A guest post from Melissa Cronin:
At this year’s Boston Book Festival, I plodded into a standing-room-only venue to attend the session, “Writer Idol.” I stuffed a page with the first two hundred fifty words of my memoir into a box bulging with dozens of other submissions, then sat in an aisle seat, in case I decided the session was not for me after all. I stared ahead, waiting for three agents – Kimiko Nakamura, Sorche Fairbank, and Amaryah Orenstein – to enter the stage, where they would listen to two authors take turns reading anonymous submissions. I recalled the description of the event in the brochure: “This session is not for the thin-skinned.” I can handle this.
A few moments later, the agents settled in their seats, and the show began. One of the authors plucked a submission from the box, and started reading. The agents were still, concentrating with their closed eyes. The secret writer knew that an agent could react at any moment, bringing the reading to a halt. The reader finished almost the entire piece before Ms. Fairbank’s hand waved in the air, indicating where she would stop reading and reject the piece. Soon after, Ms. Nakamura raised her hand. Clichés, and too many words are “symptoms of the rest of the manuscript,” Ms. Fairbank explained. Ms. Nakamura agreed. Buried in the audience, the writer knew that if their full manuscript came across either one of the agent’s desks, there would be a good chance they would reject it. As I imagined how that writer felt, a warm current whirled in my chest.
The second submission was weighed down by “too much exposition,” and encumbered with “meaningless” words, Ms. Fairbank said. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Ms. Orenstein said about the third submission. The fourth one was also interrupted. “The scene seems like it’s about to drag on,” Ms. Fairbank commented. I scribbled notes, visualizing my piece. Do I use clichés? I don’t believe I use wasted words.
“The Peach,” a reader called out. I sat up straight, gripping my pen, readying myself for the critique of my piece:
I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, six-inch scar that reminds me of a scythe. Despite my efforts to relieve the itch, it won’t let up. Then, like a crescent moon, the sliver emerges from my skin. A splinter? No. A sliver of glass the size of a fingernail tip. I touch it, motion to flick it away as if it were a poisonous insect, but stop, and hold it under the lamp for a closer look. A dull yellow glimmers from its core. Its amorphous – ”
At the same time, all three agents hands shot up. I dropped my head into my notepad, heat gushing to my face. I had read the passage again and again, and “amorphous” seemed fitting. But now hearing it, it sounded as if I were trying too hard. So when Ms. Fairbank said my piece is “over-wrought with language,” I nodded. I nodded again when she questioned my use of “poisonous insect.” The other two agents agreed – too much focus on detail for the start of the manuscript. Ms. Fairbank suggested I have a “fresh pair of eyes” read it.
For the rest of the session, even though I burned with disappointment, I focused on the responses of the agents, telling myself that this was my chance to learn what they are looking for in a manuscript. I jotted notes: “Start off simple. Don’t dump information onto the page. Don’t create long sentences at the start of the book. Don’t use description for description’s sake, and watch out for piling descriptions on top of each other.”
The next day, after my husband read my piece out loud to me, I revised it:
I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, moon shaped scar. The itch won’t let up. My nail catches on something hard and sharp. A splinter? I tweeze it with my nails. I pull out a sliver of glass, the size of a fingernail tip. Where did the glass come from? The windshield of the Buick? Is that possible? Has it been inside me for two months?
Though I had left the session feeling as if I could use a transfusion of confidence, what if I had not attended, or not submitted my piece? I would not have benefited from the trio of raised hands.
Melissa Cronin holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently working as a freelance writer and writing a memoir about the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market accident. A nurse and Irish fiddler, she lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with her husband, John.