I recently read and commented on a number of submissions for Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Arts’ journal for the arts, and James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest, and it was really time consuming, but wow—so helpful! Recognizing shortcomings in the writing of others helped me identify shortcomings in my own.
Some of the submissions I read were good, and others were brimming with stereotypes—characters I already knew, or ones the writer assumed I knew. The football player. The cheerleader. The abusive boyfriend. Then there was the backstory. And the telling instead of showing. But you know what? It hit me that my stories used to sound like those. I received more than a decade’s worth of rejections before Brotherhood came out, and in the years since its release, I’ve gotten two more. I’m still learning. I appreciate that writing is hard, and these writers are trying hard. I applaud them for trying! I’m still trying, too.
I don’t have any sort of neat, simple how-to guide for writing fiction, but after all that reading, I suppose I do have a few tips…
For what it’s worth, if you’re looking to dazzle an agent or editor or little old slush pile reader like me, my meagre advice is that before submitting your project, you take the time to revise it like crazy.
- Begin in media res—in the middle of a moment that matters to your protagonist and helps the reader understand what the character wants.
- If a scene doesn’t impact the protagonist’s desire line, let it fall by the wayside.
- Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
- Describe your characters’ actions in ways that allow readers to infer the emotions (without you naming the emotions).
- Include sensory details (especially smells, tastes and textures).
Along the way, my hope for all of you is the same as my hope for myself—that we embrace the process. Love the process! I’ve found that I do love it, and I hope I keep loving it. If you haven’t fallen in love with writing, then find something else to love. Gardening, perhaps…? Puppies…? Getting Congress to… Okay, I think I’ll stop there. Happy writing!