Like many publishers, when you submit your work to us, we ask for a synopsis and a sample of your writing. Typically, I know within a few pages whether I’m captivated and convinced or not, which is why we ask for only 1000 words.
Imagine your 1000 words as an audition for a part in a play or musical. You’re called on stage and you have five minutes to persuade those watching that you have talent. You’ve only one shot to get it right. There’s a queue of twenty more hopefuls behind you and the judges are soon bored, so you need to make them sit up and pay attention.
It’s hard to be explicit about what grabs my attention and makes me want to read on. I can suss out very quickly whether I’m reading immature prose by a mediocre writer or whether I’ve stumbled on a finely crafted piece of prose by a talented, assured author. The unfortunate truth is that most of what comes in is nowhere near ready for publication; some is plain awful. Sorry to be blunt. In ten years of running Linen Press, I have picked up only nine unsolicited submissions that have made the transition to books on out list. So, let me give you a few pointers.
Imagine me scanning your sample of 1000 words like someone searching for gold with a metal detector. What’s the first thing I hope to find?
First: a killer opening sentence. Experienced authors spend months re-drafting the beginnings of their books, knowing the hitting power of a fine opening. One of my interns confesses to judging books by their covers, but I often judge a book from its very first line.
Do you know which famous authors wrote these?
- It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
- There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
- It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
- Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
- Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.
Give me a teaser of where the story might be heading, and offer something unique to set it apart from the rest of the virtual pile. Here are a couple of opening sentences from Linen Press books. I hope you agree they inspire you to read on:
I stand in this great room, with its golden floors and dusted, polished artefacts, and I grieve for the old clutter: the rolled-up carpets, discarded high heels and curling clouds of smoke, the laughter swirling round the punchbowl and the strawberries floating inside it.
The night was a thin skin of stars and prophecy, the full moon unnaturally bright.
There was a time when they were always finding Anastacias, fishing them out of the sea like mermaids or stumbling over them in mad houses and hospitals.
Sleep seem frightened of her nowadays just as she was frightened of sleep.
River in our blood.
If you get your opener right, what is it, then, that I’m looking for in your first 1000 words? What is going to make me ask for more?
- A sense of diving into a story, in medias res, and knowing what kind of story it is and what kind of world you are creating straight away. Am I reading a historical novel, a mystery, a plot-driven thriller, a slow-burning exploration of secrets from the past? Or am I still confused after three pages?
- Characters who are developed and who come to life as I read. I don’t necessarily need to know what they look like. I don’t want to know their detailed backstory. Don’t bother with the artifice of making introductions. I simply want to watch them move and act and feel as their story unfolds.
- What I’m looking for more than anything is assured, breath-taking prose that makes my heart sing. I want to see through your writing like a pane of glass to the story and the characters beneath. I don’t like clichés or adverbs; I want original metaphors, surprising descriptions, a vivid sense of place. I want you show me the soul of your book.
And the signs of a style that doesn’t convince:
- Sentences that start with someone’s name when only that person is in the scene. Use pronouns, and assume we’ve met your character before.
- Sentences with the same basic structure of noun-verb-object. “John walked towards the open door. He stopped at the entrance and counted to ten. He checked behind him for anyone following. He took a deep breath and stepped inside. He saw no-one but…”
- Is there a collective word for adjectives and adverbs? I need one. Inexperienced writers sprinkle adjectives and adverbs like confetti. If a character is dashing towards a cliff edge you don’t need ‘quickly’. If fear freezes someone, you don’t need ‘suddenly’.
So, what does that all add up to? The first opening paragraph below is muddled, over-detailed and has too many characters and actions. There should be space so we can see where the story is going.
Both he and Michael, who had been walking a short distance in front of Jenny and Helen, wheeled around at the sound of her voice. But Jenny could say no more. As she clutched at her thin throat where the three silver pendants had been hanging, she pointed at the figure disappearing behind her down the street. James understood immediately, and took off running in a chase, as fast as he could. But the thief had a good start, and he might have been armed. Jenny’s voice returned, and she yelled again. “No, no! Let him go. He might have a weapon. It’s not worth it. It’s just not worth your getting hurt.” The three silver pendants, the beautiful filigree Mexican cross she had bought in Mexico, and the silver goddess who was a symbol of fertility, that had never served its purpose anyway, that James had given her, as well as the one that he had added when the original had become a bit worn and less shiny, eroded by body contact over more than twenty years, and the one given to her by her grandmother. All of these could probably be replaced on future trips abroad. But the one piece that could not be replaced was her grandmother’s silver cross on a thin chain. And that hurt. And even more than the mark on her neck where the thief had scratched her as he tore at the chains. The wasted night in the police station, making a report, reminded her of a more frightening time, only ten years before, when the police came to the house in Shanghai.
This second paragraph came in as a submission and went on to become a Linen Press publication. Can you see how different they are?
This morning after they gave me breakfast, this woman I used to know was strapped to a table and had a needle shoved into her arm. The man on the news said Tara Hackett died by means of lethal injection at 7:19am. I started thinking about some doctor, some man standing over her, smacking her forearm, digging for a vein and searching for the last bit of colour her body had to give. I figure they gave her the needle in her right arm, with her being right-handed. Could be wrong though, I never been executed.
Suppose I should be happy with her being dead and all. Everything was supposed to die with her but it hasn’t, and it won’t. Tara Hackett dying on the same day as your girl’s birthday reminds me that everything’s the same. That I’m still the same. Today isn’t the best day to tell you certain things but I don’t mean you no harm. Not sure what 25 looks like on you but I’m sure you’re awful handsome. Probably real tall too. Bet your little girl is beautiful, so beautiful it hurts to look at her. It’s my niece’s birthday today and a woman who said she loved me is dead. Can’t imagine what it’s like when they belt you down and start digging for a vein, digging for the only colour you got left.
If you enjoyed this opener, read more from Dogwood, by Lindsay Parnell here.