Ten Things I Love to See in the Slush
These might not get you published, but they sure get you read and considered:
1. Risk taking. The kind of risks where the reader knows the writer is honest and really cares about the manuscript. Hard to articulate, but what I guess I mean is that when I’m reading this work, I don’t feel like the writer “made it up.” It feels real and exposed. Kind of like what I imagine holding a pumping heart in your hand must feel like. Uh…I’m not weird, honest, but really good fiction is alive.
2. A love of the language (I’m talking English here, but I’m sure it applies to all languages). Doesn’t much matter what the style is, really, it’s the precise use of language, the small and apparently innocent phrase that stops me with a small rush of pleasure at having read it. I love those. Bring ’em on.
3. Characters who are human. Now that probably sounds odd, but a “real” human is very complex. A real human has many facets, not just one. They don’t “change” suddenly because the plot demands it. They aren’t totally evil or totally good or totally anything. They burp, they fart, they scratch their bums, worry about things, and they love or want to love and be loved. Real people.
4. A storyline that is subtle and multidimensional. Hmm…what does that mean? Well, to me, the best fiction isn’t “obvious.” It’s rich with undercurrent, swollen with possibilities, bursting with a page turning desire to find out “why” rather than “what.”
5. A voice. The writer’s voice, that is. They can show it through the character voicing, or in the narrative, but when it’s there, it’s there. I read a lot of stuff that is clean and articulate and ordinary. Anybody could have written it. I love to pick up a piece and succumb to the voice of a writer. I love to sit enthralled with the fictional “sound” of a writer’s unique way of expressing life in fiction.
6. Real scenes where people talk and interact and do things. Writing “about” a story is not the same as writing a story. This one requires some craft and a strident awareness of when the reader must experience something and when they can just be filled in on what happened. It’s a careful balance and the best writers nail it.
7. Humor. Now, not all fiction can carry humor, some things just aren’t funny. But most of can find something to laugh about in the worst circumstances, and I think fiction that acknowledges that and uses it is the best kind of fiction. A lot of writers take themselves and their subject matter just a tad too seriously.
8. Factual correctness. Bleh, that sounds awful, but there is nothing worse than reading about a cell phone in 1965 or a character calling his friend “dude” in 1941. If you don’t know a lot about what you’re writing about, be careful. It’s okay to wing it some, but don’t make silly mistakes that hurt your credibility as a writer. A good writer writes it, then checks it. And lets face it folks, none of us have a clue what the vernacular was in ancient Egypt, but some of us sure as hell do know what it was in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties…you get my drift. Nailing the time period is a sign of a classy and careful writer.
9. Writers who are in control of their manuscripts. Writers who aren’t in control wobble around in tenses and POV. They parachute characters in to serve the story line, meander into lengthy narrative passages that have no real significance in the novel or short story, introduce scenes that go nowhere. When I’m reading a manuscript where the writer is in control, I can relax. I trust them. If I reading it, there’s a reason it’s in the manuscript. That’s good enough for me.
10. This one is hard to describe, but a manuscript the writer “enjoyed” writing. It isn’t frigid with correctness. It isn’t pristine with the exact right proportion of explanatory dialogue tags versus “said.” It probably breaks (OMG) rules. There are a few spots of dried blood on the page, maybe some tears, a coffee ring, perhaps a spill of Beaujolais (all figurative). It’s a manuscript that might have been hard work, but it is loved. The writer isn’t in love with himself or herself on this one. The writer is in love with the fiction, the craft, and the characters. Makes me love it too.