Back to Basics
One of the questions writers ask me is “How do you know in the first couple of pages whether you’re interested in a writer?” Sometimes I stumble when trying to answer because there’s no pat answer. It’s a combination of strong writing, a topic or setting that interests me, a character (or two) that I find captivating, and a compelling voice. It’s different for each project.
The topic was illuminated to me this past weekend as I was the “Secret Agent” over on the blog of Authoress Anonymous, aka Miss Snark’s First Victim. Each month she holds a contest where writers submit the first 250 words of their manuscript. An unidentified agent reads them all, leaves a brief critique, then chooses winners. The prize is usually a chance to submit a partial to the agent. So I spent a good portion of my weekend critiquing the 39 entries. Even for someone used to seeing queries everyday, it was eye opening to respond specifically to each one with feedback and say whether I liked it, whether I would want to keep reading past the excerpt, and why.
(Incidentally, writing those brief critiques takes so much work you wouldn’t believe it. I’m sure writers would love to have that kind of feedback from agents on every query, but the amount of time it took me was just one more confirmation of why we simply can’t do it.)
It was interesting how patterns emerged with the entries. By far the most common problem I had with them was how much backstory many writers include, even in the first 250 words. Another problem was too much telling and explaining, especially when the writer had already “shown” perfectly well with action and dialogue. The third common issue was the story didn’t seem all that interesting, even if the crafting was exemplary. The characters, the setting or the premise didn’t captivate me.
These are the exact things we teach constantly in writing workshops and seminars and on writing blogs. The same old “show don’t tell” and “no backstory in the beginning of the story.” In fact I often hear writers complain that they hear it too much! But experiences like this show me that these are tough things for writers to master, and that we need to keep talking about it, keep teaching how to do it.
So keep paying attention to the craft, and don’t ignore the basics. Writing tips aren’t just empty rules to make agents and editors feel powerful. They really do help you craft something in which readers will become engaged.
*If you want to see what I mean, go over to the Authoress blog, scroll down, and read the Secret Agent entries (#1 through 40). Click on comments to see the critiques from other commenters and from me (I commented under Secret Agent).
What about you? Which of the basic rules of writing are you having the most trouble mastering?