Agent Monday: First Impressions

MP900438811Hey gang!  Happy Agent Monday, once again.  This upcoming weekend I’ll be taking pitches at The Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference. Taking pitches allows the writer to set up the purpose of their book, and for me to ask questions to fill in holes that remain in just what the book is about and why it stands out. This past weekend, however, I was doing something entirely different: critiquing first pages.  It was at a special Writer’s Tea hosted by the Bucks County Romance Writers group at my fab local indie bookstore Doylestown Bookshop. In many ways it was the exact opposite of a pitch: I didn’t know the writer, or the genre, or the overall arc of the story. There were just words on the page. And they pointed out one thing loud and clear: the importance of first impressions!

By looking at the first page alone, the words really had to do the job. Is your first page working for your manuscript? Reading a book is an investment in time, so that first page needed to answer this question: Why do I want to take this long journey with you?

Often, when the writer came to hear the critique (which was delivered one on one), they said to me, “It really gets going on page two,” or “the book takes off in chapter three.” Hm. Now I don’t need to have the full action or plot poured out into the very first page, but what I do want to see is something that makes me think: “Turn the page. I have to see where this is going!” Now that can be a wide range of things from an interesting point of view, or an intriguing voice, or a question I care about that I’d like to see answered.  All sorts of things can draw me in, so don’t feel you need to squeeze in that life changing moment into the first two paragraphs!

Sometimes writers use their first few pages, or even chapters, as a sort of throat-clearing warming up getting into things exercise. I say that’s fine for your draft, but then ask yourself: When do things really begin? And start the final polished draft there!

Here’s why a great start matters: If an agent is not drawn in by your opening pages, they will probably stop reading. If the agent sends a manuscript like this to an editor, the editor may stop reading. Why does this all happen? It’s up to the writer at the get-go to nail the structure and pacing of their novel. Agents and editors see a ton of books by writers who DO get this right, so they must ask themselves: Do I really want to spend time fixing all of this for the writer, or do I move on? Remember, in books that are tightly paced and structurally sound, there is often still plenty of editing that will be needed. It’s WORK and TIME and we folks must ask ourselves where to invest our limited time and resources. It is a business, right?  In the end, we all think about the consumer, the reader of the published novel. Think about it. How do YOU buy books? Don’t you often read the first page or few pages to see if it’s worth purchasing?

But wait wait wait, Marie! (some of you may be thinking right about now)… Don’t agents and editors KNOW that writers sometimes take a while to get started and skip ahead to see if the story picks up? As a writer, I remember hearing that bit of wisdom once upon a time. And maybe it was true once upon a time when an agent or editor actually had a paper manuscript land on their desk. Today? We get things via email. Electronic files we load onto our computers or ereaders. We read from page one on. If I find myself skimming ahead because I’m bored, that’s a serious red flag to me, and zooming ahead 25 or 50 pages? Honestly, I just don’t.  I won’t stick with your book unless YOU make me want to stick around. That’s all about the power of your words.

So back to those first page crits I just did… Some of the things that I saw that didn’t make me anxious to see page two included:

1. A ton of dialogue or first person thoughts that didn’t have a voice to them or point of view. Is this a woman? A kid? Who is talking or thinking and why do I care? Some hint would certainly help!

2. A ton of info. Blocks of prose that gave all sorts of info about the backstory. Do I need backstory when I still don’t know what the story is? Again, what draws me in?

3. Repetition. Saying the same thing in several different ways right on page one hints to me that this is a work that needs tightening, plus it doesn’t move the story along.

What worked in those first pages?

1. Voice! When I had an immediate grasp of the writer’s/character’s voice, and I liked it for some reason, I was willing to continue on the journey (and even forgive some rough spots).

2. Originality! Okay, so maybe that first page wasn’t perfect, but what an interesting situation! Yeah, I’ll turn that page.

3. Elegance! Show me some sign that you are a skilled writer, whether beauty in the prose or sharp wit or something that makes me nod and think, yup, I get that, or wow, the writer’s right about that and I never saw it that way… And I’ll turn that page.

4. Well-targeted writing! If it’s a middle grade novel, I should be able to tell without it being labeled as such. Ditto for women’s fiction, or thriller, or literary. If I’m embarking on a reading journey, I want to feel I’m in capable hands and going on a charted course in the direction the book wants to take me. (I hope that makes sense.)

So you can see that you, as the writer, can actually do a lot with your first page. You can reel me in and pull me deeper into your world. Do that, and I’ll want to read page 2, and page 3 and so on.

Take a hard look at your opening pages. First impressions definitely matter.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Passing Thoughts

MP900341375Happy Agent Monday, peeps.  Since there seems to be an intense interest in why agents pass over certain queries, I thought I’d cave and give you some recent examples on why some recent queries got a no from me. So let’s get to it.

1. Generic! The query began with “Dear Agent” or some such, and then went on to say something like “I specifically picked you because you represent such great books and do such great things…”  Obviously a form letter, and a bit insulting to the intelligence, frankly. I’m so special, but you don’t know my name?  LAZY.

PASS.

2. Not for me! My guidelines specifically state that I’m not into “books that feature graphic violence.” So you know that pulling out a chain saw and lopping off someone’s body parts in chapter one is the perfect book for me, right? AAAAAH! AAAAAAAH!!!!

PASS.

3. First effort! This publishing thing is a business, and a tough one to break into at that, right? So when a querier sends me a manuscript that is their very first effort, and it’s clear that they’ve never ever read in their genre to figure out what’s what… it’s definitely too soon to be thinking about marketing anything.

PASS.

4. Again? I get it. Women are swept away with the idea of a paranormal lover…someone dangerous and saucy and seductive. He’s HOT. He notices her. Did I mention that he’s hot and he notices her? Because that seems to be what’s goin’ on here, ladies. But I’m sorry folks, the wolf thing, the vampire thing, it’s been done done done done. And I’m not seeing anything new here.

PASS.

5. It’s a what? For who? Here’s a query that really doesn’t know what it is, meaning the writer doesn’t know the genre he or she is writing for. There’s an 11 year old protagonist, but they are calling it a YA and giving it more mature themes, AND they are also infusing it with childlike happenings AND dialogue using words that even I had to look up.

PASS.

6. Too clever for its own good. This query was clearly written by a very smart person using very smart words and all sorts of intellectual word play. It felt like I was reading something that I’d been assigned in school and that I’d have to grab the Cliff Notes on to even begin to follow. I rub my forehead with exhaustion, and…

PASS.

7. Lovely in some ways, but… This one shows some true skill in dialogue and wordplay and even a gentle sort of a hook thrown in which may work for more literary women’s fiction… but in 20 pages I still feel the plotting is a bit too sleepy and I just don’t care enough based on what I see and on the synopsis to read on. I send a more personalized rejection, but it’s still a…

PASS.

8. Really? This query is one of those take something weird and add in something weirder and then write and write and write sort of things. It doesn’t even make sense.

PASS.

9. Hmmm. Interesting! Here’s a query that is smart and funny. I like this writer right away. They show they know me (which is helpful) and that they are savvy about the market (which is even more helpful).  The first 20 pages are fresh and well written and build on the promise set up in the query: strong voice, different take on things, interesting. So I google the author (I google them? Check out this post to see more on that!) and see that no, this book wasn’t already published and isn’t available everywhere for free or whatever. And that, yes, the author does have an online presence that reflects her image in a decent way.

REQUESTED FULL!

So that’s it. A peek into my inbox.

Remember, I’m ACTIVELY LOOKING for new clients, and I want to find them. I’m not sitting here twiddling my fingers thinking, “Hm, how can I ruin a writer’s hopes and dreams today?”  It’s more like, “Hm, where is the writer who is ready for me to make their hopes and dreams take off?”

BRING IT.

But do your homework, make your work perfect first, and check out my guidelines here.

Marie

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Slice of Life Friday: We Made it to March!

Girl Sitting in ChairAm I the ONLY one in the world giddy to flip that calendar and see February is over?  I think not. I bow to the wise one who made February the shortest month of the year. Dark, cold, and what does it have? Valentine’s Day? Psh. Not a happy day for those lonely hearts in the world (though the chocolate’s not bad). President’s Day? Blah. Just an excuse for ad execs to put Lincoln and Washington costumes on actors and make them hawk car sales and furniture deals.

NO! Go the F away February!

It’s March!!!  And, yeah, I know it can snow in March, bladdy bladdy blah. But when I woke up this morning, it was lighter out and I could hear birdies tweeting. It won’t be long before I can shed that dreaded winter coat like a snake skin and ditch the boots for my black and white checkered sneakers (not kidding).

So here is Marie’s list of what is FAB about the up-coming spring:

1. Birdies tweeting in the morning
2. Longer, sunnier, WARMER days
3. Being able to take my coffee outside in the morning onto my patio
4. Working outside on my laptop
5. Taking walks with my pooch in the evening
6. Shedding the heavy winter clothes I’m really sick of
7. Wearing light cheerful stuff instead!!! (And those checkered sneaks)
8. Working in the yard…
9. Seeing those flowers pop up from the ground and the buds on the trees, and, sigh…

So what’s on your list?  Please share what you are looking forward to by leaving me a comment…and join in the springy celebration! :)

Happy WARM March wishes to you all,

Marie

Agent Monday: Don’t tell me how I’ll feel…

Businessman Midair in a Business MeetingHappy Monday!  Did you miss me?  Yeah, I kinda dropped off the map for a few Agent Mondays. Sorry.  That’s what a major Hurricane, a 5-day blackout, followed by a big snowstorm, with a dollop of contract negotiations and a heavy dose of book pitching, etc. can do to a girl.  How does this make me feel? It makes me feel like giving out another query tip to writers trying to find an agent. Today’s tip: Don’t tell me how I’ll feel!

Okay, here’s what I mean. Sometimes, now and then, well, actually pretty darned often, I get queries that contain things like the following: This is the best book you’ll ever read. This book will be a sure bestseller. My novel will make you weep. My manuscript is so special that publishers will be throwing money at you. This story will be made into a movie and will change the world. This book is hilarious, moving, earth-shattering, stunning, brilliant. It is the greatest story ever told. This is a love story that will never be forgotten.

Really? Hm. Sometimes I feel like Judge Judy. Short, a tad sarcastic, and about to say, “You think you can tell me how I feel?” Actually, Judge Judy is more inclined to say, “You think you’re smarter than me?  I’m smarter than you’ll ever be in your entire life!” Which is why I watch her and find her hilarious…but I digress.

Then there is the “someone else said it so it must be true” stuff in queries: I read this to my children and they just laughed and laughed. Two fifth grade classes heard me read it aloud and they just loved it. My critique group read it and thought it was extraordinary. My family loves this novel. My friends think this is the best book they’ve ever read.  I took a class with such and such and he said this was superb.

I bang my gavel and say, ” Heresay! Inadmissible in court!” Er, actually, what I think to myself is: whatever. Who cares? I’m the judge of the moment, and I like to form my own opinions, thankyouverymuch.

Which gets to the heart of the problem with these statements. It’s back to the whole tell vs. show thing writers must struggle with in their novels. In queries, the same rule applies. Don’t tell me all this stuff, present your query to me in a way that makes me come to the conclusion all by myself.  If you do it right, I’ll start to think, hey, this sounds pretty terrific! I think a publisher will snatch it up…I can imagine the movies…I bet kids will love this!

Then you are doing stuff right.

Also, this needs to be said: If you tell me that your book is the greatest thing since creamed spinach, I’m gonna think your ego is a bit inflated and that’s not too cool.  If you tell me that your kids, etc. LOVED this book, I’m gonna think, well duh. They love you, even a classroom of kids will love you. That doesn’t make their opinions translate to what matters to the market. So you’ll seem a bit of a greenhorn with statements like that.

So, basically, if you are sounding like the adoring reviewer of your own novel, then you need to give your query a rewrite.

What is acceptable and helpful? If your novel, or a portion of it won a prize? Yup, I want to know. If you received a professional review from a respected source, say a top editor judged the manuscript in a contest and praised it, that’s cool to add in too.

If you don’t have anything like that? That’s also cool. You have your novel. Present it to me in a way that’ll make me fall in love with it.

And I’LL tell YOU how I feel about it.

Case closed!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Building Great Expectations

As queries with initial chapters spill into my agent inbox, I look closely for something to grab me and take hold of my imagination, and it needs to happen in those first few pages or chances are good I’m not going to ask to see more. As an agent I’m looking for true story telling technique. It’s all about building great expectations.

Great Expectations. Talk of Charles Dickens is swirling in the air, with the celebration of his 200th birthday… I can almost imagine Dickens writing of such a thing.  Of a man celebrating his 200th, like a Miss Havisham lost in cobwebs, but with a birthday cake instead of a wedding cake… But I digress. Digression.  A very Victorian thing to do.

The classic writers would never make it in today’s query/submission market, right? Today agents, editors, readers have such short attention spans that everything must be much faster, much more high concept, true?

Well, why don’t we put this to the test with a two-page pitch slam with some of our past greats.  First person who walks up to me to pitch? Dickens himself.  He sets his first two pages of Great Expectations in front of me, and we begin to read…

Now we must be fair to Mr. Dickens. Remember this novel was written between 1860-1861, a time long before television, and Internet, and sound bytes. A time when people surely had leisure time to dive into a novel and stay there, allowing the writer to spin a tale for at least 50 pages before we fully get to the heart of the story.

So does he open with pages and pages of back story and then slowly zoom into the main character and action?  Actually, he sets you right beside a boy as he sits in the grave yard where the stones of his family and five brothers stand. The boy imagines what his family must have looked like based on the shape of “the little stone lozenges.” And Dickens sets a gloomy forlorn scene where we find that, “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

So far, we’ve got a little boy alone in the world, a touching glimpse at a childlike mind. Atmosphere. Sorrow.  My friends, that is page one!  What’s next?  The moment we see Pip cry, we get this: “Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

Okay, I’m hooked.  I’ve just given Mr. Dickens my card and requested the full manuscript. I can’t wait to find out what happens to poor Pip. This reads more like a modern day thriller than some oldy moldy tale from long ago.  Dickens transcends time because he knows great writing is about creating a character that we will care intensely about, and putting that dear person in terrible peril so that we the reader simply must see the story through to the end. Plus Dickens exhibits amazing voice.  Graves are lozenges. A threatening man minces no words. And the writer promises a tale filled with heart and danger.

But of course, I tell myself, Dickens wrote his novel in serial form, giving the reader tantalizing bits in each issue, so perhaps he was more conscious than most about hooking readers than most writers “back in the day”?  Maybe the next writer won’t be as impressive.

Next up? The lovely Jane Austen. She sets the first two pages of Pride and Prejudice on the pitch table and begins to read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Then in the next paragraph: “…this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

Austen writes with a wink and a tart tongue, and I know I’m in for a great ride. She launches immediately into dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about this new wealthy man, and the dialogue is filled with sarcasm and exasperation and a keen ear for witty language.  It’s hilarious and a perfect set up.

“Please send me the full immediately!” I say.

Too often I see writers throwing in a flashy high-concept “hook,” but that’s not the answer. Really I’m not impressed by an explosion on page one if I don’t care about the character, or a prologue showing a life-threatening scene if I’m not otherwise drawn in by the voice and feel pulled into this world.

There’s much to learn from the story telling masters of the past.  It’s worth flipping open the classics to discover what makes them so compelling that we have vivid memories of these stories and characters even hundreds of years later.

Heart. Characters we must know more about. A fascinating point of view. Peril that we feel invested in. Strong story telling.  Build those great expectations, and agents along with editors and readers, will burn to read more.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.