Any writer who’s been at this for a while knows that that there’s a long and increasingly steep learning curve involved with mastering the art of crafting a professional novel.
Good writers who’ve been at this for a while can also spot, instantly, flaws in another’s narrative.
But we have trouble seeing our own, don’t we? And our failure to see and correct our own faults earn us what happens to workshoppers in literary agent Kristin Nelson’s writers conference workshops (called the Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop).
So here’s Kristin’s workshop, “Agent Reads the Slush Pile:” a writer reads aloud from the opening page of a manuscript. Kristin simulates what happens when she reads submissions at her agency by saying “stop” when she would not have continued reading. She then explains why.
Keep in mind that each narrative opening that Kirstin critiques has, and there’s no doubt in my mind, been arduously worked and reworked until the writer felt that it was going to earn a giant “YES!” when Kristin read it.
That’s the anticipation we all have when we send our work to a critique partner, an agent, an editor—it will work! Oh, we may say out loud that we have no expectations of success, but, be honest, isn’t that “yes” not only what we want to hear, but think is entirely possible?
In Kristin’s most recent workshop, only one entry made it past page 1. For the majority of the rest, she said stop after the first 2 paragraphs.
The first 2 paragraphs.
I can tell you that happens with the submissions to my blog, Flogging the Quill. It only takes about that much reading to spot the ones I’m not going to read further. Of the more than 450 submissions I’ve had so far, while quite a few passed the “turn the page” test, not more than 10 had what I considered professional-caliber writing.
Kristin, in her blog post about this, listed the culprits that stop her from reading further. My list is much the same.
1. Telling instead of showing.
2. Including unnecessary back story.
3. Loose sentence structure that could easily be tightened
4. The use of passive sentence construction.
5. Awkward introduction of character appearance.
6. Awkward descriptions/overly flowery language to depict.
7. Starting the story in the wrong place.
8. Not quite nailing voice in the opening.
9. Dialogue that didn’t quite work as hard as it should.
10. A lack of scene tension even if the opening was supposed to be dramatic.
Kristen is kind enough to say that these are mechanics that a beginning writer can learn to correct. But, she says, you have to be fearless. And the only way to learn is through a strong critique that points out your issues.
Would these writers have submitted their work if they’d had professional-level criticism? If those culprits showed up in the critique, I bet no.
If only we really did have extra eyes in the backs of our heads
“Fresh eyes” is the one way to get to see our writing’s flaws before we put it out there and have it, well, rejected. Maybe if we had a second pair of eyes in the backs of our heads that didn’t connect with our throbbing, hopeful writer’s hearts we could gain the insights we need. We could see how low on the learning curve we were.
Moral of story:
Get some extra brains to help roll you further up your learning curve. I’ve had the extremely good fortune to be in critique groups that had wise, savvy fresh eyes. There were two partners in particular that opened my vision to flaws and solutions.
Find a group, or at least a partner. It should be someone who understands what writing a novel means. Where? Try the library, or bookstores.
You may be in a group where some writers are not at your level, and never will be. Their advice may sound goofy to you at first glance. But listen anyway. In the groups I was in, every criticism, whether I liked or believed it or not, made me look again. There’s often a kernel of truth within the chaff that you hear.
Lastly, if you’re serious about achieving an agent or publication, give real thought to engaging a professional editor for a critique before you submit to agents. I’m a professional editor, and that’s what I did before publishing my new novel, We the Enemy.
For what it’s worth.