Dressed to Thrill . . .
It’s a common saying in publishing that an editor will make up his or her mind about a piece of writing within the first few pages. Certainly, on my MA course at Birkbeck, if an application hasn’t shown some kind of narrative promise in the first few pages, we are unlikely to be calling that candidate to interview. But how can you be so sure? I hear the disgruntled writer cry, it gets better after page 10! You’re not giving the work enough of a chance!
Maybe so, but most busy editors don’t have time to give the work more than a passing glance, especially if it’s one taken from the toppling slush pile. Editors are looking for an immediate sense of promise, stylish use of language, strong characters, a story that lifts off the page and sparks the imagination. Unfortunately, as most editors will attest, these pieces are rare, even in work submitted via agents. Not because of a dearth of good writing, but rather I feel, because of a surfeit of impatient writers.
There are some sure fire ways of ensuring thatyour work comes back to you in that neatly addressed SAE, with a rejection slip. These basic technical mistakes tell the reader in the first few paragraphs that the writer isn’t yet in control of her material. Not that I am writing this article to shame the reader into writing better. Sometimes our ‘mistakes’ are the best parts of the writing – the ideas we hadn’t considered before setting out on the journey of the narrative – the insistent character who took over in chapter 5 – the plot twist at the end that seemed impossible at the start. These discoveries are all a valid part of the writing process.
What I am talking about here are the speculative, hopeful, but in the end rather hopeless submissions that publishing houses see on a dailybasis, from writers that seem to lack even a basic sensibility towards their own writing. Almost as if the writer hasn’t really read their own work carefully or critically enough. Or, perhaps there is a naïve hope that a busy editor will spot the promising metaphor in paragraph 6 and take the writer under her wing and edit the raw material into textual gold so that the writer doesn’t have to go to the trouble of correcting these mistakes for themselves. In these busy days of ‘blink’ decision making it’s a golden rule for novice writers that their submissions –to magazines, publishers, MA Courses, competitions, are the best they can be. Your first pages give your reader their first encounter with your voice, your characters, your style. It’s important you send your manuscript out suitably dressed for the occasion, and showing its best profile. In this article I’ve listed four problems that amount to ‘dead giveaways’ to an experienced editor, they are, if you like, the textual equivalent of sending your writing out with it’s skirt hitched into its knickers.
The Point of View Problem
Choosing the appropriate point of view for a story is the most crucial decision a writer has to make. They are deciding where they want the reader to look. Is it from inside the character in First person? Above them in Omniscient Third, from right beside them in Subjective Third, or maybe even the reader will become an implied character -‘You’ - in SecondPerson.
It’s usually obvious within a few paragraphs what kind of grip a writer has on their POV. My first dead giveaway would be fiction written in third person, which switches POV within the page, within paragraph, or sometimes within a sentence.
Consider this example from the opening of a novel:
Johnwas gazing out the open window. He was enjoying himself, talking mainly to Fred and Zoe and mainly about how all women wanted was money whatever their feminist ideas.
Fred looked at John and said ‘marriage is buying a house for a stranger.’ John laughed, in the open way he had about him, skin crinkling round the eyes, but Fred still didn’t trust him.
Here is a potentiallytense opening scene. Some interesting characters. But the writing naively switches between John and Fred’s POV. Where is the reader supposed to look? The result is like reading shaky camera work, andit’s hard to distinguish between Fred and John, to clearly ‘see’ them as characters in the minds eye.
While multiple points of view within a novel are of course a valid device – read SarahWaters, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith for some excellent examples, the points of view switch serially – section by section or chapter by chapter. Switching POV within the same paragraph or page is a risky strategy, if you’re Virginia Woolf you might get away with it, but if you’re not clear from the get go about where you want the reader to look, the harassed and time-pressured editor won’t keep reading for long.
Telling the Story
We’ve all heard the one about show not tell, but it’s a sorely misunderstood maxim. It doesn’t mean that the writer should dispense with narrative altogether and turn their novel into the equivalent of a screenplay:
The room was dark. The candles giving out votive shadows.
‘Are you ready?’ The priest says.
‘Yes.’ Comes the reply.
And so on. This kind of writing can sometimes come across as equally naïve, lacking in the pause and reflection that is the trademark of fiction. One of the unique aspects of fiction as a form is the way in which time can be fractured to allow for digression and reflection. Too much showing can result in the storytelling having too much surface and not enough depth.
The polar opposite of this Beckett-esque sparseness is the Authorial Narrator, whose booming voice and self-important opinions can drown out the characters in a flood of telling detail. Where the writer doesn’t seem sure what to leave out, and instead insists on telling the reader everything about the character, right down to the name of their first pet and the eye colour of their parents. Take this for example:
‘In the yellow rain-strewn light surrounding the street lamps, she could see further down the street a group of young men eating takeaway food near to the entrance of an Indian restaurant. Steam could be seen coming out of their opened Styrofoam packages of ethnically contorted food. The group ate voraciously, no doubt to satisfy a beer-induced hunger, and peppered their late supper with succinct but loud conversation delivered in the local Geordie dialect. Karen decided to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid them. The street was wide and she passed by on the other side without ever being noticed. Even the rain was not able to dampen out the aroma of curry that drifted across the street. This evening, however, she did not feel like buying anything to eat, and just wanted to get home as quickly as possible.’
This is a very loose description.There’s too much telling information. The sentence ‘the group ate . ..’ tells us what the author thinks about the characters, not what the character thinks. Why do we need to know that she’s not hungry? This seems like dead detail. The potential menace and atmosphere in this paragraph is dampened by the authorial voice which over-articulates the story. If the language is too arch, too glib, too knowing, too telling, the writer is drawing attention away from the key player in their story: the character.
Another common problem is writing which doesn’t set out clearly enough what is at stake for the characters and the story. The writing might start brightly enough – in fact, enough for our imaginary editor to imagine she’s onto something promising. Until she realises after a few pages of neat characterisation, that the story isn’t going anywhere. There’s lots of voice, maybe even a strong idea for a character. But no story. No clear sense of what’s at stake for the characters, and why we should be reading this particular book. Work like this is often accompanied by a covering letter explaining that the author hasn’t finished the book yet. And it shows.
The first chapter is often the one you redraft last, everything in a novel is provisional until the last word has been written and the whole story considered in the light of the journey your characters have taken. Don’t send out the first three chapters hoping that our busy editor will see the hidden genius and want to sign you upright away before another word is written. Deals like this are rare, unless you’re Wayne Rooney, better to wow an editor with a confident, snappy opening that hints at all the delights still to come, than one which is vaguely meandering in the direction of a story that has yet to be written.
The Long Game
Which leads me on to my final point, about patience. Sometimes I fear that some writers want to get published more than they want to write. Being asuccessful writer is a long apprenticeship. Writing a novel is a slow, frustrating process. It takes time and patience to get it right. Don’t send out your work to publishers and agents when you are feeling impatient and frustrated with it. Send out when you’re happy and confident in the work – the difference will show in the writing, trust me. If you play for the long game, perhaps go on a course or join a workshop, get some feedback and apply it. You’re already giving yourself a better chance of success. In the end write for the sake of the writing, to make the writing, your writing, the absolute best it can possibly be, only then is it really worth reaching for the Jiffy envelope.