Tag Archives: making your submission stand out

Start Strong, and Carry On

Since last Saturday, my mind has been buzzing with ideas and suggestions about how to make my writing better and more attention-grabbing, and I’m really trying to remember it all before it fizzles away into the arid dustbowl inside my head. I learned a lot from the agents who spoke to us about what makes them take notice of a submission – make your opening snappy, make your first sentence brilliant, don’t overlook the importance of the first five pages – but it was a lot to take in.

This is how my brain feels, right now. Image: cnn.com

This is how my brain feels, right now.
Image: cnn.com

Then I had an idea: compare a current WiP with an earlier version of the same story, and see how far you’ve come – if indeed you have progressed at all. It can be really hard to think objectively about your own work when you’re so isolated from other writers; you don’t know how you compare, where you stand, whether you’re any good in relation to them. So, the next best thing is to compare your current work with what you were doing years ago and see whether you’ve improved.

This, of course, can be a scary prospect.

I’m currently working on a new book, one without a title (so we can call it ‘Mara’, after the main character); it’s based very loosely on an idea I had years ago but which quickly ran out of steam. According to the file, the original work dates from 2006; I couldn’t believe it had been so long. It’s an idea that never quite left me alone, which is why I’m currently working on it again.

In the original version of this story the character was called Molly, not Mara, but everything else is the same. She is a young girl of twelve whose father was lost at sea almost a year before the story begins, and she is finding it hard to cope with her grief. Here’s the opening paragraph of the first version of this story:

Molly wrapped herself tightly in the old tartan shirt that had once belonged to her dad; it still smelled like him, a faint hint of his old aftershave soothing her, making her feel safe. The shirt was red, her dad’s favourite colour, and it was soft and downy against her cheek. Falling asleep had been hard since her dad had died. It had been nearly a year now, so perhaps the scent that Molly could barely detect on the shirt was her imagination, or a memory. She snuggled deeper into it, her forehead wrinkling with effort, praying for the smell to stay with her. Just as she was about to fall asleep, her eyes jerked open, and she glanced towards her wardrobe door. It was open. She blinked into the half-darkness for a couple of breaths, her heart thundering in her chest, before flinging the shirt to one side and clambering out of bed. How could the door be open? She had asked Mum to close it before she went to bed… She shut the door hard, convinced she had woken her mother up with the thump, but there was no stirring from the next room. She crept back over the floor, swaddling herself in the shirt once more, and, checking one last time that the wardrobe door had stayed shut, fell into a fitful sleep.

Right. So much for that.

Now, here’s the opening paragraph of the current version of the book – bearing in mind it’s a first draft, let’s compare the two:

Wait for it, thought Mara. Any second now
The car swung round the bend, like it did every morning at ten past eight, and the big white arrows appeared on the road, as usual. This way to Fun! screamed the sign, looking even more garish than it usually did. It was covered in pictures of kids laughing as they careered down plastic chutes wearing inflatable rings around their middles, and giant hotdogs danced with knives and forks all the way along the bottom. The South-East’s Best Holiday Destination! it announced, as if anyone didn’t know.
‘That stupid place,’ griped Mum, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel. ‘If I have to look at it one more time…’ Her words fizzed away into mumbles, but Mara didn’t need to hear. She said the same things every morning as they passed the motorway exit for the waterpark.
‘It’s supposed to be quite fun, actually,’ said Mara, gazing out the window as the brightly-painted sign whizzed by. ‘Some of the girls in my class went – ‘
‘I don’t want to talk about this, Mara. All right? Just, I don’t know. Turn on the radio, or something.’
Mara sighed, twisting around in her seat. She leaned forward slowly so the safety belt wouldn’t cut into the side of her neck, and reached toward the radio buttons. ‘You won’t have to do this much longer anyway, Mum. Bring me to school, I mean. After next week, you won’t have to pass it any more.’
Mrs Fletcher’s head snapped around like she’d been slapped. ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, I won’t have to bring you to school? Why wouldn’t I have to bring you to school?’ Her eyes were bugging out, and there were two tiny white spots on either side of her nose.
‘I – just – the summer holidays!’ said Mara, her words flapping about like a freshly caught fish. ‘I mean, you won’t have to bring me to school because of the holidays. That’s all.’
Mum licked her lips, and looked back at the road again. She blinked, and coughed a bit, and wiped one hand over her forehead. ‘Just – don’t do that. Don’t talk like that. All right?’
Mara slumped back in her seat. ‘Like what?’
‘You know very well what, Mara Fletcher,’ snapped Mum, glancing around as she got ready to indicate. ‘You know very well.’
And Mara did know. She should’ve thought before saying anything. Mum had been like this ever since Dad had died – always thinking the worst, and expecting the worst, and waiting for the next disaster.
Soon, it would be a year.
Mara wrapped her hand around her conch-shell necklace, and stayed quiet until they pulled into the school car park. When she told Mum ‘goodbye,’ all she did was nod.

 I’m not sure which version you prefer, but I know which one I like better – the second, by a mile. It’s like it was written by a different person. This is the difference that almost eight years (eight years!) can make to your writing. The first version is flat – it tells, rather than shows,the reader what Molly is going through. We get no real insight into her mind, or her relationship with her mother. It’s also riddled with clichés – the scent of a deceased loved one lingering on their clothing, a story beginning with someone falling asleep or waking up (this should, I now know, always be avoided), abrupt transitions from one narrative thread to another (the shirt to the wardrobe door), overwrought language – and, frankly, it’s boring.

Forgive me. I was young and stupid when I wrote this.

The second version – though far from perfect – is more dynamic. It makes use of dialogue. It sets up the important things in an opening scene: the relationship between the protagonist and her mother; hints at a couple of different sorts of conflict, not just the obvious one; the reader is shown the grief they are feeling and the stress it is causing rather than being simply told.

Comparing these pieces of work has illustrated exactly how important the lessons I learned at the weekend are – you really can’t overlook the importance of your opening sections when writing a novel. You need to begin in the right place, hooking a reader into an emotional relationship with your characters just before you yank the carpet out from under them. You have to really work at the opening scenes because that’s the only chance you have to attract a reader’s full attention. Personally, I also believe you owe it to your reader to keep that standard up throughout the book – I’ve read so many stories that start off brilliantly but taper away as they go – but it’s definitely true that an agent, or a potential reader, won’t keep struggling with a book that starts off clumsily.

I recommend doing this exercise (comparing something you’re writing now with something you wrote years ago) because it shows you that, even if you didn’t think it, you have progressed. It’s only natural that you’ll get better as you go, and the more you work at your writing the more polished and interesting it will become.

Even if reading your old work does make you feel a bit like this:

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Bonne chance!

 

Finding North

What happens when you feel like you’re on the wrong track?

Image: thinkingmomsrevolution.com

Image: thinkingmomsrevolution.com

In the course of researching the market, checking out agents’ requirements, keeping on top of trends in the publishing industry and all those other vital things that anyone who desires a career in writing needs to do, I come across a lot of scary information. I read articles which decry the upswing in children’s stories featuring magic – ‘Harry Potter is so over, people!’ – and some which say there aren’t enough stories like that. I’ve sweated my way through blog posts complaining about exactly the sort of books I love to read – and, by extension, write – and industry diatribes against children’s books which feature some, or all, of the things I’m currently working on. I have had a children’s book in mind for years, one I just haven’t found quite the right voice for yet, which – apparently – is so old hat as to be laughable. Agents and publishers all seem to be searching for something which is new, which is fresh, which is different, but if what I think of as new and fresh and different is boring as dust to them, then what am I to do?

I haven’t written a new short story for quite some time, besides one which I entered into a competition a few weeks ago. I feel like I’ve lost touch, somewhat, with what the market is looking for in terms of short fiction – either I’m churning out cliché, or I’m just not fashionable any more in terms of the subjects and/or style I choose to use, or something else, something I can’t put my finger on, is wrong with my work. I went through a golden patch of success with my stories when I was completely new to writing them – they seemed to fit the moment, and the readers to whom I was sending them understood what I was getting at, and could get on board with what I wanted to achieve – but in recent months, they’ve fallen on cold, stony soil. I wouldn’t even worry about this – taste is a subjective and amorphous thing, everyone is looking for something different in a short story, there’s room for all sorts of creative work, and all that – except for the fact that when I read short stories now, particularly award-winning ones, I just don’t get them.

In the immortal words of Jordan Catalano – they ‘just don’t hold my attention.’

Image: notsuperhuman.com

Image: notsuperhuman.com

I’m not for one split second trying to say that the short stories I’m reading aren’t good – clearly, they are, or they wouldn’t be winning awards – but what I mean is this: how have I become so out of touch with what’s required of a story that I can’t even read, and enjoy, an obviously well-crafted piece of work?

Of course, I believe it’s important to be true to your own voice and honest about what you feel when you’re writing a story. It’s pointless to write ‘to’ a market, because it changes so regularly. Having said that, it worries me that I don’t seem to be able to keep abreast of changes, and that the ideas I’m having are old, out of fashion, out of favour – unsellable, unlovable, dead in the water before they’ve even set sail.

Writing is a hard thing. Not only is it difficult, and time-consuming, and brain-consuming, to sit down and spend hours tapping away at a keyboard but it’s also hard on the soul to create something special and unique to you, something you love and want to share with the world, which then falls at the first hurdle. Writing fiction can be intensely personal; what you write says a lot about who you are. So, if what you write is out of touch, out of favour, unfashionable – or, if you believe it to be so – it can be a deep wound in a secret place, one which you carry with you but show to nobody. A person can’t help but be interested in what they love, and a writer will write what interests them, and what excites and motivates their creative brain. Creating a piece of work is an achievement in itself, of course, but realistically, spending months or years writing something which you love, which then goes on to sit on your desk gathering dust or which ping-pongs around from agent to agent for years without finding a home, is disheartening.

I don’t have an answer for all this. You can’t write to a market because by the time you’ve finished your book the market has changed, as markets are wont, and your carefully crafted story about canine vampires from outer space has been done to almost literal death. You can’t write to a market because that’s not being true to yourself as a writer, and it’s also a little cynical. Instead you write because you love it, and you love the stories you’re telling, and you write them as well as you can, and you try to improve your craft with every project you complete. All you can do is hope that, someday, the market and your talent and your idea and your submission will all align like planets in an intergalactic conjunction, and the magic will start to happen.

Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

Image: ibnlive.in.com

Image: ibnlive.in.com

All a person can do is keep the focus on their own personal North. Write what’s true, and what’s real, and – while remaining aware of trends – don’t let yourself be swayed by what other people expect. Write what you love, as well as you possibly can. And – maybe – take some time out and do some reading, or remove your head from your writing space altogether in order to let some new ideas come sweeping in. It’s worth a shot.