Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Post-Conference Show and Tell: Conference Take-Away #3

Guest Blogger: Laura Bridgwater

I returned home from the 2009 Northern Colorado Writers conference inspired to write and chomping at the Bic. I also returned to an empty fridge, a dirty house, and piles of paperwork. So while I’ve been plowing through the chores, I’ve been mulling over what I learned at the conference. Chores are good for pondering!

One of my favorite sessions was called “Agents Read the Slush Pile.” This session allowed participants to get an insider’s peek at what two agents were thinking about the opening pages of a submitted novel. A reader read aloud the pages, allowing the author to remain anonymous and the audience to listen.

Jessica Faust, the literary agent and cofounder of BookEnds Literary Agency, and Jon Sternfeld, a literary agent with the Irene Goodman Agency, shared their reasons for why they would stop or keep reading each manuscript. After listening to the first two pages of 30 manuscripts, I realized that many writers make the same mistakes.

Here’s a slush pile-inspired Top Ten List of Reasons a Manuscript Gets Rejected:

10. Overdone description that doesn’t move the story forward
9. Spoon-feeding the reader what the character is thinking
8. Having the characters address each other repeatedly by name, as in, “John, let’s go!”
7. Introducing a character with first and last name, as in, “John Smith entered the room.”
6. Beginning a story with dialogue
5. Opening with a cliché
4. Yanking the reader out of the action with backstory
3. Not giving the reader a sense of place or where the story is going
2. Characters are MIA until bottom of page 2

( Drumroll please)

The #1 reason that most writers get a rejection slip?

1. Telling instead of showing

Writers who did a good job of showing in their manuscripts drew us into their world with specifics. If you attended this slush pile session, I bet you can still smell the salmon and the canned corn in the dead mother’s house. Likewise, can you remember any of the manuscripts that used too much telling? I can’t. Telling isn’t memorable.

The idea of showing versus telling was reiterated in other sessions, too.

In Laura Resau’s excellent session called Creating Vivid Worlds, we smelled cinnamon, lavender, and other odors to rev our senses. Resau then discussed the importance of using the five senses to show what is happening in a story. She recommended that writers write about the five senses daily in their journal so that including the five senses becomes a habit.

I seized the moment in class and wrote about her.

First, I wrote a description that tells: Resau was a petite, energetic woman with a background in anthropological field work.

Can you picture her? Probably not.

But when I used the five senses (well, not the senses of smell or taste because that would have been creepy) to write a description that shows, here’s what I jotted down:

Resau wore a loose blue cotton shirt that draped over her faded red corduroy pants. Her knee-high tan suede boots with leather cording matched the color of her long wavy hair. A single, thin, black elastic hair band flew up and down her forearm as she gestured with her hands. Her dangling earrings jangled as she turned back and forth from the overhead to address the group of writers. Smiling widely, she shared details about undressing in front of an ancient spiritual healer in the rural mountains of Mexico.

Can you see her now?

As Chris Ransick, Denver’s Poet Laureate, said in his keynote speech on Friday evening, “People are defenseless against imagery.”

Resau shared that all writers, herself included, struggle with showing versus telling. I appreciated her admission. It helped me to silence my inner critic because if my Bic had it’s way, it would tell over show most days. Hopefully, if I invoke the five senses daily in my writing, I will teach my old Bic new tricks.

We go to writing conferences to learn something new and to share our knowledge with other writers. My personal lesson from this year’s conference was to get another step closer to showing instead of telling. It just took the smell of bleach, the white noise of the vacuum cleaner, and the dankness of a worn-out string mop at home to make me realize it.

Read Laura's other guest post from the conference on Breaking the Rules.

Bio: Laura Bridgwater is a freelance writer, radio commentator, and member of Northern Colorado Writers. She can be reached at


Monica said...

I see all ten of these things done regularly in published work.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised at #7. Why is mentioning a first and last name of a character a reason for rejection?

A Mama's Rant said...

Kerrie got Laura to do a blog post. I guess hell has frozen over. Terrific round up of excellent advice from the conferenc.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter why these things turn off an agent. If they do they do and that is enough for me. Thanks so much for writing this.

Kerrie said...


When the "slush pile" submissions were being read aloud at the conference, there were a few examples where the author was trying to cram a bunch of information about the main character in the first couple of sentences and it bogged down the writing. So what the agents were saying was that we don't need to know everything about the character right away. Let the information unfold as the story goes along.

I hope that helps clear that up.

Kerrie said...


I agree, it doesn't matter why these things turn agents off, if it does and we want to get published, we should try to pay attention to this.

You should read Laura's other guest post talking about when to break the rules.


Jeannie said...

Looking forward to reading your blog. Don't have time right now, but saw your link on Guide to Literary Agent's site.

Anonymous said...

Kerrie -

I'll disagree with it not mattering WHY something turns agents off. I think it's important to understand the reasoning behind a guideline. Too many people hear "Don't do this," and make the change without understanding if it was a problem in the first place or not.

I asked about #7 because I do use the character's first and last name in when introducing my main character. In context, it was in the natural flow of the scene and appropriate for the omniscient viewpoint I'm using. I had concerns about taking the first name out because it might have subtly shifted the story and made the main character look like a villian on first impression.

By asking for clarification, I discovered that it wasn't a problem at all. I have the first and last name, but not the cramming of details about the character, which is what the agents were objecting to. The answer I was expecting was something to do with full names being inappropriate to the viewpoint (which also didn't apply, since I'm using omniscient).

Stephanie said...

Very helpful info, however does this just apply to fiction? In particular, opening up with dialogue?

Kerrie said...


The slush pile readings at the conference were all fiction.

Stephanie Baffone said...

Thanks, Kerrie!

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