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?


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. chang on November 12, 2009 at 8:23 AM

    >i like ur website. thanks for this comment posting…

  2. Betsy Markman on October 22, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    >Backstory, at least in its subtler forms, is a big problem for me. I'm working to cut a lot of it out of my WIP now. But here's my dilemma.

    I don't care one bit about action in stories if I don't care about the people. I've yawned through stories that start out with a bang like they're supposed to. The "bang" was happening to bland, flat strangers.

    I've been told many times that I write characters with incredible depth, and that people care deeply about them. I treasure that feedback. So now my challenge is to learn how I can still achieve that effect without even subtle backstory at the beginning.

    Sometimes change is scary. But I want to do what it takes.

  3. Stina Lindenblatt on October 21, 2009 at 6:33 AM

    >I don't know how the agents survive critting that contest. I usually make it through ten before my brain goes numb. At least you weren't looking for YA. Then you would have had to crit the full fifty. 😉

  4. Anonymous on October 20, 2009 at 10:14 PM

    >I agree with Mr. Todd and Mr. writer jim. I am content to know someone was angry. I don't give toot whether they threw a glass, kicked a stump, or broke a stick. I would care if they caused harm to someone, by hitting or kicking.

  5. writer jim on October 20, 2009 at 10:04 PM


    I agree with you on that "show too much." It is irritating to me to read stuff like you used for examples. Sometimes it definitely IS best to tell rather than show.

  6. Raethe on October 20, 2009 at 9:02 PM

    >Definitely pacing. My work often moves slower than it should.

    Seeing how fast or how slow something should move is easy. It's the execution that's the hard part.

  7. Steena Holmes on October 20, 2009 at 7:44 PM

    >Rachel, my hands started to shake when I realized you were the secret agent! Your advice was exactly what I needed – and I do realize how rare that is – to have an agent actually comment instead of just 'pass/fail'. Thanks for taking part of this.

  8. school_of_tyrannus on October 20, 2009 at 7:36 PM

    >I need to tape those adages to my forehead like a phylactery.
    Thanks for the great article.

  9. nightwriter on October 20, 2009 at 5:10 PM

    >My main problem is that I'd show an active, exciting scene, and then I'd have the MC talk about it and tell the other characters what happened–i.e. I was repeating the action in a boring summary.

    By cutting out the repetitive discussion and/or limiting it to 2-3 sentences at most, my novel became more suspenseful and fast-paced. Whew!

  10. rhea on October 20, 2009 at 3:14 PM

    >I get a bit flowery at times. As for the show don't tell, I worked really hard and cleaned up my MS.

    I have a sprinkling of backstory in my first chap. Several critiquers have told me they needed more info in the beginning since H/H have a long history. In the original MS, I started sprinkling the backstory in chap 4 and up. Needless to say, I'm now confused. What am I to do? Oh, my poor brain can't take this torture.

    Rachelle, thank you for your critiques at Authoress' blog. Unfortunately, I didn't enter. Those who did are fortunate to get your feedback. I consider myself lucky as well since I learned so much from reading your comments.

    I've been lurking in your blog for several months, and I appreciate the time and the care you put in educating us. Thanks.

  11. B.S. on October 20, 2009 at 3:05 PM

    >I often see novels that have a prologue with back story. I believe every one of Dee Henderson's books are styled that way. Do you feel that is inappropriate as well?

  12. WhisperingWriter on October 20, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    >My biggest problem? I use too many words. I don't know when to shut up. It's like I'm treating the reader as though they are idiots and I need to quit that. I mean, I think they'll figure out that the character Rachel is a female. I don't need to spell it out for them.

    So yes. I'm working hard on not being so wordy. It's difficult.

  13. Nerd Goddess on October 20, 2009 at 1:10 PM

    >Thanks for the link and post! I just got out of a creative writing class, where several short pieces of mine were workshopped. Both my professor and fellow classmates agreed my strongest work was when I was being specific and that things got weaker as I moved into the general. I think that fits under the show don't tell thing.

    Love your blog, btw! I just don't comment very often. 🙂

  14. David A. Todd on October 20, 2009 at 12:56 PM

    >I think for me it's two rules that give me trouble. One is the active voice vs. passive voice. When I read I prefer a mixture of the two. A little bit of passiveness adds spice, IMHO. Yet professional critiquers, such as you get when submitting to a writers conference, generally go off the deep end if they find one use of the verb "to be" in your first ten pages.

    Second would be the whole show don't tell thing. Again, I feel this critique is over used. A little bit of telling mixed in with the showing adds variety. Plus the occasional "he was angry" shouldn't be a problem. Why must we always have, "He slammed his calculator to the floor," "she waved the frying pan at him," or "he tried to kick the cat but missed"?

  15. Catherine M. on October 20, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    >I struggle with backstory, too. My manuscript is in the 3rd revision stage. The first draft – no backstory until chapter two, then more in chapter three. I sent it out to a few readers – most said they wanted to know more right away. so I changed it and now have a paragraph of backstory in chapter one, then more at the start of chapter two. If you and other agents are suggesting I should try to push backstory as far as possible – (Maass, wait 50 pages), then I'm not sure what to do. Perhaps I should go back to the first draft.

    Going to check out the Authoress blog right now…thanks!

  16. JEM on October 20, 2009 at 12:25 PM

    >Hi Rachelle, this is great advice! Nathan Bransford also just finished up a first paragraph contest and between these two posts I feel like I've got a good editing starting point. I'll definitely check out you comments on the entries.

  17. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on October 20, 2009 at 12:22 PM

    >Good afternoon Rachelle,

    Matilda McCloud said:"ie I will show the action, then subtly explain it, just in case the reader didn't catch my meaning." That is the "Ah-ha!" moment, I had this week. My writing mentor told me to write so that my readers could see how smart they are. I've been writing to show them how smart I am. What a mess. Now I need to start all over learning how to write so that my readers have "Ah-ha!" moments for themselves.

    I could use some prayer.

    Be blessed,


  18. Reesha on October 20, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    >No backstory in the beginning of the story is hard for me. I want instantly for my readers to know who this character is and why it matters so we can move on and have adventures together. I don't want to have to wait for them to develop the character slowly over the next 50 pages.
    I'm working on it though. 🙂

  19. Timothy Fish on October 20, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    >Matilda McCloud brings up an interesting topic, that of scenes in restaurants with two people just talking. I don’t know that I see that as a problem to fix. I’ve set several of my scenes in restaurants. You pretty much have to when several characters either own the restaurant or work in the restaurant. I just completed a scene with two characters sitting in a Taco Bell style restaurant and I see nothing wrong with that.

    Television shows often create “elevator” shows that place two main characters in close quarters; it could be in a stuck elevator, a jail cell or anything else. They usually intend to save money by doing a few of these episodes, but you will often find some of the best writing and best acting in these episodes. The screenplay Twelve Angry Men is an excellent example of what is possible when you stick characters in a confined space.

    If there is anything to “fix” about characters sitting in one place and talking, it is in the choice of characters. What we want is oil and water, dogs and cats, divorcing spouses type characters. We want conflict to ooze from the words they say and by those words we want to discover who these characters are at the core of their being.

  20. yarnbuck on October 20, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    >I feel like I just stumbled into a workshop. Thanks to everybody for all the coaching points.

  21. arlee bird on October 20, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    >Blah, blah, blah. More of the same advice we've been hearing forever. But it never gets old and you said it well. If you reworded this and reposted next week it would still be relevant.

    One of my problems is getting an idea into motion and losing steam as I try to figure a satisfying way to end it

    Now off to check the Authoress Anonymous link.


  22. Sharla on October 20, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    >Your topic today caught my attention because I was one of those 40 entries at the Secret Agent contest! And I truly learned SO much. It was a phenomenal experience. Rachelle, you were very generous with your feedback, good and bad. It really made me look at my opening scenes with a new perspective, seeing that just 250 words can make or break you! LOL!

  23. Arabella on October 20, 2009 at 11:04 AM

    >Thank you! But egads, now I'm trapped reading all of those book beginnings and comments. I must get back to my day, my other work, all of the truly important things I have to do, ha, ha.

  24. writer jim on October 20, 2009 at 10:39 AM


    The longer writers follow your blog…I'm sure the more impressed they are with your knowledge and the amount of time you give to use your knowledge to freely GIVE HELP to others. THANK YOU

  25. Julie Dao on October 20, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    >I'm definitely too wordy with my writing. I think I tend to be too flowery with my descriptions, which are usually my strong point but are quickly becoming my weakness because of the wordiness. I also feel the need to provide too much backstory. There's a ton of room for improvement and I would really welcome some formal critique eventually! Thanks for sharing the link to Authoress Anonymous; I will definitely have to keep an eye out for those opportunities.

  26. Rachelle on October 20, 2009 at 10:01 AM

    >Just wanted to say that I'm thoroughly impressed with everyone commenting here! It might not be easy to improve our writing, but all of you are so good at recognizing your writing issues. It's really great. They say that acknowledging the problem is the first step, right? Kudos to all of you for being so aware and so committed to continuing your learning.

  27. Dara on October 20, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    >I have an incredibly hard time with the whole "show don't tell" rule of writing. I know it's essential and I practice as much as possible. But I still slip into telling mode way too easily. I always envy authors who are able to come up with such colorful prose whereas it takes me hours upon hours of getting anywhere close to colorful.

    I think that's going to be my biggest issue when I'm editing my first draft, since I tend to just slip into telling mode in order to get the story written.

    Also, passive voice is a big issue with me too–probably goes hand in hand with the "show don't tell" aspect I struggle with, which isn't surprising 😛 I'm getting better at recognizing it in my writing but it's definitely a challenge to overcome it!

  28. Jessica on October 20, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    >I think that blog is the coolest thing ever! Very awesome that you were the secret agent this time around.
    Thanks for the tips and reminders!

  29. DCS on October 20, 2009 at 9:19 AM

    >Over writing, flat writing and telling are my worst enemies. I'm getting better at recognizing them during the editing process. A critique of a WIP opened my eyes by pointing out how often I used the verb "was" in the chapter. Using word search, I revised the writing by pulling out every single "was" and figuring out another way to write the sentence. I don't subscribe to the idea of removing all copulas from my writing but the exercise resulted in a more interesting read.

  30. Kristen Torres-Toro on October 20, 2009 at 9:03 AM

    >I learn more about "show vs tell" every time I sit down–and I'm sure there's more to learn! I'm excited to check out that site. Thank you!

  31. Alexis on October 20, 2009 at 8:53 AM

    >I think my main problem is writing like I speak. For the most part I write grammatically correct, but I have a tendency to begin my sentences with "And, Yet, So…" I think it's more powerful in my message, but it is breaking a rule of writing; therefore, I must learn to break it.

  32. Matilda McCloud on October 20, 2009 at 8:34 AM

    >I have a problem with what the authors of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS calls Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E), which is related to Show Don't Tell, ie I will show the action, then subtly explain it, just in case the reader didn't catch my meaning. But I'm in the process of deleting these. Do a control+F for instances of the word "felt" and then show what the character is doing to express this emotion.

    I have a problem with "talking heads"–people talking to each other without any context for where they are. I love writing dialogue, but I get carried away. I also have too many scenes in restaurants, cafes, etc, where people are just talking to each other. Not sure how to fix this!

    I have a problem with writing "skinny." I envy all those people who write massive novels and then can cut them down to size. I'm having a hard time increasing word count. I love to cut, but have a harder time adding.

    I also had a problem with backstory in dialogue until a nice agent pointed it out–keep your dialogue quite short and sweet and reveal backstory through key details, gradually. Don't forget to have characters interrupt each other, not complete thoughts, and not talk directly about what they're feeling or the topic at hand(ie have a subtext going on).

  33. Jan Dunlap on October 20, 2009 at 8:33 AM

    >As a college composition instructor, I am constantly telling my students both 'show, don't tell,' and 'use details.' Unfortunately, because I only have 24 hours in the day, I rarely can give my students involved critiques on everything they write, so I know what Rachelle means about the time it takes to do that kind of instruction. The bottom line then is that most students – most writers – have to struggle along trying to improve with minimal direction. I know when I first started querying, I rarely got anything more than 'keep at it' or 'not for us.'I was immeasurably grateful when magazine editors would return a manuscript to me with detailed comments – that's when I finally started improving. The truth, I think, is that you really learn to write well when you revise. But that generally takes someone else's input to get you started. Thanks for the discussion, everyone.

  34. Rachelle on October 20, 2009 at 8:30 AM

    >Larry Marshall, I see your point and I get it. But within the boundaries of today's system, somehow, some way, plenty of high quality literature is still being published.

    Just spend an hour walking around B&N. You may find a lot of books you don't consider worthy, but you will also find thousands of intelligent, well-written, high quality books, both fiction and non-fiction. So my opinion is that there's no cause for concern.

    Read this post on Nathan Bransford's blog. I think he covers it pretty well.

  35. Enjoying the journey, Karla on October 20, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    >I am struggling to build a good pitch. When I begin to tell people about my current project I tend to feel like I am stumbling over myself to know what to include to communicate the project but not overwhelm them with information.

  36. Rachel on October 20, 2009 at 8:07 AM

    >Authoress Anonymous was such a cool site. Those opening pages made for some great coffee-drinking reading this morning. It was also interesting to read your thoughts about each entry in the comment section. You were so kind and instructive.

  37. Larry Marshall on October 20, 2009 at 7:55 AM

    >Rachelle, the points of your blog post are certainly valid and the examples from the Authors Anonymous exercise provide good illustrations.

    Equally, however, that exercise demonstrates that modern novel writing analysis has become too driven by the problem of a large slush pile rather than a search for good literature. If one reads the first 250 words from Irving, Hammett, Atwood, King, or even Alice and Wonderland you wouldn't find much more than opening description in the first 250 words. Often the main character isn't even present. Reading Watership Down you don't even know that the book is about rabbits.

    This problem is unlikely to go away and maybe one does need a 'one-liner' to open their book so that an agent will become interested. Maybe an agent has no more time than to read 250 words. But in the end, let's at least acknowledge that analyzing the first 250 words has little to do with constructing a a good novel.

    Cheers — Larry

  38. mary bailey on October 20, 2009 at 7:40 AM

    >My main writing problem: My main characters are often too passive, reacting to actions and events instead of setting them in motion.

  39. mary bailey on October 20, 2009 at 7:37 AM

    >Off topic, I know, but I just had to say that I am really enjoying reading the entries over at Authoress Anonymous. The comments are cracking me up: Mild complaints of "I have no idea where this story is headed"! Hello? It's the first 250 words, not the whole story! Thanks for introducing us to Authoress' blog, Rachelle. Lots of good reads. (And some not so good)

  40. Ash. Elizabeth on October 20, 2009 at 7:25 AM

    >My biggest trouble is jumping right into the novel. Sometimes I move through the action a bit too fast. And, I always start my opening paragraphs with dialogue and its sometimes snappy (which a lot of agents say isn't good). For example, my first two sentences of my WIP is this, which I need to change.

    “You coming to my game later?” Chad asked as he caught up to me.

    “Your reality check just bounced, huh?” I said.

    See what I'm talking about? Hmmm. . .what else? Oh, and I spot a fair amount of passive sentences my first draft. i used to constantly change them around, but now I've noticed i haven't even written them much anymore, so there's less editing. Guess that's it for now.

  41. Sarah Forgrave on October 20, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    >Like Krista mentioned, I tend to gloss over descriptive details of setting when I'm reading and writing. I need to learn to filter a little more of that in to ground the reader.

  42. ginny martyn on October 20, 2009 at 7:05 AM

    >Great tips. Thanks for the website!

  43. Jason on October 20, 2009 at 6:55 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle…this is a big help. I have been fighting and fighting to keep my prologue because…well, I like it a lot. It's the sort of thing that makes me want to keep reading.

    But it's basically just a lot of back story. I don't even mention the protag in it. So, after reading your post, I've decided to drop the prologue. I'll tuck it away someplace and read it occasionally…maybe hug up to it when I'm down, and that sort of thing. But I guess I probably shouldn't submit it. 🙂

    thanks again!


  44. Krista Phillips on October 20, 2009 at 6:47 AM

    >I ditto what someone else says. Description (and for me, specifically description of setting.) I always get into the "story" of the scene and don't always "set" the scene well, and I too get bored when authors spend a paragraph describing the room they just entered.

    But now that I know this is something I tend to forget, I'm much more mindful of it, and in editing, try to look for ways I can beef up my descriptions without going into lengthy discourse.

    Another problem: Passive writing. I write like I talk much of the time… Don't we all to a point? Anyway, "was _____ing" comes naturally when I am talking (whoops, sorry, when I TALK!) but it's an easy issue to find and correct in the editing stage.

  45. Lisa Jordan on October 20, 2009 at 6:43 AM

    >Saw your Twitter about being the secret agent, but didn't quite understand what that meant during my quick visit to the writer's site.

    After reading your blog post, I went to the site again and read about ten of the posts and your responses. You were so nice! Your feedback would've had me dancing around the room, but I completely understand how much time it must've taken. Congrats on being the Secret Agent. 🙂

    I'm still trying to master show, don't tell without overwriting. I have to remember the reader is smart and will get it.

  46. Katie Ganshert on October 20, 2009 at 6:17 AM

    >I think most writers who study the craft have a good handle on the basic concept of showing vs. telling. You know, instead of writing, "Sally was angry.", we should write, "Sally's nails bit into her palm as she clenched her fist."

    While there are many craft books and workshops that discuss the showing vs. telling concept, I've noticed that these usually address the obvious, and skip over the more subtle forms of telling, which is what I struggle with.

    What you helped me see when we sat down at the ACFW conference, was the subtle "telling" slips. I was having (am still having) trouble getting a handle on these smaller offenses, and you pointed out some concrete examples of "telling" in my manuscript that I could change. This was very eye-opening for me.

    Little things, like using the words "She wished…" or "She knew…" or "She heard…" I have these trigger words (and more) in my head now, so when I go back and revise, I try to cut as many as possible.

    You're right. It definitely improves my writing.

  47. Timothy Fish on October 20, 2009 at 5:29 AM

    >With the two things you mentioned, I see a couple of problems. The issue of backstory is often one in which the author believes he must justify why the character is doing the strange things he is doing, or he simply doesn’t know where to begin the story. Simply put, we must begin were there is a problem to solve, rather than explain what created the problem. Backstory often comes from an author second-guessing the story. We’re afraid that the reader won’t find it believable if we don’t explain how it is possible.

    Show Don’t Tell is another issue. The phrase is used so often to mean so many different things that it has become a cliché. Those who would use this phrase would be well advised to heed their own advice. If I read a passage and it appears to me that the author is telling something that should be shown, I might use the words, but what good is it if the author doesn’t see what I am seeing? The author might sit down to correct his work and add a detailed description of what a package contains when what I meant was that instead of saying, “In the corner was a package containing gifts she had lovingly wrapped,” he should create a scene showing her wrapping each gift. If we don’t “show” the author what we mean, the message is unclear.

  48. Matt Mikalatos on October 20, 2009 at 4:45 AM

    >A couple of years ago I realized that when I started following all the advice that "everyone" shares, that I suddenly started getting articles published in professional magazines. The main piece of advice I consistently transgressed was "Writing is re-writing." I hated doing multiple drafts. But then, like magic, if I did a couple of drafts people actually wanted to buy my work. It was a bit humbling to realize I had wasted a lot of time writing first drafts and then putting them in a drawer somewhere.

  49. Gwen Stewart on October 20, 2009 at 4:02 AM

    >All of them.


    It IS whiny Tuesday, right? Right?


  50. Leigh Lyons on October 20, 2009 at 2:19 AM

    >My Main problem is that I leave out descriptions because I find them boring and have a very active imagination. Someone can say one word and I have a picture in my head. I don't like to be lead by the nose through wordy descriptions of places/people/trees–I wish I was kidding on that one.

    As for the editor thing, I have one who charges $2 per page and will give you four reads for it. I think its a good System.

  51. Dee Yoder on October 20, 2009 at 1:53 AM

    >My most vexing writing issue is not being as strong in anything but first person narrative. Ack! My writing in third person "voice" feels distant. And boring.

  52. Camille Cannon Eide on October 20, 2009 at 1:35 AM

    >Rachelle, can you please explain the term "telegraphing"? I can see what is meant by the term in context, but would love to hear it defined. I probably like doing it too much, whatever it is. Thank you.

    & Way to go on the Secret Agent thing. That actually sounds fun if it weren't so much work. (So this would not have been the ideal weekend to send you stuff to read.:-) )

  53. writer jim on October 20, 2009 at 1:26 AM

    >People in publishing have always described my writing as very compelling, etc. But still, I had a problem that had to be dealt with:

    I'm at the point that I've hired an editor, and I've learned that my biggest offense is being too wordy. My editor can usually shorten my chapters by almost 10%.

    I bet this is a common problem for writers; especially new writers. I pay my editor $23 hr. I think it's a good deal considering the results. If you can afford an editor, it may be a real good investment. My main suggestion is to find an editor that is truly INTERESTED in your subject.