:: Caution: Excellent publishing advice ahead.
Last weekend, Katie and I were pleased to be a part of the NC Writers’ Network Spring Conference in Greensboro, NC. This annual conference brings together writers, publishers, and bibliophiles from all genres—for just one day. We always enjoying meeting new people at NCWN events and talking books, and last Saturday we saw old friends and met some fabulous emerging writers that bowled us over with their stories. If you’re a writer, NCWN events are a great place to meet fellow writers, take workshops to hone your craft, and network with folks in the publishing industry. And it’s really one of the most welcoming, friendly groups of people you’ll meet.
One of the highlights of the day for me was taking part as a guest editor in “Slush Pile Live”—it’s like speed dating for manuscript review. In these sessions, writers leave a 1-page submission in a box, and the panel moderator reads each submission (names withheld) to the group. Three guest editors listen as the piece is read and then provide feedback, as if the piece were a query that came across their desks.
As a guest editor, I had an inkling of what to expect (thanks to a recording of a 2016 Slush Pile Live, which then of course induced a moment of panic with the realization that I might end up on YouTube when this was all over), but of course you never know what the submissions will hold. I watched the faces of the authors in the crowd as the first piece was read, and thought, “How can I be of help to these folks? What can I offer about these short, 300-word samples that might help them with their submissions to presses like mine?”
We heard poems, young adult fiction, sci-fi, historical fiction, romance, mystery—some samples were ready to submit for real, and some needed editing. But here’s what I thought as I heard the moderator read, and heard the critique from the panel, and watched those hopeful faces in the crowd:
Every writer has a superpower.
Every writer has that thing she’s really great at. Sometimes it’s dialogue. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing connections between unlikely pairings of objects (like that wonderful haiku that compared a mockingbird’s song to a crazy quilt). Sometimes it’s a way of nailing a character in just a few sharp turns of phrase. Sometimes it’s an image that sticks with you like a dream.
It’s easy to let yourself get jaded as an editor, to get annoyed by typos and adverbs and cliches. But it’s also important to remember that old adage about a diamond in the rough. Sometimes a writer has an amazing story to tell, and instead of being told “thanks, but no thanks,” they need a nudge to help point them in the right direction.
So if you’re struggling with a submission, or an edit, here’s my nudge for you:
Find your superpower. You have one.
Find that thing about your writing style that is attention-grabbing, unique. Ask a friend or writing partner to help you identify this strength—they might see something you don’t (writing can’t be a solo activity, sorry—no writer is an island). Ask your partner to read a page or two, and underline the most powerful sentence (got more than one? Great.).
Now think on that sentence—what makes it so compelling? Keep doing that. Identify the strongest lines that you’ve written, think about what makes them so fabulous, and bring the rest of your writing to that level. Use your insight. Consider that thing you did a tool, and apply that tool to the rest of your writing. Is it a unique description? An awesome metaphor? A detail about a character? If you’re superb at writing sharp dialogue (are you the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey?), then apply that sharpness to the overall narrative voice. Apply it to descriptions of objects, places, other characters. Use that tool to shape the whole story.
Then, trim out all the unnecessary words so that those really amazing ones shine. Consider this your de-cluttering. (You’ve watched Marie Kondo? Cut out all those words that don’t have meaning, all the filler that’s just there taking up space.) Your book needs to be lean and mean.
When you’re ready to submit, make sure that superpower shows up on the first page. Showcase that eye for detail, that witty dialogue, that arresting voice. Show the editor that thing you’re so good at on page one, and keep it steady through your whole MS, like a heartbeat.
And remember: every editor has different tastes, different loves, different turn-offs. Submitting a manuscript really is like speed-dating. Editors are inundated. Their eyes have glazed over from mundane manuscripts. You have 1-2 pages to make a bold impression, to hook that editor and make her want to know more about this story you have to tell. If you don’t fit with one editor (or a dozen, or fifty), keep going. Move on to the next one. Everybody has bad dates. Not every pairing is the right one. But we hit the lottery when we do find the right match—the one that sees our strengths and wants to make them shine.