About two weeks ago, I attended Bookmarks Festival of Books & Authors. It was the first time I’d been, and I was only able to stay for a couple of hours. But it looked great from the little bit I saw! Besides showcasing local and national authors, the festival offered Slush Pile Live (Sponsored by the NC Writers’ Network) for aspiring writers to have their work critiqued. Well, the first 300 words of their work, anyway — anonymously by a panel of agents and editors.
I submitted my 300 words and waited, heart thumping, in the audience for them to randomly pick my work and tear it apart. They never got to mine. But I did learn a lot listening to them tear apart other people’s writing! Here are some tips I gleaned from the painful lessons of others. (Okay, they weren’t that cruel, really!)
- Don’t start a memoir with a date. So many submissions started with something like, “September 29, 1962” and then went on to describe events chronologically that weren’t super-exciting. A memoir should read like a novel, with character development. The first section should give the framework for that character’s journey, not just a list of dates and events.
- Don’t start a story with so much excitement that the rest of the story can’t possibly live up to that first scene. At least two of the entries started with really gripping, tense scenes. One involved a mystery intruder and a scream from inside the house — the tension was too much, a panelist said. The scream made the story “almost comical” (ouch!). The other started with a gripping car accident which then dwindled when the character just stood around watching the night sky!
- Don’t start with a boring topic. One submission described a bug in the sink. Another started with the character getting hugely excited about registering a copyright. The panelists didn’t want to hear the rest. The author has to establish why the reader should care about the story, one panelist explained. The first few sentences are a “microcosm” of the work, the other added.
- Don’t use flat language that tells instead of shows. The unpopular entries didn’t include sensory details to anchor the reader in the scene. They contained clichés and flat declarative sentences that didn’t show the character’s personality. The panelists liked a children’s book entry, told from the point of view of a little girl who’d been struck by lightning while she sat on a fence. The writing was full of color and funny words, specific to that character.
All the panelists had really great suggestions and insights about how to start a piece of writing. The key idea I took away from Slush Pile Live was that you only have a few seconds time to capture a reader’s (especially an agent’s or editor’s!) attention. Every detail and sentence counts. Don’t go off on tangents, and don’t include boring stuff that doesn’t really matter.
In my next post, I’ll write about a few of the authors I met at Bookmarks — dedicated writers who didn’t mind standing in the blinding sun for hours to meet new readers!