Last week Warwick Capper looked stunned to hear the words, “You’re fired” from Mark Bouris on Nine Network’s “Celebrity Apprentice”. As much as his lack of fund-raising results in the car wash challenge, I think Warwick’s ego trip was a bigger flaw. Who wouldn’t be turned off by his conviction that he was such a big celebrity, rules didn’t apply to him?
In writing contests and even in submissions to editors, there are always “Warwick Capper” type writers who think rules are for everybody else. I’ve now read nearly eighty entries in the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Still a long way to go before we have a short list but patterns are emerging. As few as one in ten entrants either knows or researched what a synopsis involves. My friend and fellow writer, Julie Cohen, says a synopsis should “show the editor/agent/scout/reader/marketing department that the story is structurally sound, that it has conflict and events and a suitable ending.” Does telling a contest judge that this is the greatest work since (fill in famous author) or is an allegory about (fill in the gap) meet any of these requirements? To avoid hearing “you’re fired” after this, the work needs to be extraordinary. Sadly, if the synopsis starts off so…I have to say it…arrogantly, the work all too often follows. Some entries rise above a poor synopsis. They just have a harder time doing it.
In Apprentice’s art challenge, the women’s team described their “hands” photo as “beautifully simple and all about connecting.” This also sums up the best writing. A clever idea that’s simply told and connects with readers is more likely to stay in the game than a showy piece full of big words, footnotes and obscure concepts.
I don’t mean you can’t tackle big issues. Would War and Peace be considered such an important work of literature if Tolstoy had taken a bird’s eye view of the French-Russian conflict instead of focusing on the lives of five aristocratic families? And entries in the WA Award do explore some important issues. But the most effective are shown through the characters’ eyes, rather than being told from the writer’s godlike viewpoint. Show, don’t tell, is a vital writing skill to master. As with Celebrity Apprentice, you need to paint word pictures that bring your story to life, letting readers feel as if they’re experiencing the events first-hand rather than being told about them by the author.
As I pointed out last time, we need to feel we “know” your characters before we’re involved in their dramas. On Apprentice we’re shown what really matters to the celebrities through the charities they’re working for.
Give us a sense of time and place before plunging into dramatic action.
It’s no coincidence that the boardroom set of Apprentice is a replica of “Mr. Bouris’s” actual boardroom, down to the Sydney Harbour views. Being in his familiar high-powered environment adds to Mark Bouris’s air of seriousness and authority. We know who’s boss even before he utters the fatal words.
Whether you’ve entered the WA Award or are submitting to an agent or publisher, you can dodge these words yourself by following some industry rules. As with the celebrities, luck plays a part, but a much smaller one than we often think.
On Twitter @valerieparv