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.

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Agent Monday: Writer’s Regression

Signpost of TimeHappy Monday! As an author of YA novels I, like many writers, felt my career rocked by the recession. And as an Associate Agent, I encounter many extremely talented authors who have had their careers derailed by the economic downturn and are still reeling to this day.  I feel your pain, and I am one sympathetic agent. So today I want to talk a bit about what I call the Writer’s Regression.

There are many writers who struggled to break into print at a time when everything in the publishing biz was dramatically contracting. Hard indeed. But in some ways it was even harder for those of us with debut novels in 2007-2009.

These writers worked sometimes for decades to finally land an agent and a book deal. This was the beginning of their true career as a published author!  What happened instead? Many of these writers lost their editors when jobs were cut, and that resulted in the loss of their biggest cheerleader at their publishing house. Booksellers, in their own panic over the economy, decided not to carry this particular author’s books at all.  The book didn’t receive any other push, and certainly no sizable advertising budget from the publisher. And even though a novel may have gotten awesome reviews, and perhaps even earned out its modest advance (though just barely), and even though this earning out was a feat in itself given the odds…well, the profit numbers to a cold and clinical eye may have seemed kinda, well, “eh” when stacked up to previous years.

So, though that writer was exceedingly talented, and the book was beautiful, and what happened is no fault of the author’s, that same author couldn’t interest that publisher in doing another book with them. And everyone else from agents to publishers seemed to look at that author with a jaded eye. It’s not personal, it’s just business. And the author didn’t sell big, right? So perhaps it was safer to just pass…

Okay, I’m generalizing here. Sure, there are cases where debut midlist authors did manage to land another contract with the same publisher, etc. But I must say I’ve run into many many fine writers who have found their careers stumble to a halt. For these authors, the economic recession feels like a writer’s regression.

Sure, they published a book, but since then, nothing. They feel stuck and hurt, and sad. Will they ever have that chance again to wow readers? Will big publishers ever give them another go? The writer can’t help but feel that maybe they are somehow at fault. That maybe they just aren’t good enough. If they were dropped by their agents because manuscripts just weren’t finding a home, the authors worried if any other agent would ever take them on.  As one very talented author said to me just last week, “What do I do? Do I give up my dream?”

Writers are a tenacious bunch, but even the most tenacious author will begin to lose heart when 2, 3 even 4 years go by and there is no new book contract in the works.  Well, if an author is talented and dedicated, I for one want to see their work.

I don’t believe that an economic downturn is the end of your career, and I think you need to know that it hasn’t diminished your considerable abilities one bit. It’s good sound business to recognize talent and promote that talent to the world. In my eyes, it’s the smart thing to do.

You know, when I research editors I want to pitch my clients to, I don’t even consider the deals that editor made prior to 2009. Honestly, that was a different world. The publishing biz has changed that dramatically. And I believe that looking back on the whole mess with our feet set nearly into 2013, smart editors and publishers get that too. The clever ones will parse out what happened at that time as really not about that book or that author.  And the smartest of editors and publishers and agents will see this as a great opportunity to snap up this talent floating around in the stratosphere.

Because it’s not always about the next new thing. Or that same tried and true thing over and over again. It’s about talent and voice.

So don’t give up on your dream. Please believe in your words. Step back into your writing world and hold your head high. Move forward.

Your lucky readers are waiting. Me too.

For my submission guidelines, click here.

*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: Know Your Genre

As both a writer and an Associate Literary Agent, I completely get it.  As a writer you have an idea, you fall in love with that idea, and you obsess over that idea as you write and write and write until that idea is a book, and as perfect as it can be. Then you approach an agent at a pitch session. Suddenly they are asking you how long is it (in word count, not pages)? What genre is it? What is it similar to? Who is the readership for this novel? Um, huh?  You know your characters and your plot, but what agents are trying to find out is: Do you know your genre? And where does your book belong in the marketplace?

At many pitch sessions I’ve attended as an agent at various conferences, I’ve found myself trying to pin an author down on her book’s genre. And I’ve gotten blank stares, blinking eyes, sometimes downright terror in response. Folks, I’m not trying to put you on the spot when I ask you stuff about your genre. Instead, I’m trying to position this book and see if it fits with a certain readership.

If you’ve done your writerly job beyond the writing part, then you’ll know what other books in your genre look like, what your competition and audience is, and you’ll already know you’ve created something just right for those readers.  I’m actually pretty amazed at how few writers take this extra step. Ideally, you as the writer should have this market info in your brain right as you begin to develop your novel.

I’ve seen novels that are far too short or far too long for their genre. I’ve seen subject matter that was inappropriate for a middle grade reader, characters that are too young for a YA novel, books that are copying what is already on the shelf.  All these really hurt your chances of getting your novel to print. Sure, you can argue that artists break rules and that there are exceptions all over the place, but if you don’t even know what the rules are and don’t have a solid reason for breaking them, then you are surely shooting yourself in the literary foot. Just sayin’.

So you’ve got to read in your genre, not only as a fan, but as a writer doing market research. Figure out where your book would really sit on a bookstore shelf and see how it compares to the other books beside it on that shelf.  If you can tell me what it has in common with those popular titles, plus what it brings to the marketplace that is new, then you are going to raise my interest level. And don’t use books from 50 years ago, use new stuff please. Sure, you can say “in the gothic style of Poe,” but also show some savvy about today’s market by referencing today’s books too.

Sometimes I get writers who say “there has been nothing like this ever before! It’s a brand new genre!” As my buddy, author Jonathan Maberry likes to point out in his informative talks to writers, last we looked, there is no “Brand New Genre” shelf at the local bookstore. That’s not a selling point.  But if you were to say something like, “This book will appeal to readers of Anne Tyler who are also looking for a dash of fantasy…” Well, then maybe I’ve got the beginnings of a pitch to an editor.

When I pitch projects to editors, they too are trying to figure out where a book will fit on their list as well as on bookstore shelves. It is the business end of writing, after all.

So I encourage writers to do a bit of homework while they are shaping their novels. And again when they begin their querying process, so they can refine their book description and pinpoint their genre and pitch. Because after all that hard work, you do want to sell.

*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.

Burning Questions about Writing and Publishing

Hot tip: there is a new series of posts over at the Philly Liars Club site, which cover burning questions about publishing and writing. Over the next few weeks, the group’s 13 authors will answer a question posed to them, so you should check back there frequently (or subscribe to that site) to see what they have to say.  As a member of their group, I’ve kicked off their series, and I’m also including my post here, too. But be sure to check in with the Liars to see what their other fab authors say about this same question…

Burning Question #1: What one thing do I wish I knew before publishing my first book or article?

That crap happens. Honestly, every published writer I’ve spoken to has a story about how they have gotten the nasty end of the stick. This shouldn’t be such a big surprise, but somehow it is. This is partly because authors rarely talk about these nightmares openly. It’s the kind of thing we whisper to each other when swapping horror stories with a colleague. And I think this is a disservice to our fellow writers, who really should be better prepared for their future.

Writing is such a personal business. Especially with fiction. Your book is your baby in a way. You invest so much into it. You love it.  Then you have an editor who loves it. And you have this great relationship with your editor. Yeah, it’s business, but you feel really close to your editor, and you know that she will fight for your book till the end.

So, uh, how come there are so many authors with “crap happens, and it happened to me” stories? Because your book may be your baby, but in the world of publishing, nobody cares. It’s just a commodity. Not even your editor cares. Well, she does to a point, but I can promise you she cares about her job and her paycheck more. So books get accepted and then get canceled. Books come out and a publisher has already lost interest in them, so there is no publicity or support. Future books that you write may or may not be picked up by the publisher/editor who “loved” your last novel. And so it goes. It all definitely feels like a betrayal of sorts, but as Donald Trump says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”

I know, it sounds dire. But before you impale yourself on your fountain pen, think of how empowering this information can be.  Just knowing that crap happens and that it will probably happen to you should make your dealings more businesslike.  Don’t trust that an editor has talked up your book with the marketing committee, get over there and talk with them yourself.  Don’t be complacent and believe that since a publisher has accepted your book that your work is done. Assume that the rug will be ripped out from beneath you at any moment and work your ass off to promote the work you have gotten accepted, to relate to your readers and build a fan base, and to write an even better next book.  Always have projects going.  Dude, it’s survival. It’s business. And it’ll serve you well.

Sadly I’ve seen many a talented author get so distraught by what has happened to them in the publishing business that they’ve given up writing completely.  It’s killed the joy for them, and they just can’t pursue their craft anymore. It nearly happened to me. Having a book that was in final copy edits canceled, along with a host of other serious crap occurring at the same time, nearly did me in. I’m an extremely positive person, but even I felt beyond low. The only way I got through was to fight back hard promoting my book like crazy. And by sinking my teeth into more novels.

I’m a different writer now.  Paperback canceled? Okay. Passed on new novel? Fine. I’m not pleased, but I’m not devastated either. I’m too busy looking for the business relationship that will benefit my writing the most, and I’m too busy being the best writer I can be.

And I’m still loving what I do.