Every so often, us folks at Writer’s Digest throw our doors open for intensives (think blitzkrieg weekend conferences). Writers come from around the U.S. to check out the events, which include craft and career sessions, a mixer for writers and editors, and perhaps the key perk for attendees, a critique of the first 50 pages of their books. (Alongside, of course, the experience of Cincinnati’s overly sweet, eyebrow-raising signature chili.)
Now, while any critique is subjective, we try to give each writer a good sense of whether or not the first chunk of his/her book is ready to be submitted to an agent or editor. With the next intensive coming up this weekend, I’ve been looking over notes from the last few, and have pooled a small list of hang-ups from the “Why I Stop Reading” panels where the editors discuss, well, why publishing reps might have stopped reading.
Why might they have given up?
• The information dump. Avoid introducing an unmanageable load of characters, or unloading an epic amount of backstory. Rather than offering a summary, delve deeper into moments and let scenes breathe. Also, be wary of flashbacks too early in a piece.
• “Show, Don’t Tell.” While it’s often overused, the familiar writing adage can still ring true. Instead of rehashing how a character feels, frame them in action and let us discover it for ourselves.
• The usual suspects: Waking to an alarm clock; starting with the weather; revealing that your first scene was only a dream; providing overly thorough physical descriptions, clichés or wild grammar; fluctuating tense and point of view.
• A surplus of jargon early on. Be it scientific or technical, consider trimming it to free your prose and bring the people in the scene to the forefront.
• False starts. Should the piece have begun 30 pages in, when it took on a life of its own and hit its groove? To give the early pages the life found later in the manuscript, perhaps cut extraneous material or reincorporate it later.
• The need for side action/any action. If you’re stuck in long passages of dialogue or backstory and are losing a sense of life in the piece, add side action. Sometimes it takes a familiar dog growling nearby, a barroom brawl, a proverbial dollar bill dangling out of the pocket of a thief who has bumped into an old acquaintance while fleeing a crime, etc., to frame chunks of dialogue/story in a new way.
• A surplus of adjectives and adverbs. (Yeah, I know, I’m guilty of it on a daily basis. But still.)
If you have a free weekend and are looking to get out of town, consider trekking to Cincinnati for the intensive. They’re fun, and a great literary escape from the holiday chaos. This weekend’s event is set to include presentations on landing literary agents, succeeding as a writer in a transformational time, using social networks to further your career, and more. If you come, bring your manuscript—and consider bringing some of your own chili in case you don’t like ours.
Update: Courtesy of WD's publisher, use code "Eetweet" to save $25 off registration.
WRITING PROMPT: Lowering the Ears
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
It started out as a haircut, but something happened.