Five Reasons Why I Rejected Your Manuscript

Last month, I wrote about some of the differences between writers and publishers, as well as some of the challenges of getting your work published. Here’s a quick recap: Publishing is a business (GASP!). Publishers want to make money (and that’s okay). Writers also want to make money (and that’s okay, too). It’s not easy to get published (no duh!). But that doesn’t mean you should give up (yay!).

This month, I want to talk a little more about the publishing world, and see if I can’t help give you some more perspective when it comes to that all-important question: Why did you reject my manuscript?

I hear that question a lot, and unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Saying “It’s not personal,” while technically true, doesn’t do much to ease the sting of rejection. Neither does the standard rejection letter that most publishers send out, which are often devoid of specific reasons for the rejection.

As a slush pile reader, I don’t make the final decision about whether something gets published or not, but I often make the first decision. And while a “yes” or “no” from me carries a fair amount of weight where I work, it’s someone higher up the food chain who ultimately decides your story’s fate.

Here are five of the most common reasons I will recommend rejecting a manuscript, as well as some possible solutions.

five reasons.png

Reason #1: It’s badly written. Hands down, this is the number one reason I will pass on a manuscript. “Badly written” encompasses both the content and the style. Maybe the plot is thin, or the characters are flat, or the dialogue is stilted. Or maybe there are grammatical errors as far as the eye can see. Now, a few problems here and there are not deal breakers—even the most professional authors make mistakes and need an editor’s help—but if the whole thing is a hot mess, I’m sending it back.

Solution: Write better. No, seriously. Write better.

Reason #2: It didn’t follow the rules. Every publisher has specific rules for submitting, and few things will red flag your manuscript for rejection like trying to go outside those rules. Some publishers will only take submissions from agents, for instance. Some publishers only want a cover letter and three chapters. Some only want an electronic copy, and so on. When a manuscript comes in that isn’t in the format that we require (12 point Times New Roman, double spaced, one inch margins), or it is clear that the author didn’t bother to read our submission guidelines, we know they’re probably not very serious about their craft. Or, it may as simple a thing as an author not even doing basic research to see what kinds of things we publish (which is how we once got a hand-illustrated horror story about a serial killer in the Deseret Book slush pile).

The reason for this is not because publishers are super nit-picky (although they are), but because when every manuscript follows an identical format, it levels the playing field. I don’t want to see your manuscript; I want to see your story. I want the manuscript to disappear into the background so that your story can take center stage.

Solution: Whatever publisher you’re submitting to, do your homework and play by the rules.

Reason #3: Timing. Here’s the thing: there are hundreds of manuscripts in the slush pile at any given moment, and we read them (more or less) in the order in which they were received. So it’s quite possible your post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller is, in fact, amazing—but it arrived in the slush pile two months later than another post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller that we really liked and are going to publish. That’s not your fault, it’s not your story’s fault, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It’s just bad timing, and sadly, nobody has any control over that.

Solution: IDK, try a different publisher?

Reason #4: It was my fault. Look, I’m human. I make mistakes. I try to give every single manuscript that comes across my desk a fair shake, but every once in a while, I completely and totally blow it and pass on something that was, in fact, really good. I wish I had a good reason for why this happens, but I don’t. Maybe you just caught me on a bad day. Maybe it’s because you write in a genre that isn’t my personal favorite. As with the timing issue, it’s not your fault. It’s not because you’re a bad writer. This one, while rare, is all on me.

Solution: Okay, this one requires a little more than a pat answer. Problems like this are why I’m not the only slushpile reader. Every one has bad days, and this is specifically why we will often have multiple readers look at manuscripts. And the good news for you is that I’m usually aware of when I’m in a bad mood or when I’m just not into your story because of the genre. When that happens, I will make specific mention of it and suggest that someone else take a crack at it. My solution for this problem is to trust that the right readers will see your manuscript 99.9% of the time.

Reason #5: What does the market want? Ah, there’s the question publishers get more than any other. As I wrote last month, publishers and writers are always looking for the Next Big Thing. The challenge is that publishers are always looking and planning really far ahead. For instance, the publisher I work for has 2018 titles all locked down, and is already looking at 2019 and even into 2020. What is being published right this minute is what we hoped would be the Next Big Thing two years ago. Writers see what’s popular at the moment, and think “I’m getting on that train!” and then we get inundated with thousands of the same kinds of stories. So it may be that your manuscript got rejected simply because the market trends are changing. Again, writers don’t have control over that.

Solution: Like the timing issue, there isn’t an easy answer here. Trends go in cycles, so be patient, I guess?

Rejections are not fun, and nobody pretends like they are. The submitting/rejection phase is probably the worst part of being a writer, maybe second only the marketing/self promotion side once you do get published (but that’s a post for another day). But remember that every published author has been rejected many, many times before—and often, even after they’ve been published! So take heart, because you’re in good company. Rejections can be an opportunity to improve your skills as a writer and to strengthen yourself as a person. Keep at it, and don’t give up!

Also: I swear it wasn’t personal.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Being Slush Pile Reader & A Writer

Whenever people find out that I’m a slush pile reader, they usually have one of two reactions. The first is “I would love to get paid to read books all day” while sighing wistfully. What those people really mean is “I would love to get paid to read good books all day,” which would be nice, if that’s what I did. The truth is that most of what I read is stuff I wouldn’t read under normal circumstances, and much of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason we call it “the Slush Pile,” and not “the Super Happy Terrific Pile of Wonder and Goodness.”

It’s the second reaction I get from people that I want to talk about, because it usually involves a healthy mixture of distrust, anger, and abject horror. Their smile suddenly becomes much more forced, their eyes a bit more steely, and there is an edge to their voice as they say, “Oh, that’s . . . nice,” which translates roughly to “Oh, so YOU’RE the one who rejected my manuscript and dashed my dreams forever. Hope you sleep comfortably at night, you monster!” I might as well have admitted that I like to kick puppies in my spare time. These people have met the enemy, and he is me.

I understand where this reaction comes from. In the writing world, there are two distinct camps, the writers and the publishers, and never the twain shall meet. The writers toil daily in the salt mines of storytelling, laboring to appease their individual muses with appropriate sacrifices of time, energy, and tears in exchange for the least bits of inspiration. They attend classes and conferences at their own expense to improve their craft and hone their skills. They wake up early to squeeze in a few more words before the kids wake up, and then stay up late to review and revise. They endure the slings and arrows of tough-love criticism from their writing partners and groups, and make wholesale perspective changes from third to first person because it’s what the story wants. It’s about magic and love and creativity, and most writers do it all not just because they want to, but because they need to. Because in many cases, it would kill them not to. And in the end, after months or even years of literary gestation, the writers give birth to their story. It’s a brand new life all its own, and is cared for and loved by the writer with the fierce protective sensibilities of a Kodiak grizzly for her cubs.

And then the writer hands off their precious little story to the publishers, which feels like tossing their newborn into a woodchipper. Because to many writers, publishers are seen as giant, faceless corporate entities that only care about making money, and are devoted solely to the crushing of dreams. They imagine publishers lounging like the gods of Olympus, sipping ambrosia and not giving two thoughts about the lowly writers struggling beneath them. Or they see them as rabid, salivating beasts with glistening fangs and hunger in their otherwise dead eyes. Indeed, nothing tastes better to a publisher than a fresh manuscript served medium rare with a side of the artist’s soul.

Welcome to the machine.

Dearest, You're (1).png

I sympathize with the writers, because I am one myself, and know firsthand what it takes to produce a completed book. I also have worked in the publishing world for a very long time, so I know something of what goes on behind the scenes there. With a foot firmly in both camps, I have to maintain an uneasy and delicate balance that, at times, feels like trying to navigate a no-man’s land of misconceptions.

Let’s just throw out some uncomfortable facts and stare at them for a moment, shall we? First fact: writing is a business. Publishers do, in fact, want to make money, and base many of their decisions on financial grounds. This fact upsets a lot of writers, but here’s another simple fact: writers want to make money too. The very act of submitting your story to a publisher means that you are hoping to sell your literary baby to the highest bidder. It’s okay to admit that, and it doesn’t cheapen or diminish the magic of writing one bit. (Just so we’re clear, I am not advocating the selling of actual babies to the highest bidder). Larry Correia frequently says that writers should have “get paid” as part of their personal mission statement, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t dream of being able to quit their day job and write full time.

Ready for some more uncomfortable facts? It’s not easy to do all that. Very, very few writers will ever reach the upper echelons of financial security. I know plenty of writers who do very well, and even a couple who can do it full time. But most can’t. It’s like playing sports—not many basketball or football players will make it to the big leagues, and it’s not just about skill or talent. There’s also a fair amount of luck (or karma, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it) that has to break in your favor, and over which you have no control. The same is true in publishing. You can’t control what the market is doing, or what has already been submitted to a publisher before your story, or what the Next Big Thing will be. And what’s more, it’s impossible to predict what the Next Big Thing will be, because every Current Big Thing is almost always a surprise. I’ve seen books do really well that nobody expected, and I’ve seen books that were supposed to be the Next Big Thing fizzle and fade. No one can say exactly why Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or even Twilight became the successes they did. Books like those are phenomenons, not business models. And yes, every writer wants to be the next JK Rowling, and every publisher wants to publish the next Harry Potter series, but no one knows exactly how to duplicate it. If they did, publishers would only need to put out four titles a year.

That sound I can hear are laptops being thrown across rooms everywhere in despair. Okay, so now that I’ve ruined your day, allow me to try and lift you back up again. Here’s a far more comfortable fact: I’m on your side here. I’m always hoping that every story I read will be a winner, and I’m always thrilled when I find one.

Here’s another: You should definitely keep writing. I believe that the ability to tell a good story is a divine gift, and the very worst thing we could do is to let that gift languish and die. So don’t give up. Keep at it. Try different genres and styles. Submit everywhere you can. Take no prisoners. I can’t promise you a publisher will knock down your door with the standard Rich and Famous Contract for you to sign. But I can say that publishers are always looking for everything, always. There will always be a need for a good story that is well written. And if you keep improving as a writer and artist, you can find your confidence as a person, and you can be happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to the slush pile. I think I see a manuscript with your name on it.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Make a Long Story Short: Flash Fiction as a Writing Tool

There is much to be said for sitting down with a huge book and savoring it for days or weeks on end. I enjoy meeting a cast of interesting characters, exploring the world and setting, and marveling in the myriad, intricate storylines and subplots the author weaves together into a grand tapestry. I’m constantly in awe of authors who can sit down and craft such massive and complex stories in compelling ways.

But sometimes, a big ‘ol book isn’t what I’m in the mood for. Often I will see a three-inch-thick book on the shelf and think, “I’m not that hungry.” I mean, I love Thanksgiving dinner, but sometimes I just want a snack, you know?

That’s one reason I’ve always loved short stories. I love the immediacy, the urgency, and the knowledge that once I’ve begun reading, it will only be a few pages until it’s all over with. Get in and get out, because the clock is ticking.

Like most authors, I have dreams of one day penning a full-length novel. But when I sit down to write, short stories are what come out of me. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K. Dick. Maybe it’s because I’m not super patient and the thought of writing a hundred-thousand-word story gives me stress hives. Either way, it seems that for now, my stories of choice are short.

Enter flash fiction.

Make a Long Story Short-.png

Matt Williams provided a great overview of flash fiction yesterday. Flash fiction is usually defined as any story under a thousand words (or roughly four pages), usually focusing on a single moment or character, with a powerful ending that stays with the reader. Horror and science fiction lend themselves quite naturally to flash fiction, but any genre can work. And considering the many subcategories within flash fiction, including various forms of “microfiction,” readers and writers both can enjoy a wide range of possibilities. In fact, one could make the case that mankind’s earliest stories were flash fiction. Aesop’s fables and the parables of Jesus could even fall into this category—short, powerful stories with a single point designed to leave a lasting impact on the reader.

It’s possible to say a lot with only a few words. Here, for example, is a story I wrote entitled “No Vacancy.”

The car pulls up outside room eight.

My client’s husband and his mysterious lover have finally arrived.

Focus.

Click.

He helps her out.

Click.

He fumbles with the room key.

Click.

They look around quickly, then kiss.

I zoom in.

Clickclickclick.

Wait.

She is wearing an emerald pendant—the one I gave her for our anniversary.

We have a setting, a protagonist, and a plot that ends with a resolution with a twist. One little vignette, one moment in time, one satisfying story, all in only fifty-five words. Indeed, a primary allure of flash fiction is that you can really pack a punch with only a few sentences. Consider the story “Broken,” written by my friend Mercedes Yardley, reprinted here with her permission:

“The dried twigs cracking under her feet broke exactly like the small bones of children. She wished she didn’t know that.”

BOOM. Now that’s what I’m talking about. In only two short sentences, we are given a scene to meditate on, one filled with beauty, darkness, and pathos, ending with a gut punch.

Or consider one of the most famous micro stories—only six words long—often attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

That chill that ran up your spine just now? That’s called flash fiction.

Flash fiction can be a powerful tool to help you focus on the most important elements of a story, a character, or a scene. If you’re having trouble cracking one or more of these nuts in your current work in progress, try to write a flash fiction version of it. Similarly, flash fiction can be a marvelous exercise to break writer’s block and shake up your writing routine. I have often found my creative juices restored to overflowing by attempting a flash fiction story in a genre I don’t normally read or write. Granted, many of them probably aren’t worth reprinting here, but the process has been invaluable to me because it gets me up and moving forward.

If you’d like to try your hand at flash fiction, here are some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Keep it simple. Like, really simple. You don’t have any room to hide in a flash fiction story, and real estate is expensive. Eliminate most filler words, adverbs, and lengthy descriptions. Give us only the most important details. We’ll fill in the blanks.
  2. Think Big, Write Small. Flash fiction doesn’t have room to explore giant plot lines. It can—and should—explore giant ideas, but pare them down to their bare bones. Your reader shouldn’t have to go back and read your story again just to figure out what the heck you were trying to say.
  3. Start in the middle. You’re not writing Lord of the Rings This isn’t the time nor place for lengthy prologues, backstories, and world building. Flash fiction is like driving past a scene on the highway. You only get a few moments, and then it’s gone. Figure out when the most important thing happens in your story occurs, and start telling your story about thirty seconds before then.
  4. Focus on one character. Maybe two, if there’s a conversation happening. But you don’t have time to introduce us to the entire Council of Elrond. First person POV works great for flash fiction, as does third person limited.
  5. What’s happening? As with all stories, something has to happen. It’s bad enough if your reader gets bored with your hundred-thousand-word novel; it’s unforgivable if you bore them in one thousand words. Your character needs to change, grow, or learn something they didn’t know four pages earlier.
  6. Don’t Spoil the Title. Your story’s title should give a clue as to what will follow, but don’t give away the whole plot. Keep your title spoiler-free.
  7. Aim for the ending. The final E major chord of Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the strongest ending of any pop album ever. It comes after a forty-piece orchestra has concluded a largely atonal and frenetic journey from the lowest register on their instruments to the highest register, leading to one inevitable, perfect moment. The chord crashes down upon us, and echoes for the next forty-three seconds, resonating upon itself before finally releasing the listener. That’s the sort of ending a great flash fiction story should have. Powerful. Inevitable. Lasting. Think of the structure of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which all leads to the immortal final line. It couldn’t possibly end any other way, and you wouldn’t trade your new-found shivers for anything.

So, to make a long story short (see what I did there?), whether you dabble in flash fiction only as a hobby, or as a way to think through and improve your larger work, or whether you seek to write flash fiction as its own art form, the most important thing to remember is to have fun with it. My guess is that once you try it, you’ll get hooked. I did.

Oh, and keep it short, okay?
_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Believing Kermit: Lessons in Crafting Characters

Every writer strives to create characters that are memorable and multi-faceted, someone with whom their readers can relate to, root for, or root against. This is a tall order, especially when every character needs to also have a unique voice in the story. Very often—and this is especially true with newer writers—many of the characters sound too similar to each other, as though the writer were performing an amateur puppet show and only barely altering their own voice to suit each character. This can be a problem because readers don’t want to see behind the scenes of the story; they don’t want the curtain pulled back on the Wizard; they don’t want to see how the sausage is made. They just want to be immersed in the world that the author is presenting to them.

The puppet show metaphor is a helpful way to think about the relationship between writers and their characters and is a good reminder to make sure your characters sound and feel authentic. After all, every storyteller is essentially a puppeteer of sorts. After all, your characters don’t exist outside your mind, you control everything they do, and it is your voice that is speaking through them. So how do we avoid the problem of the low-budget puppet show in our storytelling? The answer may lie with perhaps the most famous puppet of all: Kermit the Frog.

Believing Kermit-.png

Jim Henson was a master storyteller and one of my personal heroes. Like millions of other kids, I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. For many of us, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Kermit the Frog weren’t just brightly colored and fuzzy characters on the screen, they were some of our earliest teachers and friends. And even though we probably knew the Muppets weren’t the same as the “real” humans on those shows, we didn’t mind. We never “saw” the puppeteers; we only saw the characters we loved.

Jim Henson never made any pretensions about his puppetry skills, however. He never claimed to be a ventriloquist, and he never tried to hide the fact that his lips moved when he operated Kermit the Frog. Henson and Kermit made several appearances on The Tonight Show, and both Johnny Carson and the entire viewing audience could see Jim’s hand inside Kermit and see Jim’s lips moving as Kermit spoke. But here’s the thing: Johnny Carson didn’t look at Jim—he looked at Kermit. He spoke to Kermit as though he were real. And that’s because Kermit the Frog was so fully realized as a character by Jim Henson that he took on his own identity and had his own totally unique voice. We may see Jim Henson, but we believe in Kermit the Frog. The same is true of other Muppet characters that Henson voiced, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf, and Guy Smiley.

The same could be said of the Sesame Street Muppets. Each Muppet character is so well crafted and has so much depth that they feel real and unique. For instance, Big Bird is perpetually six years old, and he sees the world through a child’s perspective. He is happy, innocent, more than a bit naïve about the world, and is one of the show’s primary connections to the child watching at home. Big Bird is operated and voiced by Caroll Spinney, who also voices Oscar the Grouch, a character so far down the spectrum from Big Bird that the two could never be mistaken for each other. They are two vastly different characters with completely different voices, but they come from the same person.

Or consider Bert and Ernie, voiced by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, respectively. Bert likes gray pigeons and oatmeal, while Ernie loves his rubber duckie and playing the drums. Bert and Ernie’s dynamic and comedic timing rivals that of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, but it was really the dynamic of Frank and Jim behind the scenes that made us laugh, just as it did when they would perform as Miss Piggy and Kermit (or as Grover and Kermit, or as Fozzie Bear and Kermit).

Though wildly different individually, the Sesame Street Muppets are all telling the same “story” to the child with the same voice: It’s okay to be a kid. Growing up isn’t easy, so here are a few things that will help you along the way. Also, let’s sing about the alphabet and count to twenty in Spanish.

The relationship between Jim Henson and the Muppets is an excellent ideal for writers to strive for. Kermit the Frog was, in a very real sense, an extension of Jim, and Kermit could often say and do things that Jim perhaps felt he couldn’t with his regular voice. Yet Jim Henson used his Muppets’ voices to weave wildly imaginative tales that have stuck with us a generation later. Through his characters’ unique voices, it was really Jim’s voice that told the rest of us lovers and dreamers that the world was a beautiful place, and that maybe the Rainbow Connection wasn’t that far off.

As writers, we need to get inside our characters heads and hearts in the same way they are already in ours. We need to figure out what makes them tick, what they love and hate, and what makes them unique. That will only come as we spend time with our characters. We must talk with our characters, and perhaps even more importantly, we must listen to them. Then we can let their voices ring out clearly and in harmony with our own. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts that a writer can do, and the truth is, we’re all going to struggle with it for a long time. But that’s okay. And it’s even okay if your readers sense your voice coming through your characters. So long as your characters are as honest and open as Kermit, your readers will believe them. And they will believe you.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

A Story About Nothing: Lessons About Writing From Seinfeld

We writers are constantly trying to hone our craft and improve our storytelling skills. One of the best ways to do that is to study the ways other people tell stories. A good writer will look to a variety of storytellers for ideas, inspiration, and instruction. Being able to understand why a good story works is immensely helpful when trying to write our own.

An often overlooked storytelling form is the TV sitcom. While your favorite weekly sitcom doesn’t appear to have much in common with the YA or Sci-Fi novel you’re working on, there are nevertheless some good lessons that can be gleaned. After all, there’s a lot of storytelling—including multiple plots, character arcs, and pacing—that is distilled and condensed down into a twenty-two minute sitcom episode. One of the best examples is Seinfeld.

LESSONS ABOUT SEINFELD

At first glance, Seinfeld shouldn’t work as well as it does, because it breaks many traditional rules of storytelling. For instance, the plots are paper-thin at best. (A whole episode about waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant? An episode devoted to Pez?) Furthermore, all of the four main characters are selfish, narcissistic, and regularly manipulate others for their own gain. And perhaps most egregiously, none of the characters ever change or exhibit any real growth throughout the series. If I were to give you notes like that about your story, you’d set fire to your manuscript and take up knitting or woodworking instead of continuing with writing. Yet Seinfeld remains one of the most successful TV shows of all time, and continues to resonate with us. It’s a show that has transcended mere pop culture and has entered our collective unconscious. Whatever the situation, there’s a Seinfeld reference for it.

Let’s examine some of the lessons Seinfeld has to offer writers.

You can’t “Yada Yada” your story.

As much as we’d like to just write, “Once upon a time . . . yada, yada, yada . . . and they all lived happily ever after,” we just can’t. Skipping important details will not only confuse your readers and weaken your story, it will brand you as a writer who doesn’t want to do the work necessary to tell a good story. Don’t yada yada over the best parts, especially the bisque.

“In that moment, I was a marine biologist!”

You don’t have to be an actual expert on every single thing you write about, but you can “play one on TV,” as it were. Research is great, but don’t let it take over your story. You’re writing a story here, not a dissertation. You only need to be a marine biologist long enough to get the golf ball out of the whale’s blowhole, and then you can move on.

“We’re like rats in some kind of experiment!”

This is George’s lament when they’re all lost in the parking garage, and they’re walking in circles. The world your story inhabits is important, and it’s critical that your readers not get lost. Keep your readers oriented by giving them a clear sense of where and when the story takes place, and then keep them moving in the right direction. If your readers start to feel like George, your story may be in trouble. Think of the goldfish.

“That’s some pen. Writes upside down.”

Many Seinfeld plots come from characters making seemingly innocuous choices, and then reacting to the fallout from those choices. Jerry admires Jack Klompus’ astronaut pen, which leads to problems for everyone at Del Boca Vista condos. Elaine gives Sue Ellen Mischke a bra as a gift, who then wears it as a top, causing Jerry and Kramer to crash George’s car, which makes the Yankees think George is dead. George answers a personal ad in The Daily Worker, which leads to him being accused of being a Communist. Kramer hits just one golf ball into the ocean, and nearly kills a whale. Your characters will make choices throughout your story, and those choices will have consequences. Show those consequences, both good and bad, and show your readers how your characters react.

The jerk store called, and they’re running out of YOU!”

George flies all the way to Ohio to deliver what he believes is the ultimate comeback to a former co-worker’s snarky remark, only to be quickly bested again. George gets angry and insults the man’s wife, only to learn she is in a coma. Characters need goals, and they need obstacles to overcome to achieve those goals. The fun comes in watching those characters try to achieve their goals, with varying degrees of success. But so often in the Seinfeld world, a character achieves a goal, only to instantly regret it. Thus, Jerry finally dates a woman he’s always liked, who immediately turns out to be racist and an anti-Semite. Kramer turns his door’s peephole around, and becomes increasingly paranoid. What happens to your characters when they finally get what they’re after? Does it make their lives better or worse?

Keep it real, and keep it spectacular.

You’re not writing to impress your AP English teacher anymore, so cool it with the flowery prose and pseudo-scholarly shtick. Readers are smart, and can tell when someone is being pretentious. If your voice isn’t authentically you, your readers will spend their whole time wondering how they can figure out who the real you is. Your voice is unique and important, and only you can tell your particular story. Your voice can be spectacular on its own.

Ultimately, Seinfeld continues to work because it wasn’t really a show about nothing, it was a show about us. If the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to reality, then surely Seinfeld’s was a warped fun house mirror. Nevertheless, we all see something of ourselves in there. We recognize aspects of Elaine in ourselves when we try to dance, and of Kramer when we are feeling clumsy. We have wrestled with George’s insecurities and neuroses, and we often wish we could be as carefree and aloof as Jerry. These characters do and say things we sometimes wish we could do and say (or things we’re afraid we’ve done and said!) Your story’s core needs to be centered around flawed, yet well-written characters, too. We need to recognize something of them in ourselves, and visa-versa.

Maybe the biggest lesson for writers from Seinfeld is that it is possible to break the rules and still have a good story. So the next time you’re channel surfing and you stumble across a rerun like Seinfeld, give it a closer look. Watch it with a critical eye, a writer’s eye, and see if you can spot some of the lessons I’ve mentioned here. See if you can recognize how the characters, the multiple storylines, and the breakneck, almost haphazard pacing all combine to make one of the most unique brands of storytelling of the last twenty-odd years. And once you’ve done that, head back to your manuscript with what you’ve learned and giddy-up!
_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

True Stories Make The Best Stories

Recently, I saw the film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the African-American women who worked as mathematicians and engineers for NASA during the 1960s. These women were an integral part of the space program from the earliest days of the Mercury program, and on up through the Apollo moon landings, but remained largely unknown to the general public even to this day.

As good as the movie was, I was even more excited to learn that it was based on a book of the same title, written by Margo Lee Shetterly. When a movie says, “based on a true story,” it often means more along the lines of “one or two true elements with a whole lotta fiction thrown in for dramatic purposes.” And while I understand why films take some measure of dramatic license in telling a true story, it always saddens me a little to learn how far many of them have drifted away from the source material.

the-future-belongs-to-those-who-believe

Because I’ve always believed that true stories make the best stories. True stories not only tell us things we may not have known about history, but also things about ourselves and our time. Being a published non-fiction author myself, I’ve always gravitated towards true stories told well. And in that spirit, here are ten true stories that get it right.

A Night To Remember / The Night Lives On, by Walter Lord. First published in 1955, A Night To Remember is still the definitive book on the sinking of the Titanic. I first read it when I was in the fifth grade, and it turned me into a bona fide, rivet-counting, Titanic junkie. Lord’s narrative is filled with first hand accounts from survivors, and is so compelling and engaging, that the book reads like a novel rather than a dusty history. The Night Lives On was published in 1986, following the rediscovery of the ship, and continues the story by shedding light on the new research that followed. Both books are essential reads for anyone interested in the most famous of all shipwrecks (as well as anyone who needs their palate cleansed after James Cameron got through shoving Jack and Rose down their throats).

In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton. On the heels of the most famous shipwreck ever, comes the story of a lesser known, but equally compelling disaster involving the USS Indianapolis. Anyone who has seen the film Jaws will remember Robert Shaw’s chilling monologue about the ship, which was sunk in the final days of World War II, just after a top secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb components to the island of Tinian. For several days, the surviving sailors and Marines floated in the open ocean, dealing with hunger, thirst, hypothermia, and the worst shark attack in recorded history. Stanton’s book is even more chilling, adding new dimensions to the tragedy, many of which followed the survivors for the rest of their lives.

Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose. This book tells the story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, as they come together in training, land in Normandy on D-Day, through the Battle of the Bulge, and to the end of the war in Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat. HBO’s miniseries is based on this book, and I highly recommend both as a study of how ordinary men came together in a crucial moment in history to save the world. The men of Easy Company feel like personal friends to me, to the point where I keep tabs on the 14 last survivors. The Greatest Generation, indeed.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cancer in 1951, but whose cells were harvested by doctors, and have become the basis for all genetic research in the world today. This book gives a human face to the woman to whom everyone in the world owes a debt of gratitude. The medical knowledge and developments that have come about because of her cells have benefitted millions without even realizing it. The book also asks important questions about identity and privacy that resonate today.

The Hot Zone, By Richard Preston. Speaking of medicine, this book chronicles the history and rise of dangerous diseases such as the Hanta and Ebola viruses. Written in the early 1990s, this book not only inspired films like Outbreak, but inspired a generation of people to stock up on hand sanitizer.

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptopgraphy, Simon Singh. I know what you’re thinking: books with super long subtitles are bound to be boring, and this one looks like a college text that will cost upward of ninety bucks in the university bookstore. But trust me—it’s fascinating. If you like history, you’ll like this book. If you haven’t the foggiest idea about cryptography, you’ll like this book. It’s geared towards the average reader, and is a fast and compelling read. It also feels very relevant today because of the heightened public awareness of cyber security.

Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, with Patrick Robinson. This is the story of a Navy SEAL team who went on an ill-fated secret mission to capture a high-ranking Taliban member in the mountains of Afghanistan. Luttrell is the titular lone survivor, and his story is both tragic and inspiring as he pays homage to his fallen comrades. (This book was made into a film with Mark Wahlberg, and is a powerful, but difficult film to watch).

Connections, by James Burke. In the late 1970s, PBS ran a documentary series called Connections, which was written and presented by British historian James Burke. In each episode, Burke took one of the technological breakthroughs of the 20th century—such as the internal combustion engine, the assembly line, the computer, or the rocket—and showed the unusual—and often surprising—twists and turns throughout history that led to its development. Burke showed that nothing exists in isolation, and that everything—and everyone—are, in fact, connected. This book was the companion volume to the show, and is a brilliant read for anyone who loves history and science.

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson. Larson is one of those non-fiction writers who approaches his subjects as though he were writing a novel. Indeed, The Devil in the White City reads like a horror story, and is arguably his most well known work. But I have chosen to recommend Thunderstruck, in which Larson again takes two seemingly disparate historical events—in this case, the development of the wireless telegraph by Marconi, and the lurid tale of murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen—and weaves them together to their ultimate and inevitable intersection in history. In 1910, Crippen became the first criminal apprehended primarily through the use of a modern technology.

So there you have it: ten true tales that would enhance anyone’s reading list. I hope you’ll take the time to explore these stories and expand your view of history, as well as our world today. Next month, I’ll share some of my favorite fiction titles that came as complete surprises to me. In the meantime, happy reading!

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Retreat to Move Forward

Recently, I was invited to be one of two special guests at a writer’s retreat that was organized through the LDStorymakers Tribe. I was flattered to be asked, but I was also a little unsure of what exactly this would entail. Because all my years of writing, I’d never actually attended a writing retreat before. I have friends who attend writing retreats regularly, and talk about the rejuvenation they experience as though they had just returned from a weekend at a spa resort.

I was a little more skeptical. My inner introvert wasn’t relishing the thought of other people seeing my in my pajamas with a fresh case of bedhead. What if my roommate snored? What if I snored? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write, and ended up staring at a blank Word document for three days? Not to mention that the idea of sharing a house in the mountains with a group of strangers felt a little like the beginning of every slasher movie I’d ever seen. Was I being cast as an extra in Writer’s Massacre IV: The Revenge of the Red Pen?

retreat-to-move-forward

I asked my sister Lisa—who was to be the other invited special guest that weekend—to help fill me in on the details.

“So, everybody just sits around and writes?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” she said.

“Are you allowed to talk?”

“If you whisper. Most people put their headphones on, find a comfortable corner, and tune everyone else out.”

“But everyone is essentially writing in silence.”

“Yep.”

“For the whole weekend?”

“Yep.”

“And that’s it?” I said. “Nothing else happens?”

“No, they will probably have writing sprints from time to time,” she said.

“And writing sprints are what, exactly?”

“Everybody still writes, just faster.”

This was going to be an interesting weekend.

Shortly after arriving, I dropped my stuff off in my room and took my bag with my writing gear in search of a place to hunker down. I found Lisa sitting in the home theater room, feet already up in a leather recliner, laptop already open. I sat in the chair next to her.

“Just to clarify—this is it?” I said. “Everyone just writes now?”

“Yep, this is it until dinner. Start writing.”

I looked around the room. Other people were plugged in to their headphones, and the air was filled with the clicking of fingers against keys. Most everyone was either working on a NaNoWriMo goal, or some other lofty work in progress they had in mind. Their eyes were fixed on their screens, and their brows were furrowed with determination.

Then there was me. I wasn’t hip-deep in a novel, and I wasn’t trying to hit a word count. I had zero preconceived notions about what was going to happen. I opened up my laptop and stared at the blank document. What now? Someone was going to look over at my screen and see nothing but white, and then they’d know I was a fraud and a hack. They’d laugh and point and run me out of the house in shame, I just knew it. I began to panic a little.

I nudged Lisa. She took her headphones out of her ears.

“So, one more time. . . ” I began.

“Yes,” she interrupted, “everyone just writes. So write something.” She put her headphones back in and her fingers resumed their steady staccato.

I stared at the blank screen for a bit, then took a deep breath, and wrote the first thing that came to my mind. It was the title of a song Lisa and I had been listening to in the car earlier: Blood Red Skies.

It looked good there on the first line. I center justified it, and at looked even better. I had the title to a story. And then I started typing. I imagined a creature on Mars a billion years ago, the last of his kind, spending his final moments in a dying world. I imagined what his thoughts and feelings must be like, and what it would be like for him to gaze up at the blood red skies of his home one last time.

Before I knew it, I had a perfectly decent little story right there before my eyes. It hadn’t existed an hour before, and yet here it was. It wasn’t great, and it wouldn’t be winning any awards, but doggone it—it was my story, and it was alive.

I was feeling good, and I wanted more. I opened up an old file I keep that is filled with random thoughts and brainstorms, and scrolled down until two words caught my eye: Last meals. Maybe it was because it was getting close to dinner, but I found my thoughts turning to food. I imagined the chef of a fancy, Michelin starred restaurant who volunteers her time to make last meals for prisoners on death row. I could see her face, I could smell the kitchen where she worked, and I wondered why she would do this on the side. So I started writing her story. I imagined what condemned prisoners would ask for their last meal, and what that might say about them. I explored the chef’s motivations, and found an interesting backstory on her that explained why she did what she did.

Just as before, this story wasn’t going to be sounding any alarms at the Pulitzer committee’s secret world headquarters, but I was liking where it was going, and it felt so good to just write, unencumbered by any kind of distraction.

The rest of the weekend was spent in a similar manner: I felt the ideas flowing in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time, and I just wrote story after story. Old ideas got dusted off and reexamined, and brand new ideas tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they could play. Whenever I finished one story—or, more often, whenever I felt myself getting stuck on an something—I kept hearing Lisa’s words echoing in my mind: “Everybody writes. So write something.” And instead of getting frustrated, I’d switch gears and write something else.

It was amazing to me how the simple act of writing proved to be the end-all, be-all solution for any problem I faced. Stuck on a plot point? Keep writing, and see if you can bust through it. Written myself into a corner? Keep writing, and see if you can turn it around. This idea just isn’t gelling like I’d hoped? Keep writing, and write something else that does. It’s like what the Marines are taught, when faced with an obstacle: Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.

By the end of the retreat, I didn’t have anywhere near close to the highest word count, but it didn’t matter. I had recharged my creative batteries, had written some good words, and I was moving forward. In fact, I think it’s ironic that the weekend was called a “retreat,” because I ultimately learned it’s the forward movement as much as anything else that is the key to success. So long as my fingers were keeping a reasonable pace with my mind and heart, I was headed in the right direction. And it feels good to move in the right direction.

So if you feel like you’re stuck, or if you feel like giving up and retreating, I offer you the same words from my sister that helped me through that weekend:

Everybody writes. So write something.

And move forward.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.