Friday, April 23, 2010

Nail that First Impression

This is how I envision an agent or publisher as he or she faces the morning slush pile. I didn't always think of them in that light. I preferred thinking they bee-bopped in with coffee in hand, eager to rip open envelopes and find beautiful gems to publish. However, after having judged several contests ranging from short stories to essays to novels and memoirs, I understand how one gets tainted . . . calloused . . . skeptical.

When you face a stack of 50 manuscripts per month or 100 queries per day, how do you cull the herd?

When faced with a mountain of manuscripts or even synopses, how do they plow through all those stories? Moreso, how do they note the good ones when they are cross-eyed and irritable from so many bad to mediocre works?

Remember all those little snippets of advice you've heard at conferences, read in Writer's Digest Magazine and studied on agent websites? They weren't lying. Read those lessons again.

1. The opening paragraph has to bite, grab, entice and win over the reader. I don't care if it's a synopsis, query letter, chapter or short story. It - has - to - make - a - great - first - impression.

2. Watch the passive voice. When a piece of writing has made the effort to avoid passive voice and exercised more of those beautiful other choices for verbs, the reading is so much sweeter.

3. Most prologues are simply backstory or the lazy way to insert information without having to think hard about weaving it into the plot itself. Prologues rarely work.

4. Make the dialogue real.

5. No backstory, even if it's sci-fi and you've created an entire universe. Info-dumping turns off a reader faster than a light switch.

6. Develop your voice. So many submissions sound benign. The phrasing is not original, lacking a unique style. If you aren't sure you have discovered your voice, then you probably haven't. Don't submit until you  know what it is.

I could go on and on. But you know those rules. Too many writers think they don't apply to them. Truth is . . . you have to know the rules well in order to break them and pull it off. There are no short cuts. Study your profession.

Last year I had to judge 40 novels for a competition. I limited myself to two per day to give them justice. That's when I developed a new sympathetic heart for agents, editors and publishers. Remember . . . when someone reads your work for the first time, you embed a lasting impression of your work and your abilities. If that work is premature, you lessen your chances of acceptance then and in the future. I remember names of writers now . . . names I never want to read again.

Don't judge me harshly. I want to see you  published. I just don't want to see you published before you're ready.


Susan said...

Thanks for the reminders, Hope. Very helpful. Sincerely, Susan

Carol J. Alexander said...

Thanks, Hope. I want to know--how do you make something that sounds like a lecture sound so encouraging at the same time?

Hope Clark said...

LOL - I've had people tell me I tend to lecture. Fact is, I do care about these things, so while I lecture, I hope to make a difference and help someone. Hopefully that comes through in my words. I'm considered a tough nut in some circles, a wuss in others. I do the best I can in the manner God gave me to do it with. Thanks - that was a cool post, Carol.

Suzy Turner said...

Really useful stuff, Hope... thank you for sharing it with us wannabe authors!