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: Looking Back over the Year

YLast Thursday, I sat around a table with folks from The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, feeling so at home as together we celebrated our year of achievements. So in this Agent Monday’s post, I thought it’d be fun to reflect on 2012 from my own perspective as an Associate Agent there.

This was definitely a huge year at the agency. So much going on, but with Christmas around the corner, let’s start with the amazing success of ELF ON THE SHELF. Last year, the animated Christmas special premiered, and this year, this book’s success has grown so much that it actually became a balloon at the Macy’s Day parade. WOW. That’s all I can say.

Among the other many successes at the agency, soap star Jeanne Cooper‘s memoir NOT YOUNG, STILL RESTLESS has been cruising through The New York Times bestseller list. And amazing author Matthew J. Kirby’s mid-grade novel ICEFALL has won both the 2012 PEN Award and the 2012 Edgar Award. Also in 2012, filming just wrapped up on the movie GEOGRAPHY CLUB based on the book written by our acclaimed author Brent Hartinger! And this year we welcomed to our agency Associate Agent Roseanne Wells, who is awesome.

During our agency celebration we also raised our glasses to the many deals made and the great clients who have become part of our agency family. There’s excitement in the air, and tons of stuff happening, but above all, I’m struck by how smart and decent people at this agency truly are. And how happy I am to belong to this special group.

As for me? In 2012 I read hundreds upon hundreds of queries. I took pitches and spoke at conferences. I’ve read a healthy number of requested full manuscripts, and passed on most of them, but not all….

This year I went from having 0 clients, to a great list of 7 clients. I’ve sent novels on submission, deals have been made (note to you folks researching on Publishersmarketplace.com to see which agents are making which deals…some deals that have been made take months to appear on this site until contracts are officially inked and finalized…just something to keep in mind!).

And I’m so pleased to tell you about my own posse of talented clients:

Tracey Baptiste: Her debut novel ANGEL’S GRACE (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2009) was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by NYC librarians. Her newest novel GROWING MAGIC is a stunning and dark middle grade based on a Haitian folktale, and is sure to give readers the shivers.

M.P. Barker: Her debut A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House, 2008) was called, “a memorable tale of friendship and a fascinating glimpse into mid-19th-century Massachusetts” by School Library Journal.  Her newest novel, MENDING HORSES is a gorgeous historical that follows an orphan boy, newly freed from indentured servitude, as he struggles to find his place and a home.

Jon Price: Jon is a a commercial, television and film editor whose credits include Nickelodeon’s series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, and feature films The Ant Bully, and the Academy Award nominated film Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. His debut middle grade novel CREEP VIEW ACADEMY is the hilarious adventure of Kevin Lester, liar extraordinaire, who accidentally gets shipped off to a school for monsters.

Jim Kristofic: Jim’s debut is the highly praised memoir NAVAJOS WEAR NIKES (University of New Mexico Press), and he’s also author of the audio book COYOTE TALES (Blackstone Audio). His new project is an exciting middle grade fantasy called THE FIRE TREE CLAN where a boy battles against all too real Native American mythological monsters.

Carmella Van Vleet: Carmella is a versatile author of children’s non-fiction, including Nomad Press top-sellers  SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD: DISCOVER AMAZING MONUMENTS TO CIVILIZATION and GREAT ANCIENT EGYPT PROJECTS YOU CAN BUILD YOURSELF. Carmella’s hilarious and touching debut middle grade novel is ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER about a girl with ADHD who must prove she can stick with something to the very end.

Harmony Verna: Harmony has worked with all media facets: radio, television, magazines, newspapers, public relations, advertising and marketing. Her debut is the dazzling historical novel FROM ROOTS TO WINGS, a sweeping saga in the tradition of THE THORNBIRDS, that explores passions, love and loss against the backdrop of harsh early 1900’s Australia.

Stephanie Winkelhake: Stephanie’s debut is the passionate and engrossing YA novel FOLLOWING YOU, about a dying girl who follows her dead boyfriend instead of the heavenly light, only to learn there is hell to pay. Her novel was a 2012 finalist in RWA’s  prestigious national GOLDEN HEART AWARDS.  Stephanie also has a story in the new anthology CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: I CAN’T BELIEVE MY DOG DID THAT! 

It’s truly been an exciting year, and I know that 2013 will be even better. Looking into my crystal ball, I see book deals, exciting new manuscripts arriving in my inbox, and the fun of meeting new editors, authors, agents and book lovers. And I see a number of conferences in the future, as well (no crystal ball needed for this). For starters, you’ll find me at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam, at the Liberty States Fiction Writer’s Conference, doing a full-day agent workshop at Push to Publish, and a two-day query/pitch clinic at The Word Studio. More stuff will surely pop up, so check in at my Appearances Page for up-to-date info and details.

I wish you all a New Year full of creativity and productivity. Dream big, everyone, and go for it!

warm wishes to you all,

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.