I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Unreliable Narrators for a podcast. They asked some in depth questions: what’s a typical day in the life of a literary agent, advice for writers, book recommendations etc. so be sure to check it out to hear my answers.
One of the questions I continued to think about the next day. They were curious to know what is the most common mistake I see in the slushpile. This is difficult to answer as the slushpile is constantly morphing and changing, and I didn’t want to give the usual answer that writers hear all the time like:
- query is misaddressed or agent’s name is misspelled
- it’s the wrong genre for that particular agent
- spelling/grammar errors in query
- prologue or slow opening line
- word count is too high or too low
(These are incredibly common.)
What I settled on was the overall truth that… most writers query too soon. They submit their work before it has been fully polished. And a major aspect of that polish is getting rid of the words that cause distance between the narrator and the reader, also known as filter language.
Filter language is typically those pesky overused verbs that inexperienced writers use to inform the reader what the protagonist is experiencing, i.e. “I saw” or “he felt” or “she knew” (hear, think, hope, touch, realize, wonder, look, seem etc.). These verbs are largely unnecessary as we the reader are experiencing the story through the eyes of the character, thus we don’t need to be told the character is seeing something, we should simply see it, e.g. “She saw his dark cape swoosh.” vs “His dark cape swooshed.” A fully polished manuscript will have eliminated many if not all of these filters, bringing the reader closer to the story thus strengthening the odds it will catch their interest. As the most important aspect in a submission is catching the attention of the agent (just as the final product must catch the attention of the potential reader) you can imagine just how important the removal of filter verbs is.
For those of you scrambling to hit search all in your document right now, I say great, but take a moment to consider perhaps this manuscript that you wrote full of filter verbs isn’t the one. When I said writers submit their work too soon, I meant they as a creative entity, not just that single manuscript. You are an apprentice, your first completed novel gets you into the mail room at the bottom floor. Don’t set such high expectations of yourself that you will be the CEO in a year. This will only serve to discourage, as you will be faced with certain rejection and disappointment. Keep growing, evolving, studying, and learning your craft. So when you read a post like this you won’t be scrambling, rather nodding along (hopefully not too smugly). At that point, you are likely ready to submit. And I will be ready to read when you are.