We also learned about the bleak state of the publishing industry, how there are only five big houses now, and how the entrance into those houses is no larger than a keyhole. The unspoken but very present question among all of us: Does anyone get through that tiny opening?
The answer I heard was “No.”
Okay, a few writers will. Barbara J, an acquisitions editor from Holt, has to be highly selective in choosing manuscripts to publish. She approaches each submission with two factors in mind: “the basic” and “the bold.”
The basic involves grammar, word choice, punctuation, formatting and other structural matters. She expects perfection. She abhors meaningless explaining or repetition of information, which can include some very subtle phrasing. She dislikes what she calls “bad acting”— gestures that aren’t needed. (When my character nodded, it was bad acting.) Another pet peeve is exposition through dialogue (“Where is he this time?” “Bermuda” is an example from my text that she shared with the group).
She also hates submissions that don’t include a title page, and if they do have a title page, the font shouldn’t be too large. A phrase she often repeated: “one name per character per story.” So don’t call him “Joe” in one paragraph and “her husband” in the next. And if you introduce him as Joe Smith in the opening paragraph, you must call him Joe Smith from then on. (I know, I know. Odd, don’t you think?)
For Barbara, the “bold” is what makes a manuscript stand out—an idea, a voice, a theme, a certain something that makes it different/better/awe-inspiring. That makes her not reject it. (Think Jeannette Walls’ amazing THE GLASS CASTLE).
I suspect that “the bold” may always elude me. Is there magic involved? Or is it more like a winning lottery ticket?
My workshop experience was a rocky one. Ours was a very large group, twelve members plus the leader. I had been told that mine was the first submission up for critique, so that Monday morning I felt some trepidation. When I spotted the buzzards circling over the building, it didn’t help.
Turns out, the buzzards were onto something. Forty-five minutes were spent dissecting my first page, pointing out the “bad acting” and “meaningless explaining words.”
I left feeling a little scorched. When I got back to my room, I went through the narrative, making all the changes she suggested. She had some valid criticisms. A few places required an adverb-ectomy. (Dammit! I should have caught those!) And perhaps a paragraph or two were overwritten (“WAAY overwritten,” she said).
But much of what I removed I eventually put back. The clean, lean narrative she loved eliminated my voice. And, more importantly (which is an unnecessary explaining word), it blunted the characters, making their thoughts and ways of approaching the world hard to distinguish.
Bottom line? I can’t be a different writer than who I am. I have flaws—zillions of them—and I must work to overcome them. But in that process, I’m not going to erase my voice.
The good news? I spent time with some friends who are terrific writers and met some very talented folk, expanding my circle of writer colleagues.