Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tales From the Slush Pile

A few weeks back, the number of submissions in my inbox climbed above my previous record high. That's a situation that makes me want to hide under the blankets. I try to keep the number of pending manuscripts as low as possible, and try though I do, it never seems to be completely under control.

Aggravating my blanket-diving urges is the fact that two of them have been hanging around for a while. I need a chunk of time to do them justice, and every time I block out a couple of hours for one or the other, something catches on fire. And whoa, damn, do I look good in a big ol' fire hat. Apparently.

I did read through a few dozen or so over the weekend. Most of those were partials, and most were rejected. A few things did jump out at me while I was reading, and we haven't done a slush list in a while, so here we go.

1. Why is everyone in Romancelandia suddenly naming their heroines Tory? I sure hope this doesn't lead to heroes named Whig.

2. Here's a plot that's been done to death: Female friends go to a house party famous for its decadence and orgies. Costumes and masks are required. Heroine, still smarting over a failed relationship, is determined to have revenge sex/a pointless fling, and jumps on the first guy who presents an erection. Hijinks ensue. Take off the masks and -- gasp! -- it's her ex. (Just once I'd like the heroine to recognize the guy by his penis, and play some prank on him.) (Because, really, they don't all look alike.) (Not that I would know from experience, cuz I'm so pure and all. Hi, mom!)

3. The overall quality of our submissions are on the rise. We're rejecting fewer and fewer manuscripts at the initial query stage. This is good because it gives us more good material to choose from, but it also creates more reading for the acquisitions staff.

4. Narrative summary is not the writer's friend, especially not in the first ten pages. Start with a scene, please. (How many times have I said that?)

5. If you put the url for your website on your query, and it's not an auto-reject, I will probably take a look at your website. Maybe that's not a smart move for someone who has to bang out a lot of work in a short period of time, but I'm terminally curious. I like to see how you brand yourself and how up-to-date the site is. And, yes, I also check to see who else has published you. This is a mostly self-indulgent exercise because I've never yet rejected someone because of something on their websites. But there have been a couple of times that a really sharp website has tipped me from a maybe to a please send more. And yes, that did happen this weekend.

6. Please buy Alicia's book and learn everything you can about point of view. Even experienced authors are making routine mistakes that dilute their narratives. Example:

He watched the coffee slosh to the rim of his mug.


The coffee sloshed to the rim of his mug.

In the first example, we're observing the character as he observes the coffee. In the second, we're observing the coffee from within the character's point of view. Little things can mean a lot.

7. We need more good historicals. But especially, we need historicals with freshness and energy. Feel free to spread the word and flood my inbox.

8. Do we think werewolves are over yet? Every time I think some sub-sub-niche in paranormals are about to slack off, along comes a manuscript that is so inventive and fun that I know it will reinvigorate this audience. Vampires feel a bit tapped out, but even there, it's not over yet. I'm starting to think that paranormals might be the new historicals -- they may wax and wane, but they'll probably never die out. Even so, I rejected an awful lot of werewolf stories this weekend because they were a bit too familiar. (Woman is targeted by bad pack leader because of her soopa-doopa secret werewolf pheremones. Shock! Werewolves are really, really real! Hero fights bad pack leader and wins alpha status and the girl. The End.) But seriously, these stories are still pretty hot, even if they're starting to develop their own set of cliches.

9. If you're going to give them paranormal powers, how about using those powers in ways that are more than merely incidental? I mean, if they can fly for pete's sake, can it be something more than just another method of transportation? Can it be, you know, important somehow? To the plot? I don't know, like maybe they can't escape the bad guy because he pours salt on their wings. Or maybe they have sex in mid-air and nearly plummet to their deaths at a crucial moment. Or something. Magic powers are cool and fun, and they're generally under-leveraged.



Anonymous said...

My tale is still in your slush pile, and I wondered after how many weeks I should assume my query got lost in the pile?

Edittorrent said...

Hi, Nervous,

I'm pretty backed up right now because I had to be out for several weeks this fall. But if you have't heard back from me in, say, the next two weeks, send me a nudge. I'm trying to clear out my backlog now, so give me a couple weeks to try to dig out first.


green_knight said...

Narrative summary is not the writer's friend

I beg to differ. Narrative summary in addition to description (static/action) or scenes (in-the-moment) increases the dynamic range of a writer's toolkit. One thing narrative summary allows you to do is to include those pesky bits that are neither important enough to get a full-blown scene nor unimportant enough to be left out.

I've just written a scene where eight characters sit around a campfire and enter into a pact. Three of them are condensed in 39 words, beginning with 'After that, the others followed' and a short characterisation for each of them. Then I segue into the next speaker, and his part is interesting enough to play out in real time again.

Large blocks of narrative summary, or narrative summary in place of scenes (a bad habit of mine) are a problem, but narrative summary per se isn't.

Serena said...

I hope that you get through your slush pile soon... Great advice in your post. Thanks. I'm just starting a vampire novel, so its good to keep up to date on the market.

Edittorrent said...

I'd also say narrative summary in the opening of the story might suggest I started in the wrong place. That is, if this event isn't important enough to be related more or less in real-time, is it important enough to start the story?

Later, when the reader will know the characters and the situation, we might have some scenes where there's action that doesn't show enough to be narrated in toto... but -- it's not that narrative summary doesn't have its place, but to me it would suggest that maybe there's not enough essential going on, which would be pretty deadly in the opening.

So when would you go for a scene break (with some physical break, like some characters leaving, or a change of setting) rather than a narrative bridge in the same scene?

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Alicia, that was what I meant. When we're in the slush, we're evaluating manuscripts on the basis of the first few pages.

But really, even in the middle of a book, narrative summary is probably best kept to a minimum for the very same reason. Aside from transitions, that is, which are probably the best use of this narrative element.


Edittorrent said...

Kate Moore mentions that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen relates verbatim the dialogue where there's conflict, but narratively bridges when the speakers agree. "They agreed that..."

Maybe we're thinking that we shouldn't have much agreement. :) That is, conflict is good in fiction (not in life).

green_knight said...

The Curse of Chalion starts with a line of narrative summary - Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. - before going into what is mainly description with a small dollop of action and an equally small helping of internalisation and a trace of flashback. The first line of dialogue is on page two, and there are ten words of dialogue on the first two pages.

Bujold does not lose the immediacy in all of this; and she creates a lot of tension - implicit and explicit - by describing what ought to be a fairly simple scene.

Alma Alexander's 'Secrets of Jin Shei' begins with 'It had been the hottest summer in living memory' and continues for the rest of the page, introducing a character on page two, with the first line of dialogue on page three - all five words of it.

It's a beautifully written book, which has neither conflict nor action at the outset. Maybe this sort of thing doesn't work for all genres, or all readers, but it works for these two books, and it works for me. I would hate not to have more books like these available.