As a voracious lover of feedback (as most of us are), I thought I'd take some time to share some of the reasons why Jodi and I rejected entries for the Baker's Dozen Auction.
Bear in mind, of course, the subjectivity of all this. Neither Jodi nor I claim to be Empress of Slush. (I'd rather be Empress of something else, anyway. Like chocolate. Or the universe.) Still, I do hope that our combined eye has been discerning enough to perhaps give some of you a few things to think about as you continue to write/revise/edit/polish.
REASON ONE: ACTION WE DIDN'T CARE ABOUT
I'm fairly sure I've touched on this in the past, but there does seem to be a trend--particularly in YA and MG--of starting a story by jumping directly into high-stakes action. It's born, I think, from the pressure we receive to "grab the reader!" and "start the story somewhere interesting!". Yet, frankly, it backfires. And here's why.
If I open a book and someone is running for his life on the first page, I don't really care whether he dies or not--BECAUSE I DON'T KNOW HIM. Or if, after one paragraph of introduction (or perhaps no introduction at all), someone is flying through the windshield of a car or waking up in a pool of blood or diving into a subway entrance to avoid an explosion--I DON'T CARE. Because I'm not invested.
And I think the problem--and Jodi agrees--is that folks are confusing ACTION with CONFLICT. And they're not the same thing. A good novel will begin with inherent conflict, which is ultimately what makes us want to keep reading (assuming the writing is good). But dropping the reader into the middle of a battlefield or onto the balcony of a burning building isn't going to automatically make him CARE.
I think, as writers, we need to constantly reevaluate what CONFLICT means. And to be careful not to confuse it with ACTION, which doesn't necessarily belong in the opening pages. It was, more often than not, a fairly quick "no" from Jodi and me.
REASON TWO: WE WERE VERY CONFUSED
Sometimes the opening page was so confusing we weren't even sure what was going on. This doesn't mean there wasn't a good story to follow. It just means that the opening didn't do anything to make us want to know what that story was.
I think there are three specific things that can make an opening confusing:
1. TOO MUCH ACTION: If there's so much going on that we can't follow it, there's nothing that makes us want to continue reading. This is, of course, directly related to what I listed above. Being dropped into the middle of a storm of action is disorienting.
2. NO GROUNDING IN THE WORLD: Setting the stage for your world is a delicate balance of details-without-too-many-details. If too much is thrown in at once--or if there isn't enough to go on--the reader will not know where/when he is, or where/when everyone in the story is. And if there's confusion like this on the first page, it doesn't bode well for the worldbuilding in the rest of the novel.
3. WRITING THAT ISN'T CLEAN: This goes without saying. The words themselves will lend to the clarity of your opening scene. Sometimes, the confusion factor is directly related to sentence and paragraph structure. (Or lack thereof.)
REASON THREE: WEAK WRITING/NO VOICE
Writing can be halfway decent but still lack a compelling voice. And voice isn't something you develop overnight. In fact, it isn't even something that someone can tell you how to do. Rather, it develops as you continue to grow as a writer. The voice of your novel is twofold; a combination of your voice as the author and your protagonist's voice relative to the genre. If the voice was lacking--or if it was wrong (as in, a YA that didn't have a teen voice or an MG that sounded too "old"), it was a "no" from us.
Similarly, some entries had writing that simply wasn't ready yet. This doesn't mean the writer couldn't write, or that the story idea was bad. It just wasn't ready. One or two read like first novels (yes, there is a certain "first novel read"), but most of the time, when an entry fell into this category, it was writing that needed work. (And sometimes these were the most disappointing "nos" of all--an exciting logline followed by not-there-yet writing always elicited groans.)
One thing that's different for the Baker's Dozen is the fact that Jodi and I aren't looking for specific things the way agents are. So we've got an entire palette of genres in the slush and we get to find the best entries without being constrained by subgenres or agency bents. Sure, it's challenging to read an entry in a genre that doesn't flip our cookies, but that's when the question, "Will someone else like this?" comes in handy. Because if the writing is decent and the first page generally works, it doesn't matter if it's not a pet genre of either Jodi or me. We get to say "yes" because there's a good chance one of our participating agents will like it.
And you saw them fighting last week, so we're feeling pretty good about what we put out there!
Anyway, I hope this has been at least a little helpful. I hated reading all the "I didn't make it" comments after winning entries were announced, despite the fact that they were beautifully stated and offered congratulations to those who did make it. I have dozens and dozens of rejections under my belt, and I don't relish being the one to hand them out.
So there it is. I can't deny that reading so many entries in a short time was fairly exhausting. But I also can't deny that it's a privilege to read the work of my fellow writers. Thank you all for being good sports, and for your many kind and appreciative words for Jodi and me.
Let's do it all again next year. :-)