Monday, November 19, 2012

Baker's Dozen Observations

Probably the most interesting part of going through (endless, eternal, infinite, overwhelming) slush is noting the trends (like popular first names or recurring themes) and problems.  Problems, of course, are frustrating, because sometimes, for Jodi and me, this means the difference between YES and NO (or at the very least, MAYBE, which could have turned into a YES later). 

So I'm going to list the most commonly occurring problems, and then I'll save the BIG PROBLEM for last.  I think it might surprise you (unless you, yanno, scroll ahead to the end of the post).


This remains the most prevalent--and frustrating--problem we've encountered.  I blame the hundreds of online resources that urge writers to "start with action!" or "start with excitement!".  Of course, I also blame the writers for not further investigating what these well-meaning resources are actually saying.

Here's the TRUTH:  It's INHERENT CONFLICT that keeps a reader reading.  And "conflict" is not synonymous with "action".  If I've just met your MC for the first time, and she's jumping off a cliff or smashing her car into a tree or shooting somebody or lying on the ground bleeding from every orifice,  I'm not going to care a whole lot about why.  I need a reason to be invested in your character BEFORE she's bleeding or running or crashing or killing. 

In these instances, Jodi and I often made the note, "starting at the wrong place".  Which means, the writing may not have been bad at all, and the idea might've been awfully good, but it was impossible to jump into the action the way it was presented.

It was too much, too soon.


This is closely related to #1, since all that action is too much to handle when we have no idea about characters or setting.  But it can also mean, simply, that too much is going on -- too much description, too much backstory, too much exposition, too much action.  It's simply TOO MUCH for an opening page. 


This means, "We have no idea what's going on here."  And this, too, is related to #1.  Opening paragraphs need to provide us with a clear sense of WHERE and WHEN we are, as well as WHO we're dealing with and WHAT is happening.  If your opening pages are all about the WHAT, and nothing much about the WHERE, WHEN, and WHO, then nobody is going to really understand what's going on.  Except you, of course.  And that's what we mean when we say, "This is too much in the author's head."  You've got to get it out of your head and onto the paper. 



A disclaimer about #4 and #5:  Writing trumps loglines.  Always.  As in, ALWAYS.  So if your logline was a real humdinger, you might've garnered a "yes", anyway.  Because WE LOVE GOOD WRITING. 

But honestly?  It's important to be able to encapsulate your story in a strong logline.  And some of the loglines were WAY TOO LONG.  As in, blah blah blah and we had no idea what was supposed to be going on.

Also?  Some of the loglines weren't, in fact, loglines at all.  Some might be called "taglines", which are those nifty little things you see beneath the title on some books (lots of YA books seem to do this).  And some were...well, we don't know what they were, really.  But they weren't loglines.


This is the opposite of "too much going on".  Sometimes characters were simply thinking about things.  Sometimes it was all exposition.  While it's a good idea to establish setting, a first page still has to MOVE FORWARD.  And that's why it's important to focus on inherent conflict or change.  If we're sitting on a hill of daffodils for 250 words, and the only thing that happens is the protagonist's deep sigh, there's nothing that will compel the reader to turn the page.


There will always be readers who won't be able to tell whether or not the author really understands synchronized swimming or quantum physics or snake charming.  (I've made these up, by the way; none of the entries were actually about these things.)  But if you are writing about something you've never done, or have only heard about, or are not an expert at, and if you do not thoroughly research your subject matter, SOMEONE EVENTUALLY WILL NOTICE.  

So if you're going to write about, say, music, and you maybe know a little about music, but not enough to write about, say, a gifted musician, or a music teacher, or a music school -- JODI AND I WILL KNOW.  Because we're both musicians.  And I've got my degree in music education.  

And, yes.  THESE THINGS SHOW.  Actually, these things make my stomach drop.  Because I am thrown immediately and completely out of a story if I get the slightest inkling that the author doesn't really understand the subject matter.

This happens.  It really does.  And it's an immediate "no" from both of us.

8.  WRONG AGE GROUP (for YA/MG authors)

This comes in two flavors:  a) Calling it YA but giving it an MG voice, or calling it MG and giving it a YA voice; and b) Calling it YA or MG, but the age of the protagonist is wrong for what you've chosen.  (For the record:  13 is generally tops for MG, though 14 can be considered "upper MG".  15 to 18 is YA.)

And now, a drum roll, please...


Are you ready for this?



Let me go through some examples off the top of my head:


People -- THIS IS NOT A GENRE.  THIS IS A CATEGORY.  Is it YA Romance?  YA Paranormal?  YA Contemporary?  You have to have some idea of what kind of story you've written, yes?  Like, if it has ghosts in it, it's probably a paranormal.  If the MC is trying to solve a murder, then it's likely a mystery.  So CALL IT WHAT IT IS. 


And THIS IS NOT THE ANSWER.  Of COURSE it's fiction -- ALL NOVELS ARE FICTION.  Please -- PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE -- know what you are writing! 


Um, no.  It is either YA or MG.  IT CANNOT BE BOTH.  Also?  IT STILL NEEDS A GENRE.


You know, this really isn't a genre, either.  It's a politically correct tag to help categorize stories about non-western cultures.  If yours is a multicultural story, WE WILL KNOW.  Like, if your protagonist's name is Yin Lee and she takes her shoes off before entering the house, it'll probably scream ASIAN.  We still need to know WHAT YIN LEE'S STORY IS ABOUT.  Is it a historical fantasy?  A contemporary?  KNOW YOUR GENRE.  It's not about the color of your protagonist's skin.

And I'm not going to list any of the made-up genres, because I don't want to embarrass anybody.  Instead, I'll make up my own, to give you an idea what I'm talking about:


You get the idea.  Folks -- you have SO MANY WONDERFUL AND CREATIVE IDEAS.  You've simply got to figure out WHAT GENRE THEY BELONG UNDER.  Read other books like yours, find out where they're shelved in bookstores, see what categories they're listed under on Amazon and other online retailers.  In short, DO YOUR RESEARCH.

It doesn't bode well for an entry if the author doesn't seem to know what he or she is writing.


This was not a show-stopper, either, by the way.  Writing trumps genre problems, too. But it was a prevalent enough problem that Jodi and I both wanted to address it publicly. Because WE CARE ABOUT YOUR WRITING and WE WANT YOU TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD.

And there you have it!  Hopefully some of you will benefit from this information. 

Because it's all about continuing to move forward.  With maybe a little chocolate thrown in for good measure.

I really do care, dear ones.  And I hope nobody feels picked on.  I'm not the picking-on sort.



  1. Capisco.

    Brilliant insights, as usual.

  2. Interesting about the genres, but now I have a bit of a question: since agents are pretty much screaming that they don't want paranormal romance, doesn't it behoove the writers to give a paranormal another subcategory? Or was the specific problem about the Genre that Never Ends describing all sub categories including my dogs last supper?

  3. Thank you for this insightful post! And thank you Authoress and Jodi for all the time you've spent slushing through our entries.

    I likely fell victim to something in 1-6 since mine wasn't chosen, but I am not guilty of the Disturbingly Common Problem lol! Phew! :)

    I will say...last year this time, I didn't know my genre. It makes everything amazingly easier once you figure that out!

    Good luck everyone! I can't wait to watch the auction! Almost makes me hope I'm still unagented next year this time, so I can try again to get in. Almost :)

  4. Great advice. This is a good checklist for me when I go back over my novel and fix things.

  5. Interesting.
    Thanks for these wise words of experience. Hm? Time for me to mull these ideas through every creative crevice and apply. :)

  6. okay, so me thinks my mc might be among the wildflowers on the hilltop. I have some writing partners screaming behind me now to fix. I should listen. Big thank you!

  7. @Rena: I would think that dressing up a paranormal romance as something that it's not may be part of what they were seeing in the contest genres. There are still agents looking for the genre, just not as many, and it has to be fresh and original. I think the issue is when a paranormal romance gets labeled something like: Supernatural Mystery Adventure with Romantic Elements. That may be accurate to the writer--and I will freely admit I have a shelved MS that I once described this way--but the feedback I've read from agents and writers is that this sounds like the writer is doing too much. Where would the book be shelved? Suspense? Romance? etc.

    First pages are so tough. I've learned a lot by lurking in the Miss Snark contests and from reading other critiques.

  8. I wager the 'fitting too much into the first page' is caused by the immense weight that agents, publishers, writing contests, and readers place on the first page.

    Writers are told over and over that their first page has to perform approximately 3.7 million functions in order to hook the reader. Because they don't know what part of their opening will wow a reader, they cram every tool in their writer's toolbox into that first page, and it gets crowded.

    In my case, I had a couple of paragraphs designed to hook the reader through humor and backstory. Unfortunately, they didn't fit the rest of the scene, leaving the whole thing disjointed and lacking a consistent voice. They also brought in unimportant details, and crammed too may names and terms into that first page.

    Once I killed those two paragraph 'darlings', I had so much free space to establish the character, the world, and the story. And I could do so at a comfortable pace.

    I was terrified my changes would not be as compelling as my original opening. But being selected as one of the winners lets me know that I'm on the right track. So even if I don't get a bid, I've gained valuable insight from this contest already. So thank you again, Authoress and Jodi, for taking the time to do this.

  9. Thanks for your advice! The fact that you host contests like these shows that you care!

  10. Ugh! I'm guilty of the DCP. I'm feeling really bad right now. I could have easily avoided that.

    Thank you for the rundown of common issues.
    I learn something every time I visit the blog.

    I had changed my first page due to feedback from an earlier SA contest, to make the MC more likeable, and not to plop him in the middle of a crisis before we know him.
    Did you say there will opportunity for feedback on the unchosen entries later?

    Ever grateful,

  11. My first page wasn't guilty of any of those. I admit that I'm not good with loglines, so I looked at the ones from last year, and most looked like what I would consider to be pitches, so I rolled with that.

    I received three agent requests off my pitch and first page, so my guess is some didn't get in for the simple reason not every entry can make the cut. It's that way with approaching agents through the traditional querying way, and that's the way it is outside the publishing world. How many of us have gone after a job we're perfectly qualified for but so were five other people?

  12. Huh. Now I'm even more confused, since all the feedback I received on my logline/1st 250 on this very site was truly positive and said I had avoided these very traps.

    Oh well. C'est la vie.

  13. Anonymous: yes, join the club. However, as Lanette says, not every entry can make the cut. Of course, that's no consolation when all you ever hear is "no" or, worse, the usual deafening agent-ward silence, but take heart: many of us are in the same boat. We shall punch our pillows violently, find some chocolate somewhere, and try again.

  14. Stephsco -- Good answer, thank you!

    Chro -- Well said. :)

    MaggieMay, yes, I did say that.

    And to all who may feel like they didn't commit any of these "sins" but were still rejected: Sometimes it just came down to "This isn't ready yet." As in, the writing wasn't polished enough or mature enough or clean enough or some-other-kind-of-not-ready enough.

    And that's where it comes down to Utterly Subjective. Jodi's and my "Not Ready Yet" may be someone else's "Chocolate Supreme".

  15. Thank you, Authoress and Jodi, for taking the time to explain why you didn't choose some of the entries. This is the most useful feedback any writer can get because it's given by people who have read our work. When my book wasn't chosen for the auction, I was certain I knew why. The logline, while short enough, didn't describe the book accurately. Now I know that I'm also guilty of plunging readers into a crisis without establishing sympathy or even identity for my protagonist. My thanks for such an excellent education. Happy Thanksgiving.

  16. Chro makes a great point. And the other side of that point is the MS with a killer first page that dies just after because the author didn't pay enough as much attention to the *second* 250 words.

    I think the influence of movies can also be behind the preponderance of issues 1-3. It's well and good for movies (well, movies of a certain type, anyway) to start with a thrilling sequence, but books are a very different story.

  17. JeffO, to your first point: exactly.

    To your second point: This reminds me of all those movies where the camera zooms in on a town, then a street, then a building, then through the halls of that building, then finally on the main character. This works in the movies because they want us to read the opening credits. But I've read countless openings that try to do this, spending three or four paragraphs to descend upon the setting without mentioning a single person's name. Personally, it drives me crazy.

  18. annonomoose (and squirrel)November 19, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    The list was interesting (I love statistic-kinda stuff), but I can say for certain, my adult entry just plain sucked.

    I hated it the minute I hit "send". I revised my 250 too much, tried too hard to make everybody happy (although the majority of my critiques were very positive), rushed my intro to get to a small cliffhanger, and I absolutely hated it.

    After that revelation, I went back and followed my instincts and rewrote it yet again. Now it flows much better, so much so that I'm going to get off my @$$ and get querying, which I have put off for far too long, because you can't effectively query when you are in mourning. We've lost too many loved ones in the last two years and oddly enough, NOT getting into the contest made me realize it was time to move forward, not just professionally, but emotionally as well.

    So thank you for the much-needed kick in the tushie. I am truly excited about the upcoming contest, and it will be nice to enjoy it without worrying about any public humiliation (those darn YA novels get all the attention!) Congrats to all who were chosen, and to all who had the guts to enter in the first place!

    Writers Rock!!!

  19. That was really helpful. I've recently joined this blog and I'm editing, murdering, polishing up my manuscript. My first 2 chapters are stumping me. After reading this, I'm pretty sure there's too much in my head and not enough on paper in those crucial first thousand words.

  20. Hmm, I don't know. This sounds like it could be awesome.


  21. I also submitted my logline several times for critique. However, when it came to the contest I relented and sent in a different one and instantly regretted it. However, I did have an agent tell me the one I wanted to submit would be a hard sell YA PARANORMAL SF, hee hee. Or maybe it's YA FANTASY SF PARANORMAL ROMANCE SPACE OPERA told in multiple POV's. Yeah. Not. Back to the drawing board. I am doing NaNoWriMo and thought I'd write an angel/demon book only to read some agents blog they aren't looking for paranormal anything including zombies. werewolves, vampires, angels and demons. *sigh*


    Congratulations to everyone, whether you made it into the auction or not. It's an adventure either way.

  23. LOL, I had the same thought as Eliza. But I'm kind of a sucker for genre-bending spec fic.

  24. Wow.
    I am so glad you defined MG. I've seen a lot of contests where people are saying it's MG and the MC is in high school.

  25. For the past year, I have struggled with the age of my MC. Not much love for 13-y-o by agents.

  26. About genres agents say they don't want:

    If you have a story to tell in that genre, tell it anyway. Don't let the market dictate what you write.

    Don't even worry about fudging your genre so it's not immediately obvious what you're writing. The truth is, great writing and unique stories stand out. They truly do. Even you've written in a genre agents are flooded with -- like paranormal romance or dystopian -- call it what it is. What you want is for an agent to see how compelling and unique your idea is, that it's worth taking on and submitting to editors, regardless of the genre.

    Genre benders:

    I feel you, lovelies. I really do. (Says the girl with a romantic paranormal science fiction dystopian fantasy.) But choose one thing to call it. Focus on that thing. Let the rest of your amazingness come in as a lovely surprise. (I subbed my story as a science fantasy. Now they're just calling it a fantasy.) No matter how you're tempted to cover all your genres, resist. It's confusing, and leads people to believing you don't actually know what you've written, even if you totally do.

    SMOOSHES TO ALL. Thank you for letting us read your stories!!

  27. Dear Authoress (et al):

    Some of your insights are frustrating for me. The real beginning of my adult novel begins with all the things you say you are after: MC, inherent conflict, etc.

    The problem is that you ask for the the first 250 words. My first 250 happens to be from a prologue, actually a parallel story that merges with the main one. Sure, it contains action, but after 500 words, the main story begins.

    I guess there's no way for me to "win" under your construct and your definition of problems ... unless I skip the prologue and cut to the main story. And if you say to start with the main story, I can't do that because the novel juxtaposes two time periods fifty years apart.

  28. Milhaud - Prologues are usually discouraged for reasons related to what you just described. You can pull them off, but they make your life harder.

    If your chapter 1 is where it gets interesting, then start at chapter 1. If the prologue is in a different time period, wouldn't it just as easily fit in after the first scene/chapter instead of being the opening of your novel?

    I had to remove the first two chapters of my book because I realized the story really started in chapter 3. So it's not impossible.

    Of course, I haven't read the opening so I could just be blowing smoke here. Just something to think about.

  29. Thanks Cloe for your attempt at helping. But what I started my adult novel with was really not a traditional prologue. It was the beginning of a secondary plot. The main story is dependent upon it. And it comes first chronologically. Therefore, it needs to be seen first in the novel.

    I think a contest like this is simply not suited for some pieces. Mine is one of them.

  30. If your book requires that 500-word snippet in order to make sense, then your task is to make those 500 words as interesting, compelling, and conflict-driven to the reader as your chapter 1 (and the rest of your novel.)

    Even if you're not participating in a contest with it, you still need to hook agents, publishers, and readers. If they start reading your novel and think of the snippet as useless fluff instead of compelling reading, they'll pass on it just like a 250-word-limit contest would. Just because you send an agent the first ten sample pages doesn't mean they'll read all ten.

    Wherever you decide to start your novel, make it the best it can be. Authroess' list of problems to be wary of is a good place to start.

  31. Here's hoping the bidding agents understand the BDP and don't let the author's (perhaps misdirected) stab at genre dissuade them from a project they like the sound of otherwise.

    Can't wait until Nov. 30th. Best of luck to all entrants and agents!

  32. Am I the only one dying to know---What are the recurring names and the trends in Themes? haha!! Please tell me!

  33. I'm also curious about the recurring names. Please reveal some common names to avoid!

    And I for one, would like a definitive list of genres. I'm sorry but genres are CONFUSING. How many are there?

    I haven't submitted to agents yet, but I've been so confused by the matter than I've been leaning towards as-long-as-it-gets-across-what-the-book-is-about. But now that seems WRONG. Because at least a couple of your examples give me a clear picture.

    What if I have a science fiction novel that's light on science? Is it social science fiction? Soft science fiction? If it's geared at women might be it Women's fiction, or is that not a genre either? Help!