by Corey Dahl
If you’re like most writers, you’re the not-so-proud owner of a rejection slip collection you never intended to start and wish you could stop growing.
Liz Prato is here to help. The author of Baby’s on Fire: Stories and editor at large for Forest Avenue Press will visit Lighthouse on April 23 to teach Perfect Your First Pages. Using published examples, classroom discussion, and personalized feedback from Liz, the one-day class will look at how writers can improve the first two pages of their submissions to instantly hook editors and agents. (Ahem. Attention all Lit Fest pass holders planning to meet with an agent or editor in June!)
Ahead of her visit, I asked Liz about the submission process, those critical first pages, and the surprising things writers get totally wrong.
Q. What makes it so hard for writers to get work published?
A. It’s hard to get published because there are far more people trying to get published then there are resources to publish them. The ubiquity of Internet publications hasn’t opened that up quite as much as you’d think. Not too long ago, publishing on the Internet was frowned upon: “real” writers, “serious” publications didn’t do it. The thinking eventually changed, and it’s recognized that there are some fine literary journals online. But there are many crappy ones, too. The economics don’t dictate quality as much as they might have in a print-only environment. But what the Internet has also done is made anyone who keeps a blog or tweets or posts on Facebook think that their work is publishable. And being a good writer, a good storyteller, isn’t just about putting words on a page or a screen. There’s a definite craft behind it, a discipline. Also, with online submissions, the means of being published are more transparent than the days when you had to go to the library and check out Writer’s Market, print out your story, and stand in line at the post office. So, editors are flooded with more submissions than ever.
Q. Is that why the first two pages of a submission are so critical?
A. Exactly. An editor can have a submission queue ranging from 100 to 1,000 pieces for an issue. They simply can’t read all the stories all the way through. But if you’ve captured their attention in the first two pages, they’ll keep reading, and you’ve already made it further in the process than maybe 90 percent of manuscripts. (I hesitate to give percentages, though, since it’s not like I have an actual Gallup poll or something.) That doesn’t mean you can just blow off the other 14 pages in your story. You want them to be good, too. But if you’ve demonstrated your control, your craft, a unique voice, in the beginning, there’s a greater chance an editor will want to work with you to fix that scene on page nine that doesn’t quite work.
Q. What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers making in those first pages?
A. Many, many submissions start off as extended musings inside a character’s head, or with an incredibly long and intricate description of the setting, while providing no sense of the real world stakes—what matters, what’s at risk. Sometimes an author starts with an unattributed line of dialogue, and I’m left wondering, “Wait, who’s talking? Where are we? What’s going on?” It is possible to start a little too in medias res, totally disorienting the reader. I assure you, it’s always bad if your reader is confused from the start. That’s what makes an editor quickly shuffle the submission to their “no” pile.
Q. What’s something about the submission and review process that most writers don’t know?
A. Well, this may sound dorky, but editors are human. Editors are perceived as having so much power that it seems like we’re unapproachable, or at least over here twirling our Snidely Whiplash mustaches while determining the most fun way to crush the spirits of a writer. Editors get excited about good writing and don’t want to crush anyone’s hopes. But most editors also firmly regard this as a business, and they quickly grow jaded by the number of writers who don’t treat it that way. At Forest Avenue Press, one of our biggest frustrations with our novel submissions is how many authors clearly didn’t read—or, at least, adhere to—our submission guidelines. They sent genres we specifically stated we don’t publish, they didn’t write cover letters, they sent incomplete manuscripts. Many authors don’t even do the basic research—which should be sooo easy with the Internet at your fingertips—on how to format a manuscript and write a query. It’s truly baffling. It would be like applying for a job with your resume written on a napkin and showing up for the interview in Daisy Dukes and a tube top. While stoned.
Q. What should we know about your upcoming class at Lighthouse?
A. It’s fun without the fun being at anyone’s expense—well, except mine. I fess up to my large share of mistakes in the writing and submission process. We laugh a lot, but we also get serious work done. After all, it is still the writing that matters. There are no tricks, no bells and whistles that get your work published. What gets your work published is writing that grips the reader’s head and heart.
To learn more about Perfect Your First Pages or to register for class, click here.