Among the most-anticipated events at this past weekend’s DFW Writers’ Conference in Hurst, Texas, was the Gong Show. There were also a rousing keynote speech, informative classes, and chances to “pitch” to literary agents -- that is, persuade them to take a look at a piece of writing with the hope they’ll represent the author to publishers.
But nothing thrills writers more than hearing their work, or that of their colleagues, ridiculed over a public address system.
The original Gong Show was a 1970’s TV review of amateur talent whose judges ended performances in front of a nationwide audience by striking a gong. The DFW conference’s version was less brutal, although the conference’s 2012 chairperson, Jason Myers, said some writers left in tears last year. (I saw no tears this time around.)
The show’s real purpose is to demonstrate something of immense help to writers -- what kinds of writing samples and query letters agents like, or more especially, dislike, receiving from writers.
Participants dropped a query letter or the first page of their novels into a box anonymously, for later reading before a panel of agents serving as judges. A sample continued to be read until at least three agents struck their gongs, and then explained their decisions.
There was some variation in tastes. One dazed but happy author of a memorably-gonged nonfiction query lived to see four agents in the audience -- not on the panel -- ask for samples of his work.
But no others were so lucky. What follows is a compilation of brutally honest comments, which I’ll leave without attribution, for the safety of the agents involved.
The biggest turnoff was any use of clichés -- of words, phrases, or situations. Please
pledge after me never to open a novel, or a query letter, by having a character awaken from a dream. Agents invariably considered this a failure of imagination. A sample comment: “I really loathe novels that start with ‘I woke up.’”
Also getting the gong of death: novels starting with descriptions of weather, no matter how dramatic. And agents found clichés in things I’d never think of, probably because I haven’t read thousands of unpublished manuscripts. An agent who deals with young adult (YA) fiction gonged for novels opening with a character’s move to a new place. Think demons who whisper temptation over the heroine’s shoulder have never been done before? They are, an agent said, “the modern version of ‘a dark and stormy night.’’
Other dislikes cited more than once were “boring,” “didn’t thrill me,” and “predictable” writing.
But although an agent said, “I look to reject because I’ve got 2,000 queries behind yours. You really have to make it pop,” authors also got the gong for “overwriting,” “trying too hard,” and “purple” prose. One agent, for instance, gonged a novel whose character “peeled her face” off a window pane in the opening page. After all, in some genres, face peeling can be a literal event.
Finally, an agent advised sidestepping the repeated crime of “creepiness,” even in the opening of horror novels, with a memory aid that may offend the weak of stomach, but spare others the heartbreak of rejection. It is: to avoid “the three p’s -- pee, puke, and pooh.” After all, dear protagonist, if we don’t know you yet, we don’t want to meet you first in that condition.