Yesterday we had our MinnSpec slush pile meetup. Eric, Michael and I sat on a panel with our leader, Hilary, before an audience of writers as we crushed their poor hearts. At the end, some were visibly shaken, but most took it pretty well. No one shot at us, at least.
Each panel member voiced their opinions on 11 stories, posted anonymously. We discussed where we stopped reading each story and why. Some of it was pretty harsh to hear, but I think it’s important for writers to have this information, so I hope they use it to their advantage. You’re not likely to get this information from rejections these days (most use generic rejection forms).
Here’s the takeaway from our panel’s opinions:
Start your story in the right place
Many of the stories we read started in the wrong place with events or characters that weren’t integral to the plot. Some had prologues, which tend to have the opposite effect than writer intended (decreasing interest in the story rather than increasing it).
Opening lines and hooks matter
Many stories I read, I would have rejected within the first few paragraphs. I wouldn’t reject a story at the first line, but many gave me pause enough to make me doubt the story. That’s not a good way to start off a reading.
Embrace the power of your opening line. That first sentence can provide enough fuel to carry me through to the end of a story, even if the story isn’t that great. There was one story I read with an awesome first sentence. I was so excited to read that one. That’s exactly what you want to happen when you submit your stories.
We need to care
Don’t start in the middle of a action-packed scene if we have no idea who the characters are, because if we don’t care about them, we don’t care what happens to them. It’s action with no drama, and it bores the reader.
Action that doesn’t build plot
This is one I see in a lot of stories I critique as well. The character goes somewhere and does something normal with no consequences or goal in sight. A character is grocery shopping. Driving. Eating. Walking.
Your readers are bored.
Grocery shopping isn’t enough to keep interest alive. However, if your character is late for a job interview … and she needs to drop the baby off at a sitter … but the store is out of diapers … and now the baby’s just had an accident … and now her suit is ruined … but if she doesn’t get this job she’ll lose her house …
Adding a goal, obstacles and/or consequences will create a plot, not just a wandering character.
Tenacity and Thick Skin
Perhaps the most important ingredient in making a successful writer: tenacity. Michael told a story about writers he’d met who were far more talented than he, but they gave up after a few rejections. I gave up too, in college after professors complained about my writing, and only recently got back into it. I think we’ve all heard the stories about rejected authors making it big (JK Rowling), but understand that EVERY author has to deal with rejection. YOU WILL GET REJECTED. Your feelings will be hurt. It sucks.
Michael said he has over 1000 rejections in his writing career. But he didn’t give up, and he’s got over 80 published short stories, a novel and a few novellas under his belt.
Don’t give up. Keep working. Keep learning. Keep growing. You’ll get there eventually.