Deborah Raney’s four day Fiction workshop at Mt. Hermon this year was amazing. Delightful and engaging, she leaves you wanting more, excited for tomorrow’s class. The first session discussed five ways to stay out of the slush pile.
Don’t Abuse Adjectives and Adverbs
When I first spotted the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I was shocked that a publisher would allow a title with not one, but two “ly” words on the cover. On the cover? Manuscripts have been rejected by agents and editors for “ly” words showing up in the second paragraph.
Much as that offended my sense of literary edict, well-established author Jonathan Safran Foer and his publishing house Houghton-Mifflin did just that. And it worked. For the rest of us, two “ly” words in your working title, not to mention your manuscript, isn’t a good idea.
Here’s a great example sentence from Deborah Raney.
“He slowly knelt down to retrieve the coin.”
You don’t need slowly, as it’s hard to kneel any other way. If you kneel fast, you’re falling. You don’t need down, because it’s impossible to kneel “up”.
This sentence packs more power by saying, “He knelt to retrieve the coin.”
If you want to further the visual, say it like this: “Looking every one of his eighty-seven years, he steadied himself on the low iron railing and knelt to retrieve the coin.”
See how much better that sounds? Strong verbs make your sentences sing. Never use walked quickly when you could use dashed, scampered or scurried.
Avoid POV Mistakes
Stay in one person’s head—no head-hopping. Make sure your character’s unique vocabulary, background and personality shine through. Davis Bunn suggests you write dialogue from each character on index cards, mix them up and throw them on the floor. There should be no question who’s speaking when they’re reassembled.
For example, here’s how three of my characters in Collide would comment on a headache.
Kate, 26, journalist “My headache’s killer.”
Marco, 31, English/Italian detective: “I’ve a bloody headache.”
Jill, 49, interior designer “I feel a migraine coming on.”
This is simplified, but you get the point.
Show Don’t Tell.
Some telling is okay, when it moves the story along. But be aware editors and agents look at the “white space” on the page, which clues them you are using dialogue and not page after page of telling. Think cinematic. Would the chapter make a good shoot in a movie scene? Have your characters talk to each other, using your six senses to describe surroundings that you interweave in between.
No Talking Heads
Make the context clear. Deborah gave a great example of reading a story about two people engaged in a heavy conversation. Then BOOM – a semi hits them head on. She was thrown off track, because for several pages she thought they were in a coffee shop, not a car! Make sure you clue your reader as to where they are.
Don’t Start in the Wrong Place
Start with action or moments before there’s a dramatic life change. James Scott Bell, in his book Plot and Structure, talks about opening with a named character in motion. He cites Midnight, by Dean Koontz, as a great example:
“Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.”
From this first sentence, we know her name, and that she’s running at night. Already I’m hooked, knowing something horrible is going to happen to her.
Start with the right character. A fellow writer told me her book finally gained traction after she killed the first 70 pages. It seems cruel, but murdering the little darlings may be necessary.
Weave backstory in a bit at a time. The rule on backstory is no big chunks for the first 30 pages. The exception is writing in first person present—backstory can be woven in, but with great finesse. See Ginny Yttrup’s novel WORDS, where it’s done to perfection.
And there you have it. Staying out of the slush pile takes time and effort. I love William Zinsser’s quote: “Writing improves in direct ratio to the things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
Now go finish that masterpiece.