Nearly but not quite

October 29, 2009

This photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken on the way down from the Marin Headland, was judged last week in my very first photographic competition. Judged – and found wanting. The verdict? Nearly Good Enough But Not Quite. Which is a generous way of saying – it was bumped off in the first round. Reason being, ‘there wasn’t enough definition because of the mist’.

You see, I too am no stranger to rejection or the outrage that comes with it, that someone clearly incompetent has sat in judgement over one’s work. I’d have done a lot better with a different shot, I think; that one of the flower. Or with a different judge. Preferably one who isn’t an utter moron.

So if you are a rejected author I don’t blame you for muttering under your breath or sticking pins into a voodoo doll that looks just like me – it’s all part of the process, and at least I can empathize because I too have a passion, photography, in which I truly wish to excel. Of course I’m delighted for those people who win the prizes. It’s just annoying that their shots aren’t nearly as good as mine . . . . . . . . . .

Submissions that I read tend to fall into three categories. The first two are relatively easy to deal with: 1) those I feel confident are not for me and 2) those with which I wholeheartedly fall in love. Category 3) – those I have to think very hard about – is hardest by far, often requiring a lot of a) scrutinizing b) agonizing c) toing and froing d) experimental revising. Some of these submissions work out famously in the end – either for me or another agent. Others don’t, for a myriad of reasons. These are the Nearly But Not Quites, and if I don’t manage to work through the problems and ultimately take them on, I always remember them and look on Publishers Marketplace to see if they’ve sold. That has happened rarely, but you can be sure I’d be beating my head on the wall to have missed out (competitive, moi? Is the Pope a Catholic?).

What are the hallmarks of a NBNQ? Tricky, because they’re different every time and that’s what makes the decision so tough. But here are a few of the dilemmas I’ve faced in manuscripts, and what I’ve done about them:

Issue: A storyline that has an unusually commercial and conceptual edge to it, but where the actual plotting is so haywire that I can’t see a logical way to resolve the problems. Action: Suggest a brainstorm with the author to see if fresh thinking can ensue. That can lead to radical deconstruction/reconstruction of the story, but that might be just the thing that’s needed to preserve the great concept; working it through in a completely different way.

Issue: A premise that is quirky and really original, but aimed at what I feel is the wrong age group. A YA novel or a middle-grade novel? Such a vital decision in how the whole thing is skewed and whether or not it finds a market. Action: Gently introduce the possibility that the story would be better re-framed for the different age group (NB: This advice preferably administered with some form of sedative.)

Issue: An interesting and original premise and a plot that hangs together. But the voice just falls short, which means the whole thing doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot where I can be confident an editor will lose their heart to it. Action: Tricky one, this, because issues of voice can be so intangible – it’s like grabbing a cloud. Identify the heart of the story where the emotional impact lies, then suggest moments where a new and significant focus might fall. This may help the writer to lift those key scenes or bits of dialogue into something fresh and memorable.

Issue: Amazing writing, lyrical and original. But plot bursting with characters and incident in a way that overloads a story that would be more impactful if more spare. Action: Suggest taking out a whole character and strand; so basically, strip it down. (Again, Prozac is good to have on hand. But hey, this one – from my publishing days – ultimately went on to be shortlisted for a major literary award so je ne regrette rien . . . )

Issue: Fresh writing, fresh concept, an essence of real charm. But grammar, punctuation and phrasing chaotic and reading the manuscript is like being in a car crash. Action: Roll up the sleeves, put on the apron, get out the heavy-lifting gear and dig in, sentence by sentence, because this one is going to require a LOT of involvement – and tact. But you know what? It could be worth it for all concerned, in the long run.

Issue: There’s something really interesting here – good tone, an arresting idea, something I’ve not seen before. But the major potential of this premise is somehow being missed; it’s all too shallow and many obvious moments (to me) are being missed. Action: provide some notes that are primarily in the form of questions, so that issues underlying the story are opened right up for further thought. OK, everyone laughed when I talked at SCBWI LA about ‘squeezing the juice from the fruit’, but any and every story will be way more absorbing if you get out that juicer and SQUEEZE THE JUICE FROM THE FRUIT. In other words, know your backstory; become intimate with your characters; think through the implications of every single aspect of your story. Is it funny? Then it can be funnier. Is it emotionally powerful? Then make me reach for the Kleenex.

Issue: Good writing, well put together story, all very sound. But just not . . . captivating? A bit derivative of other stories around? Action: Another very tough one, because captivating is what it has to be. If I have a particular reason for needing this one to work, I again might suggest a brainstorm to see if there are more layers, ideas, elements that could be added to increase the depth and breadth of the story. It’s not a question of ‘Is this good enough?’ It has to be truly standout.

So, those are a few everyday dilemmas from the editorial ‘to do’ list. How deliciously simple it would be if manuscripts could be tested with a piece of litmus paper. Red – it’s a winner. Blue – back off. But there’s only the patient trial and error, the test it and see, the have another go, the maybe it will – of editorial work and consideration. And all I can really do is read like a READER, not just like an AGENT. Read so I let the story and the writing speak to my heart, not just to what I think the market might want right now. Read so I hear it and feel it. And that’s when I make decisions I know I can live with, whatever the outcome.

Nearly But Not Quite. It hurts, doesn’t it. But there’s a way forward from being a NBNQ – and that’s the slow, steady learning and development. If not this photograph then maybe another. If not this story then maybe the next.

I shall probably never be an award-winning photographer, but I might just possibly get an Honourable Mention in a little local competition one day. Then I’ll aim higher. And dare to dream. How about you?