I’m a metaphor junkie.
I also see a fair number of critique or contest manuscripts, and I lead workshops on occasion, so for a while I’ve been trying to find words or instructional help for something I’ve noticed in lots of manuscripts, and that I think separates pretty good work from publishable work, but that I don’t see mentioned often. I’ve thought of it as “coherence” or “cohesiveness,” but when I say things like that, people glaze over. They don’t know what I’m talking about.
But recently, I attended my high-school niece’s regional dance squad competition, and I may have found the metaphor I need.
I’d never been to a dance competition or even a practice before, but it became clear by the third squad on the floor that you could tell how strong each team’s performance was going to be within the first bars of their music. And usually even before. It was a matter of their energy level, which was almost tangible (or not); the sharpness of each young woman’s movements, and her synchronization with her teammates. It was the looks on their faces. It was the ease and precision with which they found their correct spots on the floor before the music began. And a really big clue was how they got to those spots in the first place — whether they walked silently out and wiggled around and looked at each other and shuffled and found the right position — or marched/pranced/stomped out in step, as a single unit, with discipline, and with everything from their swinging arms to the angle of their heads united — from the audience’s very first glimpse. Without second thoughts, adjustments, or tentative steps.
And I see a lot of manuscripts that would not be winning dance squad performances. They’re good — pretty good writing, pretty good story. But they are not contenders from that very first glimpse. They don’t “take the floor” like winners, every word precise, sleek, disciplined, and in step. (This is why I think proper formatting, spelling, and grammar are crucial.) The first page doesn’t ooze energy and confidence. The smile or sobriety on the author’s face, the tone, balance, and grace of her writing muscles, are not evident on the page.
I understand so much more clearly now how an editor or agent can reject a partial on the basis of that first page. The writing performance, like the dance squad performance, must be telegraphed in those very first moves. And while some agents and fewer editors will see the talent and be willing to help train and choreograph and discipline, many won’t. They’ll let somebody else coach that writer instead.
I still have to figure out how, if at all, this metaphor might be useful in a workshop. But it also makes me think of those “light bulb” experiences in general. If you’re a writer, what light bulbs have helped you jump a level of skill? If you’re a reader (aren’t we all?), what it is about a first paragraph or page that tells you that you’re in for not just a good performance, but a great one?