DRAWN Haunt – Just Because You Can

Edinburgh - Writer's museumThe DRAWN Haunt party continues today with a post about how to tame all those big ideas into one tightly written book.

The DRAWN Haunt is a month-long celebration for my award-winning novel DRAWN‘s 5th anniversary. All October you’ll find here book-related posts about writing, romance, ghosts, time travel and more. To catch all the spooky DRAWN Haunt posts, explore the blog, and check back often or subscribe to this site (see bottom of this post for how).  And for more about my novel DRAWN, click here. 

DRAWN was a complicated novel for me to write, but it definitely taught me a lot. So here’s the most important thing I learned…

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

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In DRAWN, Marie Lamba deftly entwines romance and mystery, past and present, into a page-turning adventure. Buy it today and I promise you’ll be finished reading far too quickly! — Joy Nash, USA Today bestselling author

When writing my ghostly time-travel novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long time frame in the present, but also an eight-month long time frame in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire story lines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer story line and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

 

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: Fix those Pitch and Query Mistakes!

yes - notepad & penHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Conference season is heating up, and New York publishing is back in full force after a sleepy end of summer.  That means it’s time for writers to put their manuscripts in front of agents! Whether through a query or through an in-person pitch, you only get a short time to impress an agent. Are you spoiling your chances by bungling this or are you pitching and querying like a pro? If this is your first time out there, or if you aren’t getting the responses you’d like from agents, it may be time to fix those pitch and query mistakes!

Pitch times with agents are brief – anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 minute.  Yet a frequent mistake I see is a writer who eats up that time telling me WHY they wrote this story, or HOW it is told in first person or through alternate viewpoints, or…  Mistake!  Have you ever picked up a novel and bought it for those reasons? It’s all about the story – at least at first. So guess what you should focus on in that brief pitch? Yup – the story.

As a literary agent, I’ve seen, oh, thousands of queries. What’s a frequent mistake writers make? Their description of their book goes on and on for paragraphs. I don’t have the time to read so many long queries, but the real turn off for agents is that these long descriptions are often full of unneeded info, and tend to lack zing. This is writing that needs tightening, and that makes a plot feel unclear and unexciting. So if your book description in your query goes on for several paragraphs, it’s time to give your query letter a serious edit.

These are just a few important changes to your pitching and querying skills that might make a big difference when you try to interest an agent in representing you. If you would like to learn more, Associate Literary Agent Cari Lamba and I are offering a live Webinar through Writer’s Digest called HOW TO PITCH AND QUERY LIKE A PRO: TIPS AND TECHNIQUES THAT MAKE AGENTS TAKE NOTICE. Register for this, and you’ll attend our webinar online where we will show the ins and outs of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to pitching and querying agents. The webinar also includes a live Q&A with us where every question asked by participants is answered. And it includes a personal critique from us of your own query letter and the first 5 pages of your novel.  The cost for all of this is $89.99, and it’ll sharpen your skills before you spend far more on conferences or waste any more valuable time with an ineffective query letter. Be sure to register before the October 19th date! Note that although the Webinar begins live at 1 p.m. on the 19th, you don’t have to attend it live to view it and have the critique – so no worries there. Webinars, of course, are great because you don’t have to travel to attend, can attend in your jammies if you’d like, and you’ll have the recorded session after the live event to refer to again and again. If you’d like to find out more about the HOW TO PITCH AND QUERY LIKE A PRO Webinar, or would like to register for this, click here.

Hope to “see” you then!

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: Too Many Points of View?

MP900321197Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Recently I’ve received a number of novel submissions with multiple viewpoint characters. Today I’m happy to welcome the following guest post by one of my interns – Colin Gironda. As a first reader for me, Colin has his own point of view on why multi POV’s sometimes work really well, but at other times can actually lead to a rejection.

So here’s HIS view of things. Take it away Colin…

A book written from one perspective can sometimes become limited in its scope, but using multiple perspectives in a manuscript can be a great tool because it allows for other characters to have a voice.

The way one character views themselves or others can be different from the way another character does. With two sets of eyes on a person instead of one, you can create better developed characters by revealing different aspects.

Also, perspectives can foil one another. Using this technique, you can place in the reader mistrust or curiosity about another character’s actual intentions. This allows a reader to be drawn deeper into the plot and to become more compelled to discover the truth. This can also help the reader identify more closely with a character –  we are choosing sides and deciding who we like and believe in.

But there can be pitfalls and dangers for writers using multiple points of view as well. Each perspective needs a distinct voice. Without that distinct voice, the plot can feel convoluted; the reader can lose track of who’s doing or saying what.

Each point of view character must also be well developed. If the character isn’t 3-dimensional, or they don’t have a large voice, you may want to refrain from using their perspective. The reader will likely become bored with them or confused at the presence of someone so minor.

When not used properly, multiple view points can spell trouble for your plot, too. Bouncing from character to character too quickly and too often can slow your story down, especially if the storyline itself doesn’t advance enough. Readers can lose track of what’s going on, and when they don’t feel invested in what happens next, or truly know why it matters, they might just stop reading altogether.

Multiple view points really can have multiple benefits in a story. But as powerful as this tool can be, it’s just that – a tool. Don’t let it become a distraction to readers or drag down the pace. Instead make sure it’s enhancing your story, adding depth. Get that right, and the end result will be complex and rich storytelling.

Colin Gironda is earning his Bachelors degree in Creative Writing at Franklin and Marshall College, and is an intern for The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City .

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

Agent Monday: What it Takes

MP900387360Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Like I do on most weekends, I spent some time this past Saturday and Sunday going through queries that landed in my inbox. Now I’ve done a bunch of Agent Monday posts on the many crazy things that writers do over and over again when they query that result in the proverbial shooting-oneself-in-the-foot. But today I’d like to assume that if you have landed on this website that you are a cut above those people. That you actually research an agent’s guidelines before you hit send. That you’ve learned the ins and outs of how to query and how not to query. (Bless you!) So today I want to give a closer look at a much smaller group of queries. Queries that do, in fact, get me to read those pasted-in opening pages. Why the heck do I still do reject so many of those? What’s a writer gotta do to get me to request a full manuscript? Here’s what it takes…

1. More than a well-targeted tight query. Too often the query is awesome. The writing, not so much.

2. More than a cool concept. Too often the concept sounds exciting. The writing, not so much.

3. More than great credentials. Surprisingly often, the writer has some amazing credits to their name.The writing? Not so amazing for me. Seeing a trend here?

4. More than strong writing. The query is tight, the concept is cool, the writer even has strong credentials. And the writing is strong! But…it’s not for me. Something in the tone or point of view or voice turns me off, signaling to me that I am not the right agent for this writer. Hey, it is a subjective business, and I need to feel fully committed to the writer and the writing to take a piece on.

So, while you can’t control the subjective side of things, beyond trying to target agents who will “get” you, you can keep working on your writing to make it the strongest it can be. Strong beyond the obvious grammatically correct, spell checkiness of it all.

This weekend alone, I passed on queries that were well done but the writing quickly veered into paths I do not enjoy going down. Overly violent. Overly romantic. Misogynistic. Religious. Not for me, folks.

I also passed on plenty of writing that, while showing promise, was laden with too many problems. I’m only seeing 20 pages pasted into my queries, but if in those pages the writing is already burdened with things like meaningless dialogue, way too much telling or backstory, flowery purple prose, and an overall lack of timing when it comes to storytelling, well, I’m going to pass. Why? Because I have to ask myself do I really want to wade through several hundred pages of these same sort of mistakes? Do I love this enough to have to deal with the countless edits it would take to get it up to submission quality? The answer in 99% of these cases is no.

CB063448I’m busy. I have a list of amazing authors I spend a lot of time on. If I’m going to take on a new writer, it has to be someone who comes to the table with mad writing skills. This goes far beyond doing your homework with queries, and having a sharp concept, and even beyond being pretty darn good.

So continue to challenge yourself to get better and better at your craft. Write tight and with honesty. And I’ll look forward to seeing that in my inbox.

 

*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 Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

Agent Monday: It’s WORK

???????????Hi all!  Happy Agent Monday, once again. What a week full of bright swirling leaves and pumpkins and hot cider. I LOVE FALL. For me, this week was filled with the usual agent-y stuff, plus I’ve been in the process of transferring my writing space into another room. And I had the pleasure of meeting two of my clients for the first time. Throughout the week a theme has emerged: just how much work is involved in the literary life. Yes, writers love writing (for the most part!). And yes, sometimes penning novels feels like play cuz it’s such a blast to create a world. And, yes, when I as an agent get to hang out with my extremely cool and extremely talented writers, it definitely feels more like play than work.  But make no mistake: the writing life is WORK.

The topic for this post came to me this weekend when I sat sipping coffee with my client Erin Teagan. Erin hooked my representation as her literary agent with her sharp and extraordinary middle grade manuscript STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES. It’s about Maddy, a genius scientist in the making who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Maddy to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

So as Erin and I sat and chatted about our lives and swapped laughs, the conversation turned to our day-to-day literary lives. And she said, “You must be so busy. How do you do everything that you do?”

Yup, being an agent is time-consuming. Sure, it’s fun. I love treasure hunting through queries, and the thrill of finding that talented author and championing the writer through the literary world. Talking with really talented editors at publishing houses on a daily basis, and helping my authors in every way I can is so gratifying. But it does take time. It is hard work. I get up early to get a head start on query letters.  I stay up late reading manuscripts. I work through weekends. I work like a crazy person. But, really, it’s nothing new to me, because I’m an author too. And being an author is WORK!

Sure enough, when I asked Erin about how she spent her time, her own work ethic as a writer shone through. In addition to being a parent of small kids (and THAT is a job and a half for anyone), she spends endless hours writing and revising her own work, she participates in an active critique group, and each year she spends countless hours and hours organizing her region’s huge SCBWI conference. Oh, and (she casually mentions between sips of latte) she has five other novel manuscripts in her drawer at home. Five? FIVE???  I, as her agent, naturally smile and say, “Iwannaseethose. Ireallywannaseethose!”

Just think about all the time that goes into writing and polishing a novel. Then another and another. All while life throws you for a continuous loop, demanding your time in some most unexpected ways. Think of continuing to write yet another novel, even if your last ones may have gotten some interest but not that agent or that book deal you’d hoped for. Keeping in the writer zone throughout all this and continuing to devote more and more time to your craft is hard work.

Writers often refer to their earlier unpublished novels as their “learning novels.” They continue to plug away at their writing, improving as they move along. Sharpening their skills. Erin said a few of her novels were those learning novels. “I wouldn’t show you those,” she said. “But three of them? I think I know how to fix them now.”

I, her faithful literary agent, set down my hot beverage and rubbed my hands together. “Goodie!”

Writers write. If you are devoted to becoming an author, chances are you spend a lot of time writing, too. Perfecting your craft. Reading great literature. Journaling. Spending money on writer’s conferences. And chances are good that some people in your life don’t take you seriously all the time. “That’s your hobby,” they say. “How can it be work if you do it in your jammies at home?” they say. “But you haven’t even published a book,” they sniff. And that, over time, can get to you. It can spur doubts. You might start thinking: What am I, crazy? Spending years on something without getting much of anything in return yet?

So are you crazy? Well, maybe a little. But I think what you really are is a WRITER. And you are working hard toward a goal. Like Erin, who has been doing this for many years, and now? Her writing is stellar and polished, her manuscript immediately caught my eye, and soon we’ll be subbing it to top editors.

Also this week I got to meet another wonderful new client Richard Uhlig for the first time. Richard is the author of sharp and hilarious YA novels including LAST DANCE AT THE FROSTY QUEEN, BOY MINUS GIRL (both Knopf books), and MYSTERY AT SNAKE RIVER BRIDGE  (Wild Child Publishing), and he has a Hollywood screenwriting and directing background as well. Richard and I also started chatting about his writing life. He’s busy, also watching young children (that job and a half!), but still, in the past few years he’s managed to pen two novels, including the manuscript NERVOUS, the beyond hysterical story of a perpetually distracted underachiever, with writing that made me jump to the phone to offer him representation. And Richard has also recently written and produced two short films that are snagging prizes. Oh, and, he mentions as an aside, he also has two other novels sitting around.

I, his agent, drop my fork (we were having lunch, I don’t usually walk around with a fork in my hand – in case you were wondering). I want to see those novels.  A client with multiple novels and more ideas in the works = literary agent heaven. And being such a productive writer = HARD WORK. In addition to the writing and the film stuff and the parenting, Richard also participates in critique groups. He’s busy. And once again I’m struck by how much time writers put into their craft. And I’m awed. Truly.

Okay, so I mentioned that in addition to being an agent, I’m an author too. I have a few young adult novels published, and my stuff is in a few anthologies, and I’ve got a lot of articles in magazines, etc. You can find info about my books here.

Businessman Carrying Pile of FilesANYWAYS, so after meeting two of my newest clients, and being thoroughly impressed by both them as fascinating and lovely people and as really hardworking writers, I spent the rest of my weekend doing the dreaded task of moving my writing studio space from one room in my house to another. And, honestly, I got quite a shock.

I found an old middle grade novel manuscript that I’d never sold. Yeah, I remember that one. Oh, and another novel I wrote for the women’s fiction market. I kinda remember that one. And a YA novel manuscript. And another. And a slew of magazine articles that never sold. And another women’s fiction manuscript. And another. And a non-fiction book proposal. And at least three more partially written novels…

Honestly, I was stunned. All this work. Countless hours spent and my writerly passion poured onto pages. Stacks and stacks and STACKS of pages.

So what do I do with it all? I start reading them, naturally. And nodding my head. And laughing. Because I really don’t remember a lot of these. It’s like a different person wrote them. And, I admit with a blush, they are pretty good. Maybe not right for the marketplace. And I could do better now. I’ve learned and grown. It represents a ton of work, a ton of hours. But it was WORTH IT.

Not everyone in the world gets that, though. Like the accountant who, a few years ago during tax season, looked over my slim financials and shook his head. “Okay,” he said, leaning back into his cushy leather seat. “Why don’t you give your little writing hobby another year, and if it doesn’t pay off, you can go get real work.”

Um, what? (Note: I did not go back to him for the next year’s taxes… And I did not give up my “little writing hobby” either.)

Good thing we writers love what we do.  I truly respect the time each of you put into getting your work the best it can be. It matters. It’s valuable.

Be sure that you respect it, too. It doesn’t matter that you do it in your jammies. Or that no one has picked up your last x-amount of novels for publication. Or that your tax man is scoffing at you.

It matters that you work hard. That you strive to create the very best writing that you can. It’s a process. A hard one.

But it is also your path to writerly success.

*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: Quick Checklist for Submitting Writers

pencilHappy summery Agent Monday, gang!  Today, a quick checklist for submitting writers.  Are you in the process of querying agents?  Or about to be?  Then this post is definitely for you.  It’s a quickie post today (hey, it’s summer, right?)  Hope this list is helpful.  (Note: I’m talking about FICTION submissions here, since non-fiction is a little bit different.) Here goes:

1. Complete your manuscript.  You can’t query with just an idea or a few chapters when it comes to fiction.

2. Edit it to perfection!  You don’t really get second chances – so don’t just use agents as sounding boards as to whether your book is good enough.  Give us your very best!  Also, don’t expect the agent to bite on a rough manuscript just cuz the idea is pretty cool. And don’t think that it’s up to editors at publishing houses to do all the basic editing for you. Nuh-uh. You must deliver a manuscript that is as perfect as possible.  Use beta readers. Put the manuscript through your critique group. Hire an editor if needed.

3. Know the genre you are writing for and where your book fits in.  Be able to tell the agent exactly who the audience is for this book.  Mainstream? Middle grade contemporary? Young adult thriller? You need to know.  And you need to also deliver a manuscript with the right point of view for that audience, and one that runs the proper length for that genre.  Get that wrong, and you hurt your chances.

4. Write the perfect query letter.  Need tips on that? There’s plenty of info out there for you to gather on it, plus scroll through my Agent Monday posts for more specific do’s and don’ts.

5. Research agents that actually represent what you write!  Don’t waste your time on folks that aren’t interested in your type of manuscript or who aren’t currently accepting clients.  Do your research.  The Internet is your friend!

6. Follow the guidelines.  Please!  Do a search to learn more about your agent list, pull up their guidelines and follow them.  Not following them can earn an instant rejection. Trust me on that.

7. Send out queries in waves.  Don’t hit 50-100 agents at once.  Start with, say, 10. If you are getting 100% form rejections back, then perhaps you need to improve your query letter.  Then send out another wave.  Starting to get requested pages or full manuscripts?  Then you are on the right track.

8. Keep writing!  Writers write. Don’t let the query process stop you cold.  It’s something that should go on while you are also working on your next piece of fiction.

Happy querying, and good luck!

 

*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: 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.