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 firstname.lastname@example.org