Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Conference Notes-"Reading from the Slush Pile" with Kristin Nelson

This session was by far one of my favorite and the one I learned the most from. The idea was, the agent (Kristin Nelson) read silently while a volunteer reader read aloud the beginning of people's stories. Kristin stopped the reader when something in the manuscript threw up a "red flag" i.e. when she would stop reading as an agent and send a rejection letter. Then she explained why.

This is a painful experience for many because when your work is read aloud and critiqued, sometimes it hurts. Kristin was very tactful about her issues with the pieces, but she was also honest.

She began by assuring everyone that "where you are today isn't where you'll be in six months or 10 years." She wanted to make sure everyone continued to write and didn't quit because of something she said in the workshop.

Only one of the dozen or so stores she read got past the first page. She didn't read mine. (Rats!) Below are some of the issues that came up:

     -setup feels like a short story rather than a novel (when you write in the wrong style for the media you choose, it's gonna feel "off")
     -loose on setting details (when the reader can't picture where/when the characters exist, it's hard to get caught up in the story)
     -panic doesn't stab or prickle, people don't shimmy through doors, people don't growl when they speak, sadness doesn't drag (when using metaphoric language, be careful to make your meaning clear and not just use words/images because they sound cool)
     -if writing from a child's point of view, make sure you use their language and how they perceive the world. Make sure to match the language of the characters to their characters rather than generic phrases.
     -don't be general
     -SHOW. Even worse, don't show it then tell what you just showed (I'm bad about this. School teacher training kicking in.)
     -don't use extra/flowery words and dilute the plot. Get in, make your point, get out.
     -keep the mood, don't switch mid chapter. Choose words that fit your mood.
     -watch metaphors. Sometimes it makes understanding MORE difficult rather than easier.
     -start the story in the right place. This is a hard one, and a topic of many writing books. Basically, for modern audiences, you need to be placed right on top of the action, not 1000 years ago with the history before your story.
     -cut what you don't need. This, too, is a hard one. You may love a word/phrase/paragraph/chapter, but if it doesn't forward the plot or characters, you may need to cut it.
     -prologue is not back story. Back story is world building which should be learned in context. Often the prologue is in a different voice or POV than the story, seems to have nothing to do with the story, and confuses the reader.
     -don't use passive sentences in tense situations.
     -if you create a new metaphor, you need to explain it (in context, obviously, so the reader doesn't get pulled out of the story)
     -you must describe your characters in context. A list pulls the reader away from/out of the story.
     -to sell your characters, you have to instantly place the reader into the context. Don't put a lot of world building in at the beginning otherwise the characters get lost.
     -setting must make physical sense. Is the bedroom going to open up onto the porch? (maybe...) Is the kitchen in the basement? (possibly, but why?)
     -watch the length of description on your action scenes. Action is great, but too much description can be confusing
     -in general, keep the same POV in a section/chapter.
     -explanations in text that are SOLELY FOR THE PURPOSE OF INFORMING THE READER are sloppy writing. You must work explanations into the story so it's normal for the characters to talk/act this way.

I took these hints and combed through the first three chapters of my novel. Pulled out a few hairballs, a fingernail clipping, and a bunch of lint. Eww! Hopefully, with that last bit of spring cleaning, I've found myself representation. We'll see!