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Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Handle Blocking




Hopefully by now you know that in most of your scenes you need to have a character in a setting with tension, but there is an area of writing where I don't feel like we spend enough time talking about, which is blocking. And I'm not talking about writer's block.

The term "blocking" is borrowed from play performances. Blocking is just about anything an actor does that isn't dialogue: where they stand, where they look, how they interact with the setting, how they move across the stage, how close they are to what, how they interact with props. Often audiences pay little attention to blocking, or rather they don't think about it enough to appreciate it.

But if a play has little to no blocking, well, that's a tough play to sit through as an audience. They may not always have an eye for great blocking, but they'll notice if it's not there.

Blocking is just as important in fiction writing. And like with plays, it's likely the reader won't appreciate great blocking, but they'll get antsy and annoyed if there is no blocking, and they'll get confused if there is poor blocking.

If you don't use blocking, not only does it make it difficult for the audience to imagine where your characters are relative to the setting, but you're selling your story short by not using it to your advantage.

As an editor, I see blocking problems crop up from time to time, usually in dialogue scenes. The writer will tell me where the characters are (for example, cooking in the kitchen), but then as I read the scene, I get no sense of specifically where each character is in the room, what each one is doing, if they are standing at an island or sitting at the table, chopping lettuce for a salad, or loading the dish washer. Next thing I know, not only are they done cooking, but they are done eating and are outside getting in the suburban.

Sure, some scenes don't require much, if any, blocking. But in most scenes, you need some sense of blocking.

Likewise, you can over-block a scene--putting so much blocking in, that it becomes unnecessary, sucks up the scene's focus, and slows the pacing.

A great narrative hand knows how much to guide the reader and when to back off.

So let's get to some tips about blocking:

Watch out for:

 - Continuity Errors. One of the main problems I see with blocking in unpublished fiction is continuity errors. In one line, a character is sitting on a couch in the living room, and a few lines later, she's sitting on her bed, in the same scene with no sense of motion. Often it can happen with objects characters are holding. Misty is knitting a scarf, but then a few lines later, it says she's knitting a blanket. It can happen with food. Zack has a cup of orange juice, but later it talks about how he's enjoying the taste of coffee.

Watch out for when characters' hands are full or when you have them doing something they aren't capable of. For example, say it's been recently established that Sandra glued back together two broken figurines and she's holding one each hand. While she's waiting for them to dry, she doesn't dare put them down , and then suddenly she's buttoning up the jacket of her little boy. What happened to the figurines?

In some cases, motions can be assumed--but make sure they can be, or that you imply them somehow, so that it doesn't read like a continuity error.

Watch out for having characters sit down, who were already sitting, or characters standing up who were already standing. Characters who put on their shoes twice, or turn off the fan twice.


- Spatial Vagueness. I'm trying to decide if I see this one more than continuity errors . . . and I have to say probably. Another one of the most common problems with blocking, is vagueness. This usually happens because the setting, objects, or characters' distances from one another or other things haven't been properly established. I might get a line that says, "Joey walked down the street"--and as the scene goes on, I get no sense of what street, what city, what it looks like, what season it is, or where or why he is walking in the first place. Sometimes I don't get any sense of setting and only conversations and body language, and next I know, I read the line "Tiff walked inside." What? They were outside that whole conversation? And what did she walk into?

When blocking is vague, the audience has to fill in the blanks, which can be a problem if it's not what the author actually pictures. As an editor, this often happens to me. I'll be picturing the characters sitting in opposite places in a living room, and then suddenly I'm reading how one put her arm around the other. In my head, they weren't close enough to each other to do that.

Use:

- Specificity. Being specific isn't necessarily the same as being detailed. Details can help make something be specific, but they aren't the same thing. And with blocking, in some cases, the more detailed it is, the more it hurts the story because it slows the pacing and changes the story's focus. In my example above, "Joey walked down the street," the sentence can be more specific by adding and changing a few words. "Joey walked down Mulberry Street, autumn leaves crunching under his feet."

In certain kinds of action scenes, it can be very important to be specific in word choice, and not in details. "Joey leapt for the fire escape." "Margaret hit Lolly in the jaw." But if you try to put too much detail into action, it can slow the moment way down.

In some cases, it's helpful to establish the setting before the characters start interacting with it. This makes the setting or "stage" more specific in the reader's mind. They know there is a pool table and pinball machine in the room, so when one character slams the other into the pool table, it makes sense. Be specific, not vague. How much detail you include depends on pacing and the focus of the scene.


- Blocking to contribute to or emphasize points. This is especially true for conversations. As an argument gets more intense, a character may invade the other's personal space. If one character suddenly says something that makes the other uncomfortable, the latter may take a step back. If one character is vulnerable, whether the second draws closer or steps away can convey a lot.

Of course, you can use setting and props to do the same thing. As an argument gets intense, one character throws something at the other. If someone is uncomfortable, she might put something (an island, a couch, a car, a teeter-totter) between them. If she's feeling vulnerable, she might "hide" or "block" herself by getting a blanket, picking up a book to look at, or turning away from the speaker to pretend interest in a rose bush.

When Sherlock gets frustrated, what does he do? He stabs the mantle. He puts a bullet in the wall.

This is blocking that emphasizes and contributes to the situation or point at hand.

Even in a scene where blocking is the primary focus (building an invention, competing in America Ninja Warrior, forging a sword, hunting), how the character interacts with the setting and objects can emphasize points--how tightly he holds a screwdriver, how sweaty her hands are against a climbing wall, the way he beats the metal, how many shots she shoots.

You can also use blocking to heighten tension. "He picked up a knife and concealed it under the table," immediately adds tension and anticipation to a scene.



- Blocking to Convey Character. Similar, yet different from, the last section, you can use blocking to convey character, rather than just the moment at hand. The fact that Sherlock stabs the mantle whenever he gets frustrated is something specific to his character. It helps establish who he is. And actually, that fact becomes specifically important in season four--when we understand that he, someone who is supposedly not driven by emotion, sometimes manifests more raw emotion than any one else.

A character who sees litter at a park and picks it up is much different than one who adds to it. A character who comforts a crying stranger is different than one who ignores them. A character who always makes sure she's near an exit is different than one who could care less. Blocking is great to show character and their feelings, rather than tell them.


- Blocking to give motion to still or stagnant scenes. You may sometimes have scenes where all that really matters is the conversation between two of your characters, or maybe you need to have your character delve into a moment of introspection to solve a mystery. It might not matter even where this moment takes place. A lot of beginning writers will open a story with a character sitting and thinking. One of the reasons this is a problem is because there is no motion, there is nothing happening in the present moment.

Use blocking to add motion. Instead of having your character sit and think, maybe you can have her catching insects for her bug collection while she thinks. Not only does this create more motion and interest, but also gives you material for the two bullet points before this one, so that it can actually add to the introspection and characterization. The fact she just caught a monarch butterfly might not be important to the main plot, but it tells us more about her, and in fact, you can even use that event and butterfly as a type or symbol of whatever she's thinking about for added emphasis and tone.

With that said, some conversations are very important, interesting, have high tension, or natural draws--they may have incorporeal motion--and already carry the audience, and sometimes when you put in blocking, it actually takes away from that, instead of contributing to it, by drawing away the audience's attention. Their attention to the conversation is competing with the blocking. So watch for that.


- Blocking for natural pauses, lulls in conversations, and for beats in dialogue. On the topic of dialogue exchanges, when there is a natural pause in dialogue or a lull in conversation, instead of saying "There was a moment of quiet," you can put in a bit of blocking to convey that.

"Forget it," Fred said. "I didn't want your help anyway."

Nancy looked down at the scarf she was crocheting and realized her hands had stopped moving. She put the scarf down on the coffee table, and flattened it out as she tried to find her words.

"You like her, don't you?" she asked.

You can also use blocking for beats in dialogue. Rather than always using dialogue tags, you can use a beat to imply who is speaking what line.

"Cedric Diggory was murdered," Harry said.

"Whatever you've been told," Professor Umbridge said, "that. Is. A. Lie."

Harry shot up out of his desk. "It's not a lie!"


Bonus

Watch this short scene between Umbridge and McGonagall for a good example of how blocking conveys character, emphasizes points, adds motion to the scene, and how it's weaved in with dialogue. In addition to the two professors, notice the blocking in regards to the students and what it conveys.


 

Intermediate Tip:

Try to have your blocking accomplish more than one thing.

Maybe it can hike up tension and convey character.

Maybe it can emphasize a point and help us follow a fight scene.

Maybe it can replace a dialogue tag and convey something important about the setting.

And remember, in some scenes blocking is more important than in other scenes.

If you would like to learn more about blocking, Writing Excuses has a podcast episode on it.


Monday, January 22, 2018

The Secret of a Successful Mystery: Making the Reader a Participator




A lot of great stories have a mystery in them. The mystery may not be the primary focus; it might be the secondary, or the mystery might be so minor it lasts only a few chapters. But whatever the case, it should draw readers into your story and keep them turning the pages. That only happens, though, if it’s done right.

As an editor, I see a lot of unpublished work. One of the most common problems I see when an author includes a mystery is that the whole mystery seems to happen on the page. The author plants “clues” of course, but then focuses too much on them, making sure the reader “gets it,” or she has her character wonder for paragraphs upon paragraphs, with speculation that is often vague, uninteresting, or leads to conclusions that are far too predictable.

In cases like this, the reader becomes a spectator. But just as emotion is more powerful when the reader experiences it himself, mysteries are more powerful when the reader is a participator.

The narrator (which in some cases is the viewpoint character) is the readers’ guide. The narrator draws focus to certain aspects of the story, and leaves others in the background. The narrator offers an emotional tone that helps the reader interpret a scene. The narrator suggests themes and ideas and judgments on the story and characters.

In manuscripts where the mystery all happens on the page, the narrator is trying too hard to guide the reader. But the best mysteries leave enough room for the audience to interpret and hypothesize. If every aspect of your mystery is on the page and the reader is being guided through it with a heavy hand, she won’t be intellectually invested.

If you want to write a powerful mystery, you have to let the reader participate, not spectate. To do that, you need to exercise full control and skill in several areas:

Subtext – Subtext is what’s not on the page, but what is implied. When you have conscious control over subtext, your story (and mystery) immediately becomes more powerful. Because subtext is what isn’t on the page, it instantly invites the reader to become a participator. They are automatically invested in the story and contemplative about it–because they are trying to interpret the subtext. How to write (or “not write”) subtext would take far too long to explain here, but I have an article that will give you all the tools to make it happen: How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)

Subtlety – One of the problems with the mysteries that happen on the page is that they aren’t subtle enough. Usually the author is so worried about the reader “getting it,” that the mystery and its “clues” are too heavy-handed. They should be suggested, inviting and drawing the reader in, not egocentric, forcing the reader to focus on them. Even children know that being forced to do something is annoying. If you try to force your reader to notice the elements of your mystery, they are more likely to be annoyed than anything. The real power comes when readers pick up on elements themselves, and realizations and connections happen in them not on the page. For actual techniques on how to plant “clues” subtly, find that section in this article: The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries

Suggesting Connections – I touched on this already, but it’s sort of its own thing. There is a difference between planting subtle clues and suggesting connections. Maybe you want your reader to connect two different aspects of your story (or mystery) in a significant way. Maybe you want them to realize that Susan wasn’t actually getting her car washed like she said, but attending that secret meeting we heard about earlier in the story. The realization doesn’t happen on the page, so you have to learn how to suggest (not force) a connection. You can get ideas on how to do that by studying the two articles mentioned above.

Context Shifts – Basically a context shift happens when new information enters the story that changes the way we viewed things before. A great example of this comes from the movie Interstellar. The protagonist sets out on a journey in space, hoping to save the human population, but at the midpoint, new information enters that changes the context. In reality, this trip wasn’t about saving the human race. The protagonist learns that he unwittingly left everyone on Earth to their deaths.

To create context shifts, you introduce information that offers a new perspective. You may or may not connect the dots (depending on the mystery and situation), but once again, context shifts are powerful because it allows the realization to happen in the reader instead of just on the page.

Writing a great mystery involves writing a great undercurrent. You can learn more about how to write a killer undercurrent here

Monday, January 15, 2018

Can You Write to a Theme?



When it comes to talking about theme in the writing world, there is some advice that I find questionable: You should never write to a theme.

The argument is that when you write to a theme, it shows in your story. It becomes mechanical and "preachy." The story feels forced and mechanical.

But is it really true? Should you never write to a theme?

Recently I read an article where a well-known author argued that not only should you not start a story with a theme in mind, you should never ever make any attempts to put a theme in. He argued that writers should never care two cents about themes, and should just write the darn story.

Not only am I skeptical of this kind of advice, but I strongly disagree with it.

So many writers preach that writing to a theme never works and makes a story mechanical--but how can they prove this? Do they know the way every single writer has approached every single work in existence? So why would they argue this?

Because the only time they notice when a writer has written to a theme is when it's done poorly. When it draws attention to itself. When it is preachy. But if the theme is handled well in a story, people don't bother to wonder how the writer approached the theme. For all we know, they could have written the story with that theme in mind.

It can be very difficult to write to a theme--because it does run the danger of making a story feel more mechanical or preachy--but that doesn't mean it can never be done.

And it certainly doesn't mean you should never consider theme when composing your work.

My argument is that if you can truly understand writing and how the pieces fit together, you'll know how to handle theme without it being preachy. You'll know how to incorporate it without making your story feel mechanical.

When people say you can't write to a theme, what they're really saying is that it's difficult to write to a theme.

The themes in Harry Potter were guided, not random.


Also, I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that a writer should never give a thought about theme. I don't buy that. My favorite stories have powerful themes that the writer--if not from the beginning, through the process of drafts--was conscious of. After all, no one can tell me that the themes of love and death "just happened" in the Harry Potter series. They were incorporated.

Furthermore, some stories beg that a theme be taken into account simply because of the subject matter. If you are dealing with dark or graphic content, then it's almost required you have a powerful theme to justify and balance that all out--otherwise it's just gratuitous, a grotesque spectacle. If you are to write about kids killing each other in a post-apocalyptic world, than you sure as heck need to have the story be about "more" than what's on the page.

You don't have to write with a theme in mind at all, and you can ignore it through all your drafts, but if you do that, you run into other risks. Your story may have a theme that is detrimental to society. Imagine you did write The Hunger Games with no concern for theme--what would that story actually be teaching audiences? There's a real possibility it would be promoting bloodlust and violence, instead of discouraging it. See how that might be dangerous?

Some stories require you consider theme beforehand to balance out dark material


But if you want to write to a theme right out of the gate, how can you do that without it being preachy, mechanical, and formulaic? Well, as I said earlier, you need to have a firm understanding of how story parts fit together. If you can't discern what works and what doesn't, and when to press on the gas or when step on the breaks, how will you be ably to successfully write to a theme? So it starts with studying theme.

Writing with a theme is very different than reading with a theme as an audience member, which is one of the reasons it's so tricky to write one intentionally. As readers, when we think of themes, we think of the "punch line," the end result, the message, the point, the moral. But as a writer, if you come out swinging the punch line all over the plot, it becomes preachy . . . and annoying.

The point should usually be the conclusion.

The conclusion to what?

Well, as another writing tip blogger, K.M. Weiland wisely states, when it comes to writing, themes are about asking questions.

Huh?

What?

I don't know about you, but that seems to go against everything my English teachers told me. I was told that theme is a statement--the message in the story. "Love conquers all" is a theme in Harry Potter. That's a conclusion. An answer.

(Side note: There is some argument over the use of the terms "theme," "moral," "message," or what have you, and what fits where, in the writing world, but what matters is you understand the concept of what people are teaching, more so than the terminology--which can ironically be ambiguous in the writing world.)

But remember, in order to have an answer, you need to have a question. Or better, more than one question.

Of course writing a story where you come out the gates swinging around a moral isn't going to work. Who the heck cares about or appreciates the answer before they have been faced with the question? Or, maybe in better words, the answer is more powerful after you've grappled with questions.

You'll find that, apart from the climax or denouement, often the most powerful thematic moments happen in scenes where the characters or story itself poses questions. Who am I? Can you be true to yourself and still be accepted by society? Can you show mercy and still suffice justice? Do the ends justify the means? Can innocence survive a wicked world?

Les Mis is a perfect example of an intentionally crafted theme that weighs real questions


Great thematic lines in stories don't swing the answer about, they get the audience to ponder, question, and consider. The more a theme is the focus in the story, the more it needs to pose questions.

Sure, you can put in advice and morals and answers here and there--pieces along the way or pieces of a bigger picture--but the main themes and the powerful themes pose questions before giving answers. And the questions aren't black-and-white either. The best questions are complex--that's when they feel real, when you as a writer and by extension, the audience, legitimately consider multiple, possible answers.

Stories often come off as preachy when they don't fairly consider all the answers--when what the author considers to be the opposing side is oversimplified, demonized, or stereotyped. It's not required that a good theme be overly sympathetic to all answers (though it can be), but it should at least be somewhat fair when considering them.

Like the plot line, the thematic line gains full power when it reaches the climatic conclusion--the answer: You do have value. You can be accepted. Mercy is more powerful than justice. Ends don't justify the means. Innocence can conquer wickedness. (The answers may be different, depending on what kind of truths you are telling.)

But similar to the plot line, your character needs to struggle to get there. He can't win on his first try. He can't have the answer before considering the questions. With both the plot, and the theme, there should be some level of struggle. The fear, the doubt, the questions.

So can you write to a theme? I think it can be done.

Does it mean you have to?

Heavens no.

You can easily discover and mold a theme as you go. It can even be a finishing touch.

But if you have a lesson, a moral, an answer, a theme you want to intentionally share to the world, you can also do that--just remember to ask and legitimately consider the questions it takes to get there.

It is my opinion, though, that most writers fit somewhere in the middle. They may have somewhat of an idea on what the theme will involve, simply because of the content of the story, but they discover parts of it through the writing process, and refine it to fit the finished piece.

The middle, in my opinion, is often the best balance. It's hard to start a story with a highly specific theme in mind, but it's also very hard to write a good theme when you ignore that part of storytelling altogether. Sometimes it's best to have an idea, and as you write, start asking questions.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Dealing with Loneliness

 

One malady commonly associated with writing is loneliness. Writing is what I've heard someone call an "anti-social activity." You sit at a computer and work away, living in your own little world, alone. If you are like me and prefer to work alone, that's great. But other than having to deal with people who don't understand writing and may argue or whine against your chosen activity, if you truly pursue writing, you'll probably experience a sense of loneliness, in one form or another at some point.

Personally, it takes a lot for me to feel lonely, but even I get little bouts of it from time to time, which tells me others probably get it way worse.

What's weird, though, is that I feel like these days, people will take any problem and cite it as a reason not to pursue something--but if you waited around for the perfect something, you'd wait around forever. If you waited for the perfect job, you'd wait around forever. It's better to pick your problems--what you are willing to deal with, what cost you are willing to put up with.

Nothing is perfect, and when you make a choice, you are also picking up the cons with it. For writing, one of those cons is loneliness. No, you might not feel it right away, but should you decide to pursue it seriously, it will probably come in some degree at some point.

I took my first ever creative writing class in middle school, and I distinctly remember one day where my teacher was talking about pursuing writing as a career, and he said in a grave tone, that being a fiction writer is a great job, but it's "very, very lonely."

My best friend, who knew I wanted to be a writer, was in the class. She immediately looked over at me, raised her eyebrows and smiled in a way that seemed to say, "uh-oh, he's talking about you."

Now, I'm not exaggerating when I say that he said it in a grave tone. It was very grave and dangerous sounding--it was a warning.

So while the the class seemed to grow still and silent, want to know what my reaction was?

Meh, I can deal with that.

And I have, and so do countless other writers.

When you pick your choices, you also pick your problems. 

Frankly, we have it so much easier today than people did in the past. Everyone seems to be connected to everyone online now.

But here's the thing, while it relates and correlates, loneliness does not necessarily have to do with the amount of people you have in your life. You've probably heard some rendition of the concept that you can feel lonely in a crowd. Perhaps loneliness has more to do with feeling connected, accepted, loved, and understood by others.

This is probably particularly true of writers, who tend to want to connect with other human beings on a deep level--through their writing.

And funny enough, you could pursue something else, and feel just as lonely. Loneliness doesn't have a monopoly on writing. Everyone will feel lonely at some point in life.

For some reason in our society today, I get the sense that we have an unrest, when it comes to negative feelings in life. If we feel lonely, we must eradicate it. If we feel downhearted, we must get away from that. If we feel guilty, we must escape that. Do we have a low tolerance for negative experiences? For a lot of us, probably.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't try to make things better, or get better. But there is a balance, and negative feelings and experiences are part of our earthly life, and if we forever evade those, we are missing that part of the human experience. We're never going to find the perfect life.

Sometimes I think that because in this day and age we have so many opportunities to excel in so many areas, that we expect to find perfection--perfect circumstances, a perfect life. Worse, we try to find perfection in all areas. In fact, a study was released just this last week that found that Gen-Xers and Millennials struggle with self-crippling perfectionism--from both pressure they put on themselves and pressures they feel from others. And apparently it's getting worse and worse.

It's okay to live imperfectly. It's okay to feel guilty, downhearted, and yes, lonely. We don't necessarily need to view these things as black holes that we have to spend our lives evading. We can't evade everything.

So pick your problems. Choose what you love. And love your choice.

And there are of course, ways of dealing with or alleviating feelings of loneliness. Unlike generations of writers before us, we are more connected than ever. Often friends are just a click or text message away. Okay, okay, I get that some people see that as a negative thing and that we need more face-to-face interaction, and I agree, but for a writer in the industry, their work inherently lacks the same amount of face-to-fact interaction.

Many writers like to get involved in the writing community, either online or in their area. They like to join writing groups, go to open mic nights, attend conferences. All these things are great and can help.

But at some point you might run into another problem: They all take time. And for some, they may actually take time away from writing rather than tend to that time.

For example, in college, I was part of a writing group. It was fantastic. Now I get paid to give feedback and edits on unpublished work, so to join a writing group now and do that stuff for free, on top of already doing it all day, well, I'm not convinced that is a great idea.

Sure, I can talk about writing online with other writers--but the time I spend typing messages could have been time I had spent editing or writing.

So it depends on what direction you are going and how deep you want to get into this industry. That's all up to you. And one approach is not necessarily better than another. You can still be a writer without being in the industry up to your neck. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise.

Alleviate feelings of loneliness where you can. Make sure it's manageable, rather than self-crippling. But also recognize that you chose to deal with it when you chose to pursue writing.

The same attribute that leads you to wanting to connect so deeply with others, is the same attribute that leads to you being a great writer, and the same attribute that makes you feel lonely. 

If you are afraid to pursue writing because of some of the negative feelings that may manifest from it, don't let that stop you.

Whenever I get a little bout of loneliness, you know what I think?

Worth it.


Related Posts
The Privilege of Picking Your Problems
Why Some People Don't Support Your Writing Goals
How to Deal With People Who Don't Support Your Writing

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101


Submission piles in the writing industry are lovingly nicknamed "slush piles," because most of the stories are . . . more like slush than stories. Here are some tips to make sure your opening is more story and less slush.


1. Make sure you follow the proper manuscript formatting.

For some of the submission piles I've been involved with, a template of the proper format was available for download. Nonetheless, the majority of submissions didn't follow it. Some people don't indent paragraphs, don't even have paragraphs, or use weird fonts etc. Don't add pictures to your manuscript—keep it simple and professional. Save and send it in the proper electronic format, which is usually a Word document.

For some publications, if the story isn’t formatted correctly, it is immediately rejected.

If you cannot find the formatting guidelines, you are usually safe using standard manuscript format, which is the traditional way of formatting.


2. Unless you are an advanced writer, communicate character, setting, and conflict (or tension) quick.

Most submissions get rejected in a matter of paragraphs or pages. Often pieces that get rejected are missing either a sense of character, setting, or conflict (or tension) in the opening. Sure, some stories get away without having all these things, but they better be hecka good in other ways. When I say "opening"--for some, that's the beginning paragraphs. For others, it's by the end of the second page.

Setting in particular seems to get left out. I’ve read scenes where the setting is never even hinted at—I don’t know if the characters are in a hospital, a bar, or a circus.

When it comes to conflict, you don't necessarily need a bomb going off. In fact, you may not need a ton of conflict on the page itself—but you need the promise of significant conflict to come, or in other words, you need tension.

Here are two posts that may help with that:
Tension vs. Conflict
Are Your Conflict Significant?


3. Use character names. 

Too many new writers “hide” their characters’ names. A bunch of vague pronouns doesn’t help me figure out who is doing what. Ex: "He (who?) held his hand over his (his own mouth or someone else’s?) mouth. The chief (is this “he” or a different person?) couldn't believe this was happening. He (the chief?) struggled. Then the man (the “he,” “chief,” or someone else?) forced the hand away from his (whose mouth?) mouth.”—who is doing what? How many people are there?


4. Don't open your story with a dream—usually

Dreams can be such a letdown. One submission I read was really good, and I was going to set it aside, and I got to the end of the second page and the first two pages were a dream! Don't even open your story with a short dream. It's too cliché in the slush pile. If you NEED a dream in it, don't do it in the first few pages.

Of course, like all of these, there are exceptions, but whenever you break a rule it's got to be really good and you've got to have a good reason for breaking it.


5. Make sure your character is actually doing something on the first page.

Make sure there is some movement, and better yet, make sure there is tension. Too many submissions start with a character just sitting and thinking about something, usually something that happened in the past.

If possible, have at least two characters interacting in the first scene. It's way more interesting than the 50 other stories that start with one character thinking.


6. Avoid flashbacks.

Number 5 is usually paired with something like this: "It all started a month ago," or "Maybe I should start at the beginning," or "This all started last week."—and then the story goes back to the real “starting” or some sort of flashback. If that is where the story started, start there, and then you won't have to tell me “how it started.” I'll see it.


7. Don't start with a character running away from something really vague. 

There are way too many stories that start this way. It might sound like a cool opening, but after you’ve read 12 of them, you realize it’s not as cool as you first thought.


8. Don't start with a long “telling” explanation of something, like "The city was surrounded by mountains, and we were told to never leave the city. The mountains have been around since the beginning of time when the gods got angry and decided to keep us locked up in one place. Back when my grandmother was alive, she used to tell me stories about people who left the city and never returned...(on for 1 1/2 pages)" While this info might be interesting, there's no immediacy. I'm just being told information. The slush piles can sometimes be loaded with this opening. At least give me like a page of something concrete and immediate before “explaining,” or “telling” me something.


9. Don't start a story with your character waking up on an ordinary day doing ordinary stuff. 

Again, that's not really where the story starts. But too many stories start there. Give me some tension.


10. Avoid purple prose. 

First off, if you can write detail that appeals to the senses, do it, because too many submissions are missing strong imagery in the opening. If you can write striking metaphors or similes, put one in the opening also. But don’t go overboard. I read one submission that took a paragraph to describe one action about ten different ways. Only about two things actually happened on the first page.

But don't write purple prose. If you don't know what purple prose is, it might be a great idea to spend some time researching it on Google this week. Basically, it's overwrought, melodramatic description.


11. Don't submit your writing exercises as a story.

I've seen a few submissions that I think were supposed to be practice exercises--like that exercise in creative writing classes where you have to try to describe something without saying what it is, or where you use only dialogue to tell a story. Those are great exercises, but (in most cases) they shouldn't be sent in as professional pieces for publication.


12. Don't include a bunch of pointless info about your character. 

Reading two paragraphs about how your character's choice of music is different than his mom's isn't going to help me get to know your character, and it's not important unless your story involves music (in the case of this submission, it didn’t).

Some people try to “find” their character by giving them too many quirks and random details etc. But those are only the surface of the character—instead try to focus on how your character changes in your story, and what you need to establish first to show that change.

I have a bunch of posts on character that you can find in my Writing Tip Index.
 

13. Follow the submission guidelines.

In one submission pile I worked with, the publication was meant to showcase local writing, so if someone from Arkansas submitted, we couldn't take the submission. In another, the guidelines stated that the story should be appropriate for a general audience. That means that the story that starts with people having an affair and uses the f-word about 12 times in the first page is probably out.


14. Use correct English and spelling.

And watch for anything that sounds awkward.


15. Unless otherwise stated or inappropriate, do state your writing credentials somewhere—a cover letter, query letter, or just the body of an email (depending on submission guidelines). Even minor writing credentials put a better flavor in the editor's mouth because they imply you have some idea of what you are doing. At least that's been my experience.

With that said though, ultimately the story is what needs to be amazing.


Above all, use correct formatting, start with immediacy (not explanation), and have the setting, character, and conflict or tension established in the opening. That will put in you in the top 20% of submissions, from my experience.

Also, keep in mind that great writers have broken a lot of these rules. In fact, great writers usually do break some rules. But this is "How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101," and unless you are an advanced writer, you should put your best foot forward by following these guidelines

Good luck! And if you would like more advanced information on how to write the starting of your story so that it gets out of the slush pile, you can check out the book Hooked by Les Edgerton.