Making A Good First Impression With Your Novel Manuscript, by Phillipa Fioretti
I’ve always found the giving of writing advice mildly uncomfortable, because implicit in the act of giving advice is the assumption that you have identified a writing problem and now cleverly avoid it. Well, that’s not necessarily the case. I can point out the hole in the road to others and still fall in it myself. Easily.
A recent experience reminded me of this. I had two manuscripts to read and comment on. Both arrived at the same time. I read the synopses and first couple of paragraphs of both before putting them down and getting on with my own work. I made a snap judgement on which was the best manuscript based on what little I’d read. I got it wrong.
When I eventually sat down and read both carefully I realised the one I assumed was the weakest was in fact very strong. I’d been ready to write it off based on that cursory reading. I read it all the way through because I’d been asked to, but if I’d been an agent or publisher I would have tossed it into the reject tray. A shiver went down my spine.
Everywhere – all over the Internet, in books, in workshops and wherever tall tales are told about publishers and agents, it is stressed that you have one chance to impress these overworked people and you better make damn sure everything is beyond perfect in those first paragraphs and chapters. Being of a somewhat sceptical nature I used to think such advice was an exaggeration. Or maybe I was just in denial.
It wasn’t typos that threw me off in these two manuscripts. It was lack of clarity. The writer obviously knew who they were talking about but I didn’t. There were long sentences, clumsy sentence structure and overuse of adjectives. This is a real turn off. Setting the scene and anchoring the reader is important. There is no escaping it. But an adjective before every noun is clunky. For example, and I’m just making up a sentence here…
‘The fluffy clouds above the silver sea reflected the pink light of sunset back at the small boat as it’s ragged blue sail fluttered in the light breeze.’
‘The clouds above the sea reflected the light of sunset back at the boat as its sail fluttered in the breeze.’
Both clumsy, right? But you can forgive one and not the other. We all know adverbs are to be used sparingly, and adjectives really need the same use of caution. When in doubt, take it out. Choose one object, perhaps the most significant in the sentence or paragraph, and give it a couple of adjectives. A considered use of adjectives is going to have more impact than slotting one in before every noun. And this is advice I feel I can give happily, because I do pay attention to my adjectives, perhaps more attention than I do to sentence structure.
The lesson I learned from this episode is that, yes, first impressions count for an awful lot. Time poor, overstressed publishing personnel are looking for good stories but they’re also looking for reasons to reject you. Don’t give these reasons to them – at least not in the synopsis or first chapter.
Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au
Writing Novels in Australia