I love great art and I want you to make more great art for me to love. In that selfish-but-awkwardly-well-meaning spirit, I offer you a sliver of wisdom garnered from reading tons of submissions over the centuries. These are mostly concerned with otherwise well-written or voicey manuscripts—writers that obviously have a lot of natural talent and/or potential.
If I seem unsympathetic or harsh, it’s because by jove! we haven’t got much time to do our best work. So let’s get down to brass tacks.
*I won’t bother with some of the more obvious “don’ts” in writing because I’ve read that post 682 times and don’t want to beat a dead horse until it’s deader than it was before you started beating it, which was already pretty dead.
Here’s Why I Rejected Your Manuscript:
1. Your narrator is a transparent eyeball.
Emerson praised the necessity of going into the wilderness to lose oneself entirely, to be nothing and see all, to make oneself a transparent eyeball in order to achieve oneness with the god of creation.
The god of creation may love a transparent eyeball. Your reader does not.
If you find that you’ve written a narrator who exists solely to report what is going on, who seems to want/love/hate/fear nothing, who has no worldview, then what you’ve done is found your way into your story with a (perhaps) clever voice. Good for you! But you have to kill that narrator and their fashionable over it ennui that might have gotten them/you tail in high school, but will bore the reader to splinters.
But what if the action/plot is so wonderful the narrator just has to stay out of the way?
If, while writing, your story does that wonderful thing where it takes the leash in its own mouth and starts to pull in a direction that focuses entirely on the characters and situations being reported, honestly ask yourself what the narrator has to bring to it, as a thinking, feeling, disgusting, wonderful human being.
If the answer is nothing, then cut them out of the story and turn it into a 3rd omniscient (removed). You might instead go 3rd close and switch POVs. Do anything else: Just lose the all-seeing, non-human motherfucker.
Now maybe you can’t ditch them—you love the bastard. Something about them has you intrigued. Okay, let them talk to you. Grab another page and let your narrator just ramble, babble, scream, cry, bitch….get all their boring narcissistic crap out until they say something revealing. They want something, even if it’s a sandwich. Keep that want in mind while you go back into the story—let it color how everyone and everything is described. Render unto your narrator that which is your narrator’s!
Or, if you think your narrator is lying to you, is afraid to come out, you can play in a fecund garden of unreliability—you’ll be telling two stories at once: the what’s-happening, face-value story, and the truly profound one being revealed in the narrator’s mirror reflection.
- Catcher in the Rye (I get the sense that a lot of young writers are mistaking Holden’s hold me/hate me misanthropy for a cool aloofness and trying to emulate it)
- Gatsby (hint: it’s not all about Gatsby)
- Faulkner’s poop-yourself-scary-ghost-story “A Rose for Miss Emily” (narrator as town)
- Heart of Darkness (not one, but two narrators adding their own filters and reactions to Kurtz)
2. Your story takes place in a bar and consists nearly entirely of sexy, witty-ish banter. (Doubles in travesty when coupled, as it often is, with #1)
A writing teacher (or eight) was fond of saying, “Imagine you are in a plane that’s going down and you have time to tell one story. What is it?” This scenario drives home just what it is that unites the works who’ve ascended to Olympus: we give a shit. Something important and true has been revealed about our humanity, our world, ourselves.
If a bunch of twenty-or-thirtysomethings dialoguing and flirting in a bar is the most important and true thing you can conjure up, you need to sell all your belongings and hitch a ride on the next freighter going anywhere. Take a vow of silence for a year. Become the transparent eyeball I just warned you not to let your narrator become.
You have watched too many mumblecore movies. You have had too many significant personal moments in bars. Don’t feel bad, we’ve all been there. But your fun time/philosophical discussion/lusty friction hasn’t earned the right to be the one tale you must tell about being human. Bars (and drugs and other things tyro writers use for sex appeal) destroy people, they house the lonely, they embrace the unloved, they are the last train to oblivion, but they are not not not not not a place for you to spend 15 pages acting out your real-life sexual frustrations.
How to use a bar/drunkenness/drugs:
- Denis Johnson
- Raymond Carver
- Mary Karr
- Murrr, fine, Bukowski. If you have an example of Bukowski that was devastating for you, please tell.
- Hunter S Thompson — I realize for every grump like me who doesn’t love Bukowski, there’s a grump who argues with me about my love for HST.
3. You spend 5, 10, 15 pages on dialogue like this:
“Cristie’s just jealous because you can hold your liquor better than she can.”
“Shut up!” Christie punched Jim in the shoulder. “Besides, I thought you liked a girl who can’t hold her liquor. They’re so much easier.”
“Easier than what?” Jim asked innocently, sipping his beer.
“Easier than you like to think you like,” she smirked.
*This is a composite of dialogue from three entirely separate submissions I read (almost in a row), and which set off the conniption fit that is this blog post.
Awful attributes aside, this is not a story. It’s a [terrible] script. Reformat it, move to Los Angeles, and shove it in every new acquaintance’s face. They’ll LOVE it—and you for bringing it to them.
4. (Okay, I’ll include one basic everyone-should-know-this rule because I’ve seen an alarming number of these transgressions) SPELL IT RIGHT
If you can’t tell the difference between “they’re” and “their,” how can I trust that you understand language enough to wield it? If you can’t take the trouble to Google “iPad” then how can I trust you are including the word three times in the first page for a good reason?
And then punctuation. Punctuation is the rhythm section of your band. It tells you when to slow down, speed up, stop, hang on a minute… If you don’t have an expert grasp on punctuation, I don’t trust you will take me where you wanted me to go.
Doing some lazy math I calculate that 10% of the submissions I read have a typo or grammatical error or language misuse in the first three sentences.
The first three.
All is intentional, must feel intentional for the reader to relax into your hands.
And that strikes at the heart of a fundamental problem I see repeated most often in student submissions: lazy, self-centered storytellers. (Take heart, kiddos: if lazy aloofness is attributed to the young amateur, the older amateur will copy mediocre genre formulas, right down to the hackneyed phrasing and embarrassing sex scenes.)
It’s often lamented about this generation that they keep expecting to be rewarded just for showing up—on the page and everywhere. But you know, they said my generation was apathetic and full of ourselves. And my hippie parents and their friends were just lazy narcissists. It’s just youth. It’s just starting out in anything. Give a shit about being the best. Show up and practice and listen to your idols and listen to your deep, personal, one-of-a-motherfucking-kind voice, and honor that it is hard, honor that you have to make mistakes, honor that you will try not to screw up in the same way this time, read advice like this, hate it, chew it over, see what sticks in your craw, take what resonates as “this is currently my problem, yes” and ignore the rest—the right lesson for you will find you at the right time.
But for godssake, don’t just show up. Don’t be safe. Don’t be sexy and cool. Be excellent. Tell the story you’ll wish you told while you were falling to the earth.