Rookie mistakes, medieval torture, and first pages

What if, instead of a rejection letter, writers were subjected to medieval torture for the rookie mistakes embedded in their submissions along with that über fancy font that they think will catch the eye of an agent?

My thoughts turned to medieval torture when I was in the medieval city of Bologna, Italy for the SCBWI Symposium sitting in on the agent panel review of first pages.

Kristin Nelson, Steven Chudney, Frances Plumpton, Sarah Davies, Rosemary Stimola, Marcia Wernick and Kendra Marcus made up the panel of esteemed agents who gave on-the-spot feedback to first pages that were submitted by writers at the symposium.

It was the first time the agents had heard the pages and their responses were fresh. Their responses were thoughtful (in fact I think many of them were doing the ‘count to ten’ thing in their head), their words were carefully chosen (unlike the words in my head) and their feedback was helpful and focused on making the story better (I have always maintained that if writers listen to feedback, they can save themselves years of development as a writer).

One universal piece of advice was to grab your reader, throttle them and bring them in. Hmmm ... sounds like torture to me ... just saying!

I’m not an agent or an editor and I am frustrated by the rookie mistakes I see writers make. I don’t understand why writers don’t do their homework?! Especially when there is so much information available from awesome blogs such as Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, Nathan Bransford's and Janet Reid's blog.

I’ll let you in on my internal dialogue as the first pages were read aloud, and the medieval torture I would have condemned the writer to. I did a google search on medieval torture techniques and they were truly medieval and torturous so I came up with writerly medieval torture techniques.

Crime: Engaging story that turns out to be … yes, you guessed it … A DREAM!

followed by

a story that starts with the character waking up in the morning.

First of all writers - seriously? really? After all we’ve been through?

Punishment: One day in the kneecap crusher … or another eight hours with your butt in a non-ergonomic chair (like the one above) rewriting the opening.

Crime: Fast action story that starts out too high and has no where to go.

Punishment: spend a day addressing self-addressed envelopes, this will help you think about pacing, then spill some more ink and start your story over.

Crime: Super high paced action that drags the character (that only exists to tell the story) through the plot.

Punishment: You drag your butt into a medieval staff meeting and realize that it is full of complex people, brimming with emotions and motivation, who have various conflicts with each other. That’s followed by riding the bus home and listening to the conversations of other passengers and you realize the same thing. Then rewrite starting from a place of character rather than plot. Whew! And a day in the kneecap crusher just for good measure.

Crime: Picture book from the parent’s point of view.

Tortuous Punishment: Poke your eye out with a mechanical pencil and change the pov.

Crime: Über cute fonts that are sure to catch an agent’s eye.

Punishment: Poke your eye out with a mechanical pencil … no, wait, I used that one already. Poke the fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger with a mechanical pencil repeating, ‘less is more, less is more’.

And if all else fails, cut off your connection to that new fangled world wide inter-web thang (it’s not gong to catch on anyway) so that you won’t spend time updating your Electronic Web Log (there’s got to be a shorter name, I know, let’s call it a welog!).

If you are guilty of any of the above (and all of us have been) you are at risk of having your head attached to the authorial wall of shame on the edificio de rejection in the heart of the medieval city of Bologna.

Next time you get a rejection letter, be thankful.

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