Pub Rants

Culprit: Writing Mechanics

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STATUS: Was out of the office last week. Although I worked, it’s not quite the same as getting stuff done while there.

What’s playing on the iPod or the XM radio right now? CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ by The Mamas & The Papas

This past weekend I attended the Missouri Writers Guild Conference in St. Louis and did my infamous “Agent Reads The Slush Pile” workshop.

For those of you who don’t know, this is the workshop where I pretend that I’m sitting in my office reading the opening two pages of a submission. In reality, this would all be done electronically and there would be no volunteer reading the entry aloud but you get the picture. In the workshops, as the volunteer reads, I’ll say “stop” if I wouldn’t have continued reading and state why. If I would have read on, we’ll hear the first 2 pages in its entirety.

I personally think this is probably the toughest workshop a writer can participate in but it’s always wildly popular. I do my best to be encouraging but brutally honest—a tough balancing act.

As I’ve given this workshop before, I can tell you several things about it:

1. I always begin with a dire warning and remind writers that they might not be ready for this. I’ve yet to have a participant withdraw an entry (and that always surprises me).
2. 99.9% of what I’ll see in the workshop is not ready for an agent to read.
3. For this workshop, only one entry made it past page 1. The majority of the others, I said stop within the first 2 paragraphs.

Like I said, brutal.

One participant asked a great question. He asked whether all agents would agree with my assessment on when to stop or would those opinions differ given the agent.

I replied that yes, of course opinions would differ but in the case of Saturday’s seminar, I don’t think they would have. Why? The biggest culprit that made me stop reading was a lack of mastery of writing as a craft. The entries had classic beginning writer mistakes we agents often see. And this isn’t to say that the writers in this workshop couldn’t master writing as a craft—just that they hadn’t mastered it yet. I’m confident everyone in my workshop will grow and mature as a writer as they learn.

A list of the culprits? Here they are.

1. Telling instead of showing.
2. Including unnecessary back story.
3. Loose sentence structure that could easily be tightened
4. The use of passive sentence construction.
5. Awkward introduction of character appearance.
6. Awkward descriptions/overly flowery language to depict.
7. Starting the story in the wrong place.
8. Not quite nailing voice in the opening.
9. Dialog that didn’t quite work as hard as it should.
10. A lack of scene tension even if the opening was suppose to be dramatic.

The great news is all of the above are mechanics that a beginning writer can learn.

But you have to be fearless. And the only way you’ll learn it is through a strong critique that points out the issue.

64 Responses

  1. Michael said:

    Invaluable insight, Kristin, as you always provide time and again. I find that your lists, like this one, help tremendously.

  2. Pia Newman said:

    Dito to what Michael said.

    I do wonder, though: how can you tell after two paragraphs or pages, that the story starts in the wrong place? I would have pegged that as something you realize as the story progresses.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Honestly, awkward physical descriptions are starting to be a personal pet peeve of mine, especially when they’re from the first person p.o.v. I’ve been workshopping a bunch of stories for class lately, and I can’t tell you how many people feel the need to interrupt any action with physical description… or, alternately, they think we need to know it in paragraph one. It seems like whether your character has short hair or long could’ve waited until at least page 2.


  4. Ted Cross said:

    I wish you would do that for a week or so here — let us submit two pages to you and have you tell us why you would stop. I have gotten all these rejections that just say ‘well written’ and ‘close’ but nothing that gives me any helpful feedback.

  5. sarah said:

    Yes, thank you for the list. With all that pressure on those first few pages, it’s so easy to snap and start squashing them full of flowing locks of golden hair and exciting thesaurus easter eggs.

  6. onelowerlight said:

    Interesting list, but it seems that you’re focusing more on writing mechanics and less on actual storytelling ability. To be sure, unnecessary backstory, awkward character introductions, and lack of tension are all storytelling problems, but can you really pick all of those out in the first couple of paragraphs?

    I volunteer as a slushpile reader for Leading Edge, and our policy is to read every submission cover to cover and offer a personalized critique (we’re a semi-pro student publication with a lot of volunteers). I admit, we get a lot of crappy stuff, but I’ve been surprised on a few choice occasions to find that the story works even though the writing on the first page doesn’t.

    I suppose the greater problem is that the modern publishing system has dumped the slushpile on the wrong people: agents. You guys don’t get paid to read slush, and you don’t pay authors either, so you have little incentive to carefully comb through it and little accountability as well. As for your power to sell novels, to the traditional markets, that’s great, but I doubt anyone is going to be more committed to seeing my work succeed than I am–especially someone who already represents dozens of other authors writing in genres more lucrative than my own.

    Which isn’t to put down your work as an agent; from what I can tell, you do an excellent job and definitely help writers get places where they couldn’t have gotten themselves. It’s just to throw out the question, are we mining out the slushpile to the right people? If the time constraints of your agenting business pressure you to read only the first paragraph or two of each unsolicited submission–something for which you aren’t getting paid–is there something wrong with the system in general? As a part of the system, what do you think?

    Thanks for the great blog! I very much enjoy reading it.

  7. Josin L. McQuein said:

    Saw a few too many “I brushed my chin-length auburn hair out of my blue eyes.” Didja?

    Doing a few rounds of “opening” critique doesn’t entail nearly as many examples as an agent has to go through in a day, but I’m still amazed at how many of those include “descriptive” lines like that.

    At least you weren’t inundated with dream sequences (or is 2 pages short enough that the dreamer wouldn’t have woken yet?”

  8. Robert said:

    Thanks very much for this. Physical descriptions of characters? I started skipping them when I was a kid, and haven’t read one since.

  9. Josh Hoyt said:

    This sounds very harsh but a great opportunity. This is why critique groups are so important not only do they help us make a better story and better writers but they help us toughen up a little as well. Thanks for the information.

  10. Anne A said:

    Useful list! I wonder, though, if there is a place one can find examples of such things. For example, what is “awkward”? — it would help immeasurably to see examples where all the containing errors are listed. It could help to identify such in my own writing.

  11. Maril Hazlett said:

    I printed the list. Dangit. As I brushed my chin length auburn hair (not) out of my sparkly eyes and sipped lukewarm decaffeinated orange tea and listened to the garbage trucks outside and the birds tweet and I ate an energy bar… oh yeah, where was I?

  12. Anonymous said:

    And yet, I’ve read numerous published books, and am currently reading a “bestseller” right now that has at least 6 of the 10 listed mistakes and that author is a multi-millionaire.

    I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t learn as they go and get better. But find everything on this list all the time in books — including the ones this agency represents. I think people like voice and they’ll pretty much forgive anything else.

  13. said:

    I’ve seen this kind of workshop (and even panels) at a number of conferences that I’ve attended, and I found them to be hideously cruel and unhelpful because…well…they weren’t you.

    Rather, the agents became their own version of a literary mosh pit and cut the writing to shreds while offering zero constructive criticism. It was painful to watch the tears flow from the authors’ eyes.

    The feedback I would hear in my own seminars compelled me to say something to conference organizers. Authors didn’t spend hundreds of dollars to be insulted – which they were.

    In my experience, you are the only person for whom I would say should do this workshop because I’ve never seen you be cruel to anyone.

  14. Vicki Rocho said:

    I was there! It was one of my favorite sessions, I just wish it could have lasted longer. Thanks for doing it, though. It was very informative (even if mine didn’t get picked).

  15. Peace, Lena and Happiness said:

    Thanks for the great post. I’ll put your list in my writing tips.

    @Anne A–an ‘awkward’ physical description is any at all in the first 2 pages.

    Or that’s my understanding. I can’t stand lengthy physical descriptions of people, especially if clothing is included. And especially in the first chapter, or if it’s just stuck in there to let the reader know what the character looks like and has nothing to do with the scene, or…you get the idea.

    My critique partners always call me out on not describing my characters. Oh, am I supposed to do that? I dont like to read it, so I dont usually include it. But I suppose readers want to know that stuff. But please, no more than a sentence or two, or I’ll start wondering what I should eat for lunch.

  16. Laura said:

    Have you ever done (or considered doing) a workshop at the Portland Wordstock? It’s every year in October, and I personally would sign up for your workshop in a heartbeat.

    I first learned about Wordstock in 2009, when Sarah Rees Brennan and Scott Westerfeld spoke at it. (I have signed copies of their books!)

    If you could fit it into your schedule, that would be amazing. Frankly, it would also be an unexpected delight, as I know how busy you are.

  17. paula said:

    To Pia, who asked how you can tell that a story starts in the wrong place after just a few paragraphs:

    Once you get a good grasp of story structure–and this goes for any kind of story, not just a novel–you start to see things you never could before.

    I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screenwriting books, which explain structure beautifully. Don’t worry about the fact that he’s talking about screenplays. A story is a story is a story.

    Blake died in 2009, but his wonderful advice lives on.

    Paula B.
    The Writing Show

  18. CNHolmberg said:

    What a wonderful idea for a workshop… I would -love- to participate in something like that. You should go to WorldCon this August and do it again. Eh? Eh?

  19. Beth said:

    Great post, Kristin. I believe that the biggest issue for writers is craft. Areas that we are weak in are like blind spots. Because they are weak, they can be hard to identify without outside help.

  20. Anne A said:

    @Lena – thanks! I’m afraid my problem is an “awkward” description is any I write… Like you, I leave them out entirely, then things crash halfway through the book when some physical characteristic is important for another character’s reaction. Sigh. I then go back and try to stick it in before the reader has formed too much of a mental image, but it always looks like a giant sore thumb.

    Actually, I suppose what would be awesome would be examples of contrasting “good” and “bad” versions of such issues…

  21. Alice said:

    My main character is described aesthetically in the very first sentence of my upcoming first novel.

    Three reasons why I left it in:

    1) My writerly friends quote it around when asked for good first sentences.
    2) A very picky reader (someone I never expected to like the book) stole my mum’s copy of chapter one after happening to glance at it.
    3) I try to pull the rug out from under the reader immediately.

    Here is its current form, for your perusal and critique.

    “Maybe, of a moment: ratty brown hair parted heavily to the left that almost curled but only managed to look uncombed and slightly greasy, grey cups of skin between cheek and eye, black woollen stockings, short boots with buttons on the side, stripey jumper dress, cocaine habit, love letter crumpled in hand, feathery long fingers.”

  22. Anonymous said:

    Can you tell us what workshops or conferences you will be at coming up? Can anyone else recommend any good conferences?

  23. twittertales said:

    Fabulous post, thank you. I read a lot of short stories and first chapters on critique forums, and I usually know within a paragraph that the story isn’t good enough for publication (or, sometimes, that it is). In my opinion, any writer that reads twenty novel openings by other unpublished writers will have their eyes opened in a similar way.

    And now I get to go and play with my current WIP first page, yay!

    Louise Curtis

  24. Beth said:


    “Maybe, of a moment:

    I have no clue what that means, or how it relates to the description.

    The description itself is interesting, though I’d suggest putting the love letter last in that list. It strikes me as the important part–what everything else is leading up to.

  25. WriteSpinner said:

    This is the kind of post that I want to keep bookmarked to refer back to when doing edits. It’s nice to have a list to refer to sometimes.
    Thanks Ms. Nelson 🙂

  26. Published Author said:

    Alice, you wanted a critique, so here goes:

    It exemplifies culprits 3, 5, and 6. The stuff about the hair really needs tightening (3). The paragraph is an awkward physical description of the character (5), and it’s overly flowery (6), as if you’re trying too hard to write cool, pretty phrases instead of letting the story unfold.

    And as someone else noted, the paragraph should end on the punchy love letter part rather than the ho hum finger description.

    The bit about the cocaine habit is telling instead of showing. And it really should be shown (culprit 1). It’s much more interesting to read a scene in which we discover for ourselves that a character needs and does coke than to be told she has a cocaine habit. Plus the cocaine habit phrase is jarring (and not in a good way) in a paragraph devoted to physical description.

    There are some lovely, unique phrases in your first paragraph, but they’re not great enough to let you break the rules.

  27. Debra Lynn Lazar said:

    Great post, as always.

    On a totally different note, I’ll be in Denver this wk & am having coffee w/Karen DeGroot at Starbucks Park Meadows Friday morning. If you can join us, that would be great. Email me or Karen if you’re free. All best, Debbie.

  28. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for posting the list, it’s very helpful. I’m going to bookmark it for future reference.

    Alice, I have to agree that “cocaine habit” doesn’t really fit with a physical description. Maybe you could reference the track marks on her arms or something (or is that heroin? I’m not really up on illegal drugs). Or maybe there’s a crack pipe hanging out of her pocket. What I mean is, that would be showing us she’s a cocaine addict instead of just saying it.

  29. Anonymous said:

    “Anonymous said…
    And yet, I’ve read numerous published books, and am currently reading a “bestseller” right now that has at least 6 of the 10 listed mistakes and that author is a multi-millionaire.

    I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t learn as they go and get better. But find everything on this list all the time in books — including the ones this agency represents. I think people like voice and they’ll pretty much forgive anything else.

    8:06 AM”

    Amen. Thanks for pointing this out. I recently saw a book that sold for $500,000 plus to a major publisher that starts with the MC describing herself and tons of telling from the beginning.

  30. Natalie Aguirre said:

    These are great tips for what to try not to do. And even though the list is long, it’s encouraging to know we can learn not to make these mistakes. I’d love to be at a conference with you or Sara.

  31. Anonymous said:

    I think I understand what is meant by #9, but not 100% certain. Can someone elaborate or provide an example?

  32. Karen Duvall said:

    Character description in the first 2 pages can work well if written unobtrusively and without the laundry list technique. Good description of anything will be worked into the narrative, not placed on a pedestal with red arrows pointing at it to say “look at me!” That’s the mark of an amateur.

    The problem with description in general is that it stops the forward momentum of a story. Pauses are good in the right places, but probably not a great way to start things out. IMO.

  33. Anonymous said:

    It really saddens me that a lot of great literature probably gets tossed to the wayside because modern agents are so obsessed with “hooks.” I have read so many books lately that have a catchy beginning and then completely lose it in the middle.
    If you go back and read classics like East of Eden – they all start out a little slow and meandering. John Steinbeck wouldn’t have had a chance these days – and that is a real shame.

  34. Nancy Christie said:

    I love this approach! And for those of us who don’t have an opportunity to do a two-page read-aloud to an agent, it might be a good exercise for a writing group. Although an agent’s input would be invaluable, even just hearing that you “lost” your readers so early n the game might help point out some flaws.

  35. Jan Morrill said:

    Kristin, as one of the authors at your “Agent Reads the Slush Pile” session, (and one whose page was read,) I will admit to a bit of trembling as the session began. But your analysis of each manuscript, though firm and to the point, was fair and helpful. Throughout the conference, I was impressed by your “tough advice,” laced with enough compassion that your support of new writers was evident. Thanks so much!

  36. SphinxnihpS of Aker-Ruti said:

    Only sixty miles away from me, and I never knew it. Sigh. It would have been interesting. I wonder how long it takes an agent to be able to judge by the first couple paragraphs whether or not a story will work? A few months? A few years?

    Hope you had fun, that conference sounds like it would have been a blast.


  37. SphinxnihpS of Aker-Ruti said:

    Anonymous 9:20 AM wrote: “I think I understand what is meant by #9, but not 100% certain. Can someone elaborate or provide an example?”

    I imagine it is dialogue that does not multi-task. Such as show the voice but also have tension in it or move along the plot or show something about the character. But that is just my take. In general, dialogue in writing has to be cooler than in real life, that is, it has to have more meaning to it.


  38. Donea Lee said:

    I’ll comb through my first two pages as soon as I finish typing this! Brutal honesty is what writers really need sometimes. Thanks for the list! 🙂

  39. Melissa said:

    @Anon, above

    “It really saddens me that a lot of great literature probably gets tossed to the wayside because modern agents are so obsessed with ‘hooks.’ I have read so many books lately that have a catchy beginning and then completely lose it in the middle.”

    I think what Kristin is referring to is primarily genre fiction – not literary fiction, which has rules of its own. If you look at the opening of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” the opening page breaks almost every one of these rules. And yet it’s brilliant; it draws the reader in slowly, tenuously. I’m in the process of revising my own opening pages. I had to forget a lot of what I learned from the authors with whom I studied. I’m writing to a different readership.

    But, ITA. I am not fond of hooks either, which is why I’m so bad at them. I have a pile of books filled with clever hooks that fell apart on the third or fourth page for one reason or another (there are, however, also many exceptions to the rule).

  40. Lawrence said:

    I would really love to submit the first two pages of my book at a workshop like that. I just finished it and although I’ve had people read the first part of it and they keep asking to read the rest. I would love to hear what a profesional has to say.

    Thanks for the advice

  41. douglas esper said:

    as a newbie writer just creeping out from behind my shell this list was very helpful, and it will be a helpful guidepost on the journey towards a solid novel. keep the advice coming, and thanks for taking the time to help.
    douglas esper

  42. Alison Stevens said:

    Terrific insight. I hope I have the chance to attend one of these workshops at some point! (Or, as Ted suggested, perhaps you could allow a few brave souls to have their work examined here.) 🙂

  43. Anonymous said:

    Ms Nelson:

    I wondered if you had read Franzen’s “Freedom.” It seemed to me that that award-winning writer pretty much violated all your rules here. And having reviewed it for Amazon, I would say it is pretty disappointing when there are so many aspiring writers who deliver a better product.

  44. Carmen said:

    Alice — Beware. If you start trying to describe to me how this girl is a cocaine addict, I’m going to be lost. I don’t know what the giveaway signs of a cocaine addict are. It’s fine to come out and say that. Nobody is haranguing you for not describing the letter in her hand so that we gradually come to the conclusion that it’s a love letter. (There might be reasons for doing that, but I don’t sense that it’s necessary here.) You said what the paper in her hand was. Fine with me. What would be problematic for me is telling me why it’s crumpled rather than drawing me in and showing me why; telling me would be cheating me out of the story experience, whereas showing me would be moving the story along. Re: “cocaine addict” and “love letter,” telling me moved the story along. Showing me would have been a hiccup.

    The stumbling block I see in your opening line is the fact that it is a list and I don’t know why I’m reading it. Why do I care about it? Description of any kind has to be a part of the story propulsion and not a pause in it. That’s why laundry lists tend not to work. Why do I care at first–or at all–that someone is wearing a jumper and is having a bad hair day (or life)? Get to the story. Make me care first.

    However. Cocaine addict? That’s a character flaw, and it implies the possibility of several others. Love letter? That’s some action. That’s instant conflict. Love letter to her or from her? Is it even hers? Who crumpled it? Was it crumpled in anger or self-loathing or despair or jealousy? All of that sounds like the makings of a story. It makes me want to know more. I want to be drawn into a story first. I don’t want to hear about the hair yet, or maybe even at all. Not unless it *clearly* tells me something about her that has some direct bearing on her predicament–that love letter in her hand.

    (When could hair be important right off the bat? …Maybe the character is seriously and justifiably regretting visiting the beauty school for a discount cut and color when money was tight. But she’s about to become a public figure and needs to keep up appearances. Now money is even tighter after the cut and color and she’s not sure she can afford a fancy enough hat for the press conference tomorrow morning. Something like that. That’s a story. Did I mention the color of her eyes? …Well, does it matter?)

  45. Anita Joy said:

    I’m doing this workshop with you, Kristin, at the RWAus conference in Aug. I’m going to print your list out and work on those two pages and see (if I’m picked to read) I get past those first few paras.

  46. Catherine Rankovic said:

    Kristin, I was at that workshop and want to thank you for your frankness. It’s what writers need to hear. I linked to your entry from my blog for those who were not there.

  47. Cassandrashaw said:

    I’m registered to this workshop in Melbourne. Looks like I better take my thick skin tablets before I show up. ha ha ha.

  48. Out Here in My World said:

    Thank you for the list, it is very interesting to read. Even more telling the comments that followed.
    I do not profess to be a professional writer, I have always written as a way to purge my soul.
    I am probably, at times, the queen of run on sentences. My grammar is probably considered horrible by most professionals. If someone asked me to explain or define how to “nail” a voice in the opening I would have to pass. I have always thought the best stories are those that are truly the writers voice not that of a standard formula.

    Number 7 I would disagree with. The story is that of the authors, not an agent. The author choose to start their story at a particular place and time for a reason. Unless you journey pass page two you may never understand why and quite possibly change or miss a true masterpiece.

  49. Lars said:

    Too damn proscriptive.

    I hate lists like this that don’t qualify them by saying you can break these rules if you’re good enough or lucky enough to make them work.

  50. Jaded Enlightenment said:

    Talk about a delayed reaction! But I just saw this and wanted to weigh in. To everyone making the argument about great literature or best-sellers breaking these rules: 1.) if your writing itself is good enough, you can break every rule and make your OWN rules; 2.) 99% of authors are not that good. The reason that Steinbeck and others get to be classics is because they’re truly genius and can pull off amazing feats of language that us mere mortals can’t.

    Speaking honestly, after having taken multiple writing classes in college and grad school and also critiquing a huge number of manuscripts online, I agree completely with this list. I think it’s very tempting for a lot of writers to try to do something “fancy” without mastering the basics first.

    (And I’ve been just as guilty. One of the first things I check for when I edit is deleting all the pretentious bits)

  51. Cathy said:

    Amen to Jaded Enlightenment. You can’t break the rules until you understand them. You have to know WHY you’re breaking them, and you have to be able to weigh the consequences to determine if you are hurting your story or strengthening it.