Weeding Out the Good Reads
Contributing writer Savanah Burns wrote this post offering advice and starting points to writers hoping to submit work to contests and literary journals.
My friend has a habit of reading the last page of a book, before ever looking at the first page.
Another friend doesn’t judge a book by its cover, rather they glance at its spine.
Yet another friend does this thing where they looks at a book’s sleeve, reads the author’s biography and pretends to talk to the author by wondering, how did you get from point A to point B? How can I get published?
The Texas Review Press (TRP) pieces together novellas, novels, and chapbooks. Before that’s possible, TRP readers wade through the slush pile, so their preliminary judges and contest judges can pick from there. Slowly they weed out the good reads. The winner gets to have interested buyers read the last line of their book, judge the spine’s design, or have a reader wonder how they as a writer have got from point A to point B.
TRP readers have a lot of manuscripts that hit their desks. Stacks upon stacks, and they read every single one of them. There are certain things judges and readers can tell about a manuscript pretty early on. What they look for is usually more than a nice idea or pretty language. The quality of writing and formatting matters as much as the story itself. TRP readers look for how well thought out a book is, considering elements such as grammar, structure, consistency, logic, voice, and everything that is working (or isn’t working) within a manuscript.
So what might TRP’s judges be looking for?
There are several things that factor into determining if a story at making it into the finals of a TRP contest. For the time being, though, here is a list of five items TRP does look at:
- The Hook
A hook can be a gripping sentence, paragraph, or pages. A hook might be the voice of a character, immediate conflict, imagery, language, dialogue, world building, and more. The point of a hook should be to gain the readers interest; it’s inciting.
However, a hook doesn’t stop at those first pages. There are some writers that can make an entire chapter a hook for the rest of their manuscript. Some writers start with a page hook, then use a hook again at the end of their chapter. The effect is that the reader feels the need to keep reading because the end of the chapter left them asking a question, or wondering how an unresolved issue will play out. That’s the goal; making the reader not want to put down the book.
Quick tip: Look at the first line, paragraphs, and pages from your favorite books.
- Show, don’t tell.
“Show, don’t tell” refers to writing that aims to give the reader an experience, rather than skipping through all of the good parts. Showing is going to include action, dialogue, thoughts, feelings, and sensory details.
Don’t: Mark was angry at Maggy for cheating.
Do: Mark’s lips tighten when Maggy says, “Copying and pasting from the web is not plagiarism.”
Don’t: Mrs. Kellin is a helpful teacher.
Do: Mrs. Kellin picks up chalk and writes a problem on the blackboard, then waits for a student to ask for help.
Writers need to put in the work to make a feeling impact the reader. Showing can help achieve this. For example, if a character loses a family member, then make sure the reader has met the deceased long before the character passes away. (Though, there are exceptions to this example.). The reason for this is so the reader can grieve with the character, unless the reader is asked to experience something else, and there is a different effect intended; The Stranger comes to mind. Another example is when a character goes through a change. The writer needs to show that transition. This will need a slow build and requires planting ideas throughout the narrative.
Quick tip: Look for these words: was, am. Also avoid exposition, tangents or monologues, backstory, summarization, and flowery description.
- Chekhov’s Gun
This term refers to making sure an author delivers what the reader is expecting.
“Chekhov’s Gun” is a concept that describes how every element of a story should contribute to the whole. It comes from Anton Chekhov’s famous book writing advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” – “Chekhov’s Gun: What it is and how to use it like a pro”
For example, if you write about a gun, the reader will expect that gun to off. If the gun doesn’t go off, the reader might be disappointed.
Quick tip: Ask someone to read your work. Get feedback. Read and try to notice when you expect something to happen, then try to trace back to where the novel planted that idea and that expectation. Make adjustments as needed.
- Make Your Dialogue Count
Dialogue should be natural, unforced, and purposeful. Dialogue can reveal something about the character, the situation, incorporate important information, and offer double language, so readers are always being offered substance.
Consider these nine tips for writing good dialogue, and remember that “writing dialogue isn’t about replicating a real-life conversation. It’s about giving an impression of it. And, yes, improving on it.”
Quick tip: Dialogue should be short and to the point. The longer the discourse, the more unnatural the conversation feels.
- Round Characters
Characters need to be real, as in imperfect, so that they are relatable to the reader. The reader might be reading to get away from their own reality, but that does not mean they are trying to escape struggles, complex emptions, or social issues. Flaws are going to make your character appear more real, more developed, and more memorable.
Get to know your characters. Your readers can tell if you don’t know them well because the inconsistencies will show in your writing.
Quick Tip: Write up a character sheet for your principle characters to refer back to when you’re writing. Include things like physical attributes, relationships, political/social/religious beliefs, even their favorite type of music or breakfast cereal. It will help you create a more realistic and fleshed out character.
- Edit, Edit, Edit!
First, make sure your manuscript goes through a good substantive edit. This is where you focus on ideas, structure, themes, and characters. You want to make sure that everything you intend is there. The reason you do this before copyediting is because you might have to rewrite, revise, or cut sections of your manuscript. If you copyedit before editing your ideas and content, then you’re doing more work than is needed.
Secondly, after substantive editing, comes a heavy copyedit. This is where you look at style, grammar, and punctuation. Try to spot tense shifts, omitted commas, dashes, unformatted ellipses, misspellings, word choice, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, comma splices, plural and possessive errors, pronoun-antecedent errors and word order.
Lastly, proofread your manuscript. Try to see if you missed anything. At the end of the day, there are a dozens of ways to approach style for different reasons. Try to aim for consistency. Make sure words are spelled the same way, character names are consistent, etc. For example, dialogue can be unmarked, italicized, or have dashes before them, etc.; stick to one style and be consistent. Also, if you do something unique or unexpected to your dialogue, have a purpose to it. Going against the norm isn’t bad, but don’t do it as a gimmick to make your work stand out. Do it with purpose.
Know that substantive editing, copyediting, and proofreading may take a few rounds of editing.
Quick tip: Take breaks in-between the time you spend on editing your manuscript; distance helps one see his/her work clearly.
These are just some of the things readers, literary agents, and judges spot, while reading submissions. It’s important to note that there will be exceptions to these points and tips. However, even though every writer approaches a blank page different, there are expectations to good writing, and these points and tips play a large role in that.
So, Who Are These Tips For?
These tips are great review for more experienced writers and great learning material for novice writers. Every writer faces issues in their first, second, and third or so drafts. Learning these tips will help make sure your next first draft is more polished, so you have less work the next round of revision and editing. They are a good starting checklist for any submission, with TRP or elsewhere, but are by no means exhaustive.
These tips can help your work get read all the way through and, hopefully, make it to the final judges. After all, the goal is to get published with the Texas Review Press, Texas Review, or The Gordian Review, or maybe somewhere else. We look forward to reading stories that attempt to give our staff a great experience.
Do you think your writing is ready?
The Texas Review Press regrets to let you know that the press no longer has any remaining prizes open for 2017.
However, The Gordian Review and The Texas Review both have submissions open. Feel free to submit for the next issue.
Savanah Burns is a young poet from Huntsville. She studied English and History at Sam Houston State University, where she completed a short novella for her honors thesis. Her writing has been featured in Beacon, an undergraduate magazine, and HistoricalMX, an online historical journal. Her poem, “Starry Night,” won first prize in 2016 for a college and university contest held by The Academy of American Poets, which included an online publication. She is currently pursuing an M. F. A. in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry at SHSU. She is a new addition to the Texas Review Press as a graduate assistant, as well as a new addition to the Gordian Review as its poetry editor. She is excited for what lies ahead.