“So give me something to believe
Cause I am living just to breathe
And I need something more
To keep on breathing for
So give me something to believe”
- Samuel Bingham Endicott, Song “Believe” The Bravery
I’ve been inhaling books and agents’ blogs to find out what to do and, more importantly, what not to do when writing and submitting. When I send a query, and sometimes a synopsis and pages of the manuscript, I’m not provided with any feedback as to what I’ve done wrong.
Most rejections provide vague responses:
“Not right for our list.”
“Doesn’t suit our present needs.”
“I’m sure another publisher will feel differently.”
These comments don’t do anything for morale or improve queries and writing. Then I recently read a post that said all rejection letters are lies, and not to believe a word. That is NOT helpful.
Everyone recommends critique groups. But join a group of four and I’ll get four different types of advice, pulling me in different directions. Who is right? Who is wrong? A manuscript exchange partner limits the comments and the perspective, but is that better or worse? Go to conferences and do a critique round table on first pages and there’s some valuable advice, but as with regular critique groups, the comments are all over the place, and if I’m not jazzed by their writing, how can I trust their feedback?
A professional critique is the answer! For the last two years, I’ve utilized that option, with its negligible expense at conferences. This has been helpful, but then after I make improvements that person isn’t there to give me more feedback. I could hire someone, but that’s a significant expense; it may cost as much as my first advance, without guaranteeing one.
Now I’m reading, Hooked by Les Edgerton, which is all about inciting incidents, story worthy problems, and the like. It’s made me look at all my manuscripts in a different light, which is great… but… as I change them, how do I know I’m heading in the right direction?
Worse, is that, like Edgerton, these agent sites and blogs state, “Don’t do this, unless you are (Fill in the famous author who did do it successfully).” How do I know if I’m good enough to do it or should I err on the side of I’m not worthy? During my first conference, I actually heard an agent tell a writer, “Don’t write in rhyme, unless it’s done well.” Is proper prose in the eye of the beholder?
But not all feedback gives mixed messages. This is what I’ve learned (And most of these are crimes I’ve committed):
- With the tight economy, more and more agents and publishers only
want a query, so it better be an intriguing premise and flawlessly written
in order for anything additional to be requested.
- Don’t begin with a character waking up*. (Oops!)
- Only provide as much back-story in the opening scene as is required
to fill in the reader.
- Only provide details of scenery or weather unless it adds something to
- Don’t be over-expositional.
- Don’t be cliché.
- Show and not tell – keep the character engaged in action, rather than
thought as much as possible.
- Foreshadowing and tension must be present in the opening.
- Keep flashbacks to a minimum.
- Don’t do a preface as a way to sneak in back-story.
- Don’t spell everything out for the reader – give the reader credit and
keep some mystery.
- Your character must grow as a person from chapter to chapter and
from beginning to end.
- Novel recipe: create a baseline for your character, add an
inciting incident, work your way up to the climax, and bring the
protagonist back to baseline, but a better baseline than in the beginning
(And don’t drag the story after the climax).
- Vary the lengths of sentences and paragraphs.
- Your manuscript must be error-free upon submission. Seems obvious,
but it’s easy to make a few errors with 43,000 words, even when others
edit it. How many published books do you read that still have a typo or
- If the writing doesn’t immediately draw the agents or publishers in,
they won’t read past the first page, so make it good.
Not at all daunting.
It’s my fault for not taking writing more seriously when I was younger that I have to learn this now. In high school, I paid attention to what I found interesting, glossing over the less glamorous lessons on grammar. In college, except for one Creative Writing course, I didn’t develop the craft of writing. Then I waited fifteen years from the time I took that class to begin writing seriously. Now I am reading and writing every spare minute I can snatch. I'm striving to be the best writer I can be.
*Read an excellent article, “Fix Your Beginning”. Continue on in the comments section to see me get reprimanded: