Sunday, March 28, 2010
SECRETS OF THE SLUSH PILE ... and Giveaway!
Groan ... The dreaded slush pile -- that black hole in editors' offices where all the missing socks in the world can be found.
Julie here, and I ask you -- wouldn't it be wonderful if we could scale that paper mountain and get our manuscripts to the top of an editor's "to do" list?
Well ... today is your lucky day, because we have as our guest a bona fide "reader" for Harlequin who is ready and willing to let you in on a few of the secrets of that notorious slush pile.
So without further ado, please welcome my very good friend, Patty Smith Hall, a Southern gal with a riverboat-load of charm and a genuine drawl that takes me back to the Old South. Take it away, Patty ...
Thanks, ladies for having me on Seekerville today. I’ve got to tell you; I’m a little in awe of this group of talented ladies. Their morning posts always leave me thinking of how I can improve as a writer while making me grin at the start of my day.
Today, I want to share some tips I’ve learned while working as a first reader for Harlequin over the past three years. If you’re not sure what a first reader is, I’m one of the people who help editors weed through those legendary slush piles by reading a manuscript and evaluating it for further consideration.
Being a first reader is a wonderful learning opportunity, but it’s also a huge responsibility. Making the decision to reject someone’s work is extremely difficult, so I approach each manuscript I’m assigned with a prayerful heart.
So what are a few of the biggest problems in manuscripts I see as a first reader?
‘Dramatic conflict is the stuff of a good story.’
Ron Benrey, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction
Everyone loves a happy ending, especially in a romance. And I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s that much sweeter when the hero and heroine both go through an emotionally charged situation that tests their ideas of who they truly are. As they fall in love with each other, we, as readers, enjoy ‘falling in love’ with them. We become invested in their particular story.
In the manuscripts I’ve evaluated and had to eventually reject, the conflict hasn’t been properly developed or in a few cases, not developed at all.
The first example of this is when a story is built around an external conflict. For example, let’s take a hero from the wrong side of the railroad tracks while the heroine is a sheltered young woman from a ‘good’ family. While this is a tried and true plot line, if the only thing keeping this couple apart is the 12:30 Amtrak rolling through town, the reader is going to be yelling “MOVE THAT TRAIN!”
In cases like this, the author didn’t get to the character’s motivation or the hero/heroines ‘why’ as Laurie Schnebly calls in her class, Plot via Motivation. Why is the hero letting the train tracks keep him from the girl of his dreams? Is it because he feels inferior socially? Or does he know that his father is a member of the heroine’s social structure and is holding true to his mother’s memory by staying away from 'those people?' Or does he feel responsible for his father’s money woes because of his wild teenage ways? When a writer gets to the last 'why' question and can’t come up with an answer, that’s the beginning of understanding your character’s internal motivation that will unlock the real conflict of your story.
Another problem I’ve seen in submissions is the failure to introduce any conflict until the last half of the book. In several manuscripts I evaluated, everything would be going along at a slow, sunshine and roses pace when BAM! A conflict would pop up in the last fifty pages almost like an afterthought. Sorry, but that thing doesn’t cut it with most readers(or editors for that matter). Conflict should be on that first page if possible, or at least, by the end of the first chapter.
A situation that comes up less frequently is the inclusion of several conflicts that muddy the waters of the story. In one story I read, the heroine had five competing struggles. Any one of them would have made for a compelling story, but five! Maybe I’m not that bright, but when a writer pushes five conflicts together in a 250-300 page novel, it just made me want to cry, “Pick one! Just one!”
A few other thoughts on conflict:
a) Every scene should build on the conflict to reach its satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, it’s time to consider the delete key, no matter how painful it may be.
b) The conflict in your story should last to the very last page. I’ve read several great manuscripts that I’ve had to reject because the conflict was resolved at the 2/3rd point. If the last 75-100 pages don’t build to the conflict, delete, delete, delete!
c) If a conflict can be cleared up with one conversation, then it’s not enough to carry a 250-300 page book.
Finally—never, ever, EVER end your story without resolving the conflict. I don’t know about you, but nothing frustrates me more that getting to the end of a book, waiting for that happy ending and having the author leave me hanging. When a writer leaves the conflict unresolved, they’ve broken a trust with their readers. Like most broken relationships, it takes a lot of work to build up that bond up again.
“You have one major and overriding goal when it comes to characterization: Make the reader fall in love with your hero and heroine.” Julie Beard, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Jo and Laurie. Rhett and Scarlett. Timeless couples that most of us know and love. As writers, we want to create characters that stay with our readers long after they’ve finished that last page.
Characterization is a big problem in manuscripts I’ve evaluated. One of the most common situations is allowing your character to keep the reader at arms’ length. Readers have to have an emotional connection with your characters, but that’s difficult to do if the writer isn’t quite sure of what emotion their hero/heroine is feeling in any given situation. Characterization charts are great tools to use because the more you know your character, the more your reader will.
Speaking about characterization charts—it’s a good idea to do one on all the characters in your book. Secondary characters need to be fleshed out. Think of it this way—when my kids were growing up, I always knew how things were going for my girls by looking at the people they hung out with. Same thing goes for our characters. Secondary characters add flavor to a story, and you never know when one of them might yell for a plotline of their own.
Another thing—don’t make your characters too good or too bad to be believable. We’ve all got flaws, and our characters should have them too. Enough said!
3) Passive Writing:
"Active Writing minces no words. It calls attention directly to responsible agents, stating clearly what they do and how they affect their surroundings. Passive writing wastes words." Peter Denning, On Active and Passive Writing
Passive writing is a huge problem in rejected manuscripts because the writer is telling their story rather than showing it happening in real time. It’s like comparing a movie to photographs—a movie draws you into the action, gets you involved, while pictures may need an explanation. Make your story into a movie with a private showing in your reader’s head.
What are the two biggest symptoms of passive writing?
a) The use of words like was, were, had, have, is, are.
b) Adverbs that end in ly like hopefully, gracefully, peevishly, scornfully.
Strong verbs make for more active writing. A great tool for finding strong verbs is a Flip Dictionary which you can find on Amazon for as little as $3.
There is a time and place for passive writing because let’s face it, if we didn’t use it, our books would be the size of ‘War and Peace.’ But in action scenes, use active words.
4) Inconsistencies/Following Publisher Guidelines:
"Guidelines are not merely suggestions." Patty Smith Hall
Okay, so I threw in this last quote, but it’s true. Publisher’s guidelines can be found on every single publisher’s website and should be read before submitting. You can have a great manuscript, but if it’s single-spaced and written in 8 font script, the eyestrain may cause the editor or first reader to put it down. Most publishing houses require Times New Roman or Courier New in an 11 point font, double spaced. In the header, remember to put your last name, title of your manuscript and page number.
Nothing can take me out of a story quicker than an event or a plot point that I know isn’t possible. For example, if you’re writing a World War II story about female pilots, you’d better know that they were considered civilian volunteers and weren’t given military rank. Our readers come from all walks of life with experiences in everything under the sun. They KNOW when the writer gets something wrong. The Internet has made research a snap. So check your facts because if you don’t, someone else will.
I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have or just leave a comment to be entered into a drawing to win a May online class with Laurie Schnebly, Revision Heaven.
And good luck ... both in this giveaway contest AND with your escape from that pesky slush pile!