Photo provided by Arianne "Tex" Thompson.
Western fantasy author Arianne “Tex” Thompson spoke at our June 2018 monthly workshop series, joining attendees via Zoom technology. Drawing inspiration from Dante’s Inferno, Thompson and book editor Laura Maisano (not at the meeting) compiled a list of seven first-page sins editors frequently encounter that can send your manuscript into book hell.
“Every sin is equally bad if it gets people to not read your work,” Thompson said. She launched into a discussion of red flags that may make your work stand out (in the wrong way) to editors or slush-pile readers. The first of these seven sins is perhaps the most-easily avoidable -- carelessness.
Failing to clean up your writing before sending it to an agent is a big mistake. Basic things like correct punctuation, typos, homophones, etc. can be caught and fixed with a readthrough prior to submission. If it helps, get a second pair of eyes on your project. A copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is a must-have in every writer’s arsenal of tools. For the digitally-inclined, Thompson recommended Grammarly or Dragon Naturally Speaking, although the built-in spelling and grammar checker in Microsoft Word should not be discounted.
|Arianne "Tex" Thompson|
Another way to be careless in the submission process is to be too informal. Stalking the agent’s social media page is probably not going to be helpful, nor is a query letter that is gimmicky, or characters that are overused or offensive. Be sure to pay attention to the submission requirements and use standard manuscript formatting, too.
That first page of text is your opportunity to really catch an agent’s eye, and like a first impression, you’ll never have the chance to do it over again, so get it right the first time. A novel stuffed with extraneous words that distance the reader from the character and events is equally a “sin” in Thompson’s eyes. Avoid words like “thought,” “saw,” and “wondered.” Instead, “rewrite for immediacy,” Thompson said, “combining actions where possible. Dashes are a way of transitioning (with a pause) and indicate an interruption or a sharp change of plans.”
The third major sin is “perdition”, what Thompson calls a rambling text, where the prose lacks polish and needs tightening. This can be taken to obsessive lengths – Thompson’s example being if your work doesn’t really start until the third chapter, it doesn’t matter how well you fine-tune and polish that first chapter; you just need to cut it out. Don’t throw it away, however; you never know when you’ll find a use for it for some other project. Frequent symptoms of a work that may be committing this sin include words that aren’t pulling their own weight, frequent spelling and grammar errors, and words that have a different meaning than what you think they do, and thus, confuse readers as to your intent.
Writing sloppy and then writing well is called code-switching. “We’re very practiced in changing our speaking style depending on whom we’re speaking to (our boss, our toddler, etc.) You can use text abbreviations on the phone that we’d never use in a business email. This is a skill that you can practice and continue refining [just] from your daily life.”
The fourth major sin has two sub-headings: sins of excess -- either your work has too much description (purple prose) or too much action (and no narrative). In the former problem, your work may read like something out of a 19th century novel, but most readers have shorter attention spans and don’t care to read a chapter just on the foliage of the moors or the cost of every window and fireplace in a manor house. “The more you can infuse your description with the POV character’s actions and feelings, that adds zest [to your work],” Thompson said. Use strong verbs and nouns. You should also keep an eye for descriptive text that is redundant. You do not need to say that the door swung open and shut on the way out (we know it did) or reiterate normal activities everyone encounters unless something unusual or unexpected occurs.
Never sandwich important action in the middle of a paragraph. Always lead in (or exit) a paragraph with action. If you’re writing a mystery, however, the middle of a paragraph is the perfect spot to tuck away a detail you don’t want a reader to notice, but that will be important later. A narrative packed with action but too little motive can leave readers wanting more. The story has to be consistent throughout, with a compelling reason to read so your audience does not skip ahead to get to the good parts.
Another big sin is using clichés. We’ve all encountered them at some point -- characters describes themselves looking in a mirror, an exposition-heavy dialogue, the false opening that’s an action scene but turns out to be a dream sequence, etc. Clean this up in your second draft. Remember, the first draft is just to get all your ideas down on paper. In your second draft, look for the clichéd choices your character makes and begin brainstorming for a new or unique approach. Your work should always have an element of surprise that transfers to the reader.
The sixth sin is failing to create clarity in your work. If your manuscript, or your query letter, or back cover blurb, etc. causes confusion in its intended audience, then you have gotten something wrong somewhere. This is usually preventable by not writing under pressure or under deadlines. Make sure you tick all of the boxes for your genre. For example, if you are writing a mystery, there are good questions (who is the killer?) and bad questions to avoid (where am I?). Make sure that action and dialogue are clearly assigned to characters, too.
Finally, the last sin to avoid is perhaps the most difficult – boredom. If you fail to capture the reader’s or agent’s attention, they’re just going to put your manuscript down and that’ll be the end of that opportunity. It’s impossible to satisfy every single reader, but with a strong hook, a new take on an old problem, or a fascinating setting, character or plot, you could have the makings of a great story.
Bearing these sins in mind, what steps can you take today to improve your drafts and avoid book hell?
Tex Thompson is a rural fantasy author, egregiously enthusiastic speaker, and professional ruckus-raiser. She is the author of the Children of the Drought, an epic fantasy Western trilogy from Solaris, as well as an instructor for the Writers Path at SMU and chief instigator of WORD ñ Writers Organizations Round Dallas. Now she is blazing a trail through writers’ conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country as an endlessly energetic, catastrophically cheerful one-woman stampede. Find her online at thetexfiles.com and wordwriters.org.