out of your head and onto the paper.
4. LOGLINES THAT ARE TOO LONG
5. LOGLINES THAT AREN'T LOGLINES
A disclaimer about #4 and #5: Writing trumps loglines. Always. As in, ALWAYS. So if your logline was a real humdinger, you might've garnered a "yes", anyway. Because WE LOVE GOOD WRITING.
But honestly? It's important to be able to encapsulate your story in a strong logline. And some of the loglines were WAY TOO LONG. As in, blah blah blah and we had no idea what was supposed to be going on.
Also? Some of the loglines weren't, in fact, loglines at all. Some might be called "taglines", which are those nifty little things you see beneath the title on some books (lots of YA books seem to do this). And some were...well, we don't know what they were, really. But they weren't loglines.
6. FIRST PAGE DOESN'T MOVE
This is the opposite of "too much going on". Sometimes characters were simply thinking about things. Sometimes it was all exposition. While it's a good idea to establish setting, a first page still has to MOVE FORWARD. And that's why it's important to focus on inherent conflict or change. If we're sitting on a hill of daffodils for 250 words, and the only thing that happens is the protagonist's deep sigh, there's nothing that will compel the reader to turn the page.
7. WRITING ABOUT THINGS YOU HAVEN'T THOROUGHLY RESEARCHED
There will always be readers who won't be able to tell whether or not the author really understands synchronized swimming or quantum physics or snake charming. (I've made these up, by the way; none of the entries were actually about these things.) But if you are writing about something you've never done, or have only heard about, or are not an expert at, and if you do not thoroughly research your subject matter, SOMEONE EVENTUALLY WILL NOTICE.
So if you're going to write about, say, music, and you maybe know a little about music, but not enough to write about, say, a gifted musician, or a music teacher, or a music school -- JODI AND I WILL KNOW. Because we're both musicians. And I've got my degree in music education.
And, yes. THESE THINGS SHOW. Actually, these things make my stomach drop. Because I am thrown immediately and completely out of a story if I get the slightest inkling that the author doesn't really understand the subject matter.
This happens. It really does. And it's an immediate "no" from both of us.
This comes in two flavors: a) Calling it YA but giving it an MG voice, or calling it MG and giving it a YA voice; and b) Calling it YA or MG, but the age of the protagonist is wrong for what you've chosen. (For the record: 13 is generally tops for MG, though 14 can be considered "upper MG". 15 to 18 is YA.)
And now, a drum roll, please...
THE DISTURBINGLY COMMON PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED
Are you ready for this?
It's NOT KNOWING YOUR GENRE.
Seriously. We had A RIDICULOUSLY HIGH AMOUNT OF ENTRIES WITH NO GENRE LISTED, and AN EQUALLY RIDICULOUSLY HIGH AMOUNT OF ENTRIES WITH MADE-UP GENRES OR MIXED GENRES.
Let me go through some examples off the top of my head:
People -- THIS IS NOT A GENRE. THIS IS A CATEGORY. Is it YA Romance? YA Paranormal? YA Contemporary? You have to have some idea of what kind of story you've written, yes? Like, if it has ghosts in it, it's probably a paranormal. If the MC is trying to solve a murder, then it's likely a mystery. So CALL IT WHAT IT IS.
And THIS IS NOT THE ANSWER. Of COURSE it's fiction -- ALL NOVELS ARE FICTION. Please -- PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE -- know what you are writing!
YOUNG ADULT/MIDDLE GRADE
Um, no. It is either YA or MG. IT CANNOT BE BOTH. Also? IT STILL NEEDS A GENRE.
You know, this really isn't a genre, either. It's a politically correct tag to help categorize stories about non-western cultures. If yours is a multicultural story, WE WILL KNOW. Like, if your protagonist's name is Yin Lee and she takes her shoes off before entering the house, it'll probably scream ASIAN. We still need to know WHAT YIN LEE'S STORY IS ABOUT. Is it a historical fantasy? A contemporary? KNOW YOUR GENRE. It's not about the color of your protagonist's skin.
And I'm not going to list any of the made-up genres, because I don't want to embarrass anybody. Instead, I'll make up my own, to give you an idea what I'm talking about:
UPPER/LOWER MG HISTORICAL MYSTERY ADVENTURE
YA DIESELPUNK SF ROMANCE w/ MAGICAL REALISM ELEMENTS
GENDERLESS ADVENTURE SERIES
FICTION WITH NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR, CAMOUFLAGED AS THE MC'S DREAMS
You get the idea. Folks -- you have SO MANY WONDERFUL AND CREATIVE IDEAS. You've simply got to figure out WHAT GENRE THEY BELONG UNDER. Read other books like yours, find out where they're shelved in bookstores, see what categories they're listed under on Amazon and other online retailers. In short, DO YOUR RESEARCH.
It doesn't bode well for an entry if the author doesn't seem to know what he or she is writing.
This was not a show-stopper, either, by the way. Writing trumps genre problems, too. But it was a prevalent enough problem that Jodi and I both wanted to address it publicly. Because WE CARE ABOUT YOUR WRITING and WE WANT YOU TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD.
And there you have it! Hopefully some of you will benefit from this information.
Because it's all about continuing to grow...to learn...to move forward. With maybe a little chocolate thrown in for good measure.
I really do care, dear ones. And I hope nobody feels picked on. I'm not the picking-on sort.