When novelist Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand)
was asked to help winnow entries for short story contests and literary journals, it was her turn to switch from seeking approval to giving it out. Sparingly. As she puts it:
Having spent many years putting hours of effort and creativity into my own work -- sending off brown envelopes filled with still-warm pages, to various editors and judges -- it is rather horrifying to discover that it takes me about a minute to know that yet another manuscript is about to be "binned" as they say. In a sort of apology, I feel the least I can do is to reveal a few of the instant signs that your writing genius will not be discovered by the judges this time around!
What follows is a few of Simonson's deal-killers, from her only somewhat tongue-in-cheek article "Ten ways to get your writing rejected':
- Your male character is carrying around a battered and much-loved copy of a Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein or Rimbaud -- guaranteed to get you moved to the "Pretentious? Moi?" pile.
- Your female character, the "love interest" of your hero, has a "dancer's body" and/or "jutting hip bones." I'll personally take those jutting hip bones (says Simonson), and raise you a donut, as I casually toss it into the "get my own back on skinny youth" pile.
- The hand of God as plot resolution.
- Your careful depiction of suburban alienation and the empty materialism of bourgeois marriage, will be put in the "suburban alienation and bourgeois marriage" pile, so that in a later round, I and some colleagues can lay out the ten or twelve similar manuscripts and pick the one least likely to make us go home and ask for a divorce.
- Personal information relating to your significant psychological issues or your desire to travel with Bertie the parrot (particular to residential writing programs).
AND YET MORE DEAL KILLERS
And here are a few of my own additions to the "get rejected fast" list:
- Begin the story with long paragraphs of description, not a character or bit of action in sight.
- Include numerous cliches on the first page.
- Spend inordinate amounts of time telling readers whenever a character opens and walks through a door.
- Construct every sentence, especially in dialogues, as a complete and grammatically correct sentence.
In reality, agents and editors (and contest screeners) rarely provide specifics as to why they've turned something down. The most you'll usually get is a general brush-off, something like, "While your writing and the storyline are good, I wasn't sufficiently drawn in to take this on." Entertain me better, is what they mean.
And that is a product of putting together all the positives, avoiding all the negatives, a lot of luck, much persistence, and reaching one of the publishing gatekeepers on a day she hasn't had an overdue tax notice in the mail.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Susan K. Perry