Saturday, February 14, 2009

Writing Tips and Submission Tips

How can writers polish their fiction and better their odds of getting noticed by a publishing house? This morning I joined a packed house (c. 100) at the Georgia Writers Association monthly meeting to hear a superb presentation by Chris Reardon, award-winning mystery writer (Agatha award), who has also written on writing and getting published. Find her at

Here were some of my takeaways:
  • 90% of submissions to publishers aren't accepted. So in large part, it's a numbers game - you must submit over and over again. John Grisham couldn't get a publisher interested in his first book, so he self-published.

  • You never have to accept any editor's opinions 100%. (One participant raised his hand to say that the first publisher he sent his manuscript to said that he should put it in first person. He acted on the advice and sent it to another publisher, who recommended putting it back into second person!)

  • Rejections don't mean you suck. Editors reject manuscripts for many reasons, including how they're feeling that day and the manuscript they read preceding yours. (Her own quirk is that she hates the overuse of elipses - "...." If she sees a few of the beginning of a manuscript, she automatically tosses it. It's to be used when the speaker trails off. If the speaker is interrupted, use a dash instead.)
  • Concerning the psychological trauma of rejection, Roerden encouraged us to read the following discussion (make sure to read all the replies. See the January 31 entry).

  • If you can't handle rejection, just write for your own pleasure. Once you submit it, it's a business.

  • A large percentage of rejections are due to easily eliminated errors, e.g., they were sent to the wrong agent (a children's book agent rather than adult, etc.), were in an unusual font, were on colored paper.

  • A huge portion are eliminated on page one - even the first paragraph. So many manuscripts look like they've been put out on the page and left there, rather than analyzed.

  • The first reader: her job is to get through the pile quickly. A unique voice is what they're looking for.

At this point, she handed out two versions of an action scene. Everyone gave comments. What interested me was that she didn't dogmatically declare one right and the other wrong, although those in the audience had definite, differing opinions on which they liked best. One was shorter and moved faster, but more impersonal. It was like a screenplay, or investigative reporting. The other gave more insight into the attacked person's feelings, making you care more for the character, but it moved more slowly.

  • Let your writing create emotion rather than evoke emotion. Rather than tell your reader that your character is in danger or pitiful or full of himself, lead the reader to automatically feel those emotions. Lee Child successfully employs understatement to leave the door open for the reader to respond with his/her own emotions.
  • Go through your manuscript and get rid of all the adverbs, putting only those back in that absolutely must remain. Examples: "finally," "suddenly."

On Dialogue

When the first reader at a publishing company gives your manuscript initial approval, they will probably next skip over a couple of chapters and check out your dialogue. She had us read two examples of dialogue and give our insights. Symetrical dialogue (one asks a question and another answers) is used exclusively by most fiction writers, but it's dull when it goes on too long. It often works best with humour.

In real conversations, we often fail to answer questions. In writing, this leaves the reader with some tension (some key concerns remain unanswered) and moves them forward. This is called asymetrical dialogue or oblique (the response goes off in a different angle.) It can be annoying, but creates tension. Tension is one aspect of conflict, which of course is paramount to keeping the reader interested.

When your dialogue is so refined that it tells only what your particular character could be saying, it doesn't need tags (e.g., "said Marty"). The strongest scenes are those with two people. It can be done with three, but is more challenging.

On Improving Your Writing

The very best teacher for you is the reading of great writing. Read a work twice - first just to enjoy the story. Then read it again (right away) to study the style. Make notations. That is your best learning tool of all. When you come upon a problem in your writing, analyze how your favorite author did it.


1) how do you find an editor?

Anyone can hang up a shingle and claim to be an editor. She once paid $1 a page but got no useful input. Get references. Ask about her work habits; did the editor deliver as promised; did she deliver on time; was she heavyhanded or did she offer choices. It's difficult to find a good editor because those who write a lot don't want to share their editors and risk them get overburdened.

Join several writers groups. She's a member of about eight writers organizations: three national, three local and two others.

Some critique groups could ruin your writing. Get the one you need.

2. When do you stop rewriting?

However long it takes to get it right. Revise as you get information back.
If an agent requests to see the whole thing, don't get your hopes up. Some want to make a decision on one reading rather than having to re-read your early chapters after she gets the entire manuscript. Your odds are the same, just as bad, the second time as the first.

All in all, she was 5 foot, 2" of wisdom and energy. If you missed your latest writers meeting, don't miss the next one!

Oh, and her 2008 book is Don't Sabotage Your Submission: Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A., by Chris Roerden.