Suspense/Crime/Mystery, Round II

We here at Novel Journey find ourselves in an interesting situation. None of the entries in the August category of the OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE, Novel Journey’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame Contest are quite ready to present to the world as publishable. This isn’t to say they didn’t have potential, because they do. But they still need work before their potential is realized.

So now what? Should we present the best as the winner even though it’s not quite there yet? The NJ staff voted unanimously against doing that. The theme of the contest is, after all, “Out of the Slush Pile,” and we don’t want to recommend pulling something out of the slush pile if that’s where it honestly belongs.

Instead of presenting a winner this month, therefore, we’ll discuss some things struggling writers can do to get their work ready to present to the publishing world.

As we discussed a few months ago, the first requirement for a good story is, well, a good story. You might write with perfect technique and an engaging voice, but if your plot goes nowhere, neither will your manuscript.

Resources abound to help a writer learn to create a solid plot. One of our favorites is Plot and Structure (Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers From Start to Finish) by James Scott Bell. We also like Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon.

However, one of this month’s entries had a super storyline. We loved the synopsis and were disappointed to see the author’s craft wasn’t as well developed as his plot. For him, and others seeking to improve the technical aspects of their manuscripts, we recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Rennie Brown/Dave King; Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft by David Morrell; and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. These books are neither the last word, nor are they the only good resources out there. We suggest them because we found each helpful, and because they address the issues we saw in the entries.

Also, it would be difficult to over-emphasize the value of sharing your writing journey with knowledgeable critique partners. They’ll see things you miss, give valuable insights from another’s point of view, be a wall to bounce ideas off of, and encourage you to keep going. Whether you find these precious jewels virtually, face-to-face, or both, please do find them! We guarantee, you will not be sorry.

The above suggestions represent our non-expert opinions. You might also want to know what people in the publishing industry have to say. In a Writer’s Digest article first published February 11, 2008, professionals weighed in on this very topic. (Excerpts reprinted with permission.)

Dan Conaway, then executive editor at HarperCollins, now a literary agent at Writers House, said:

The hard job of being a writer involves learning the craft. How do you learn the craft? You only learn the craft from writing. … I don’t care whether you’re going to call it literary or call it a serial killer novel, the craftsmanship matters more than anything else.

Ruth Cavin, senior editor/associate publisher, Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin’s Press, agrees that craft is all important:
If you want to be a professional musician, you have to know how to play an instrument or sing and read music. If you want to be a professional artist, you must know how to use the materials, and you must know how to draw even if you are going to be an abstractionist. But when it comes to real writing, too many people often think that if they know how to read and write, they’re writers. They don’t understand that they have to master the craft just as other artists have to master their crafts.

Conaway cautions:
Writers should not be in any hurry to get their manuscripts out there. I mean rewrite it. Stop, and rewrite it and rewrite it again. Print out whatever your final draft is, and then rekey the whole manuscript. Start over on a blank file. That’s the only way you are going to get far enough back into the work to make a difference.

He also recommends:
New writers should take the first novel they write and—at the point at which they think they are ready to send it to an agent or editor—they should put it in the closet and go write another one. It’s the hardest thing to say, but so many first novels that have been submitted to me were really a learning experience. You can recognize the talent, but they are not ready for the tough job of breaking into an established list.

Yes, it’s a tough job, we don’t deny that. But as a wise man one said, the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. (And even there, it comes only after persistence.)

Another wise man (my husband – don’t know if he was quoting someone else or not) said, If you want to eat potatoes, you’ve got to grab a hoe. So instead of being discouraged, take heart in knowing that we’re all out in the field together in the same hot sun. Keep studying, keep writing, keep revising, and work side-by-side with your fellow-laborers; and those plump, meaty spuds will be ready for harvest at just the right time.

Meanwhile, does anyone know how to combat the Colorado potato beetle? This year they’re the worst I’ve ever seen, Sevin dust just makes them hungrier, and I’m seeing them in my sleep. Email me at with your solutions to the potato beetle scourge – and also, of course, your entry forms, chapters, and synopses for the remaining categories in our contest. Middle Grade/Young Adult entries must be received by September 10; Contemporary Romance by October 10; and SciFi/Fantasy/Horror by November 10.

Remember, if you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

Happy writing! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some bugs to squish…