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.

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Write in a Different Genre: Guest Post by Donna Galanti

Today I’m thrilled to host a stop for the blog tour celebrating the launch of Donna Galanti’s debut paranormal suspense novel A Human Element (Echelon Press). Here’s a quick synopsis:

One by one, Laura Armstrong’s friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. The savage killer haunts her dreams, tormenting her with the promise that she is next. With the killer closing in, and terrifying secrets revealed, Laura discovers her destiny is linked to his and she has two choices–redeem him or kill him.

Readers who devour paranormal books with a smidge of horror and steam will enjoy A Human Element. To purchase A Human Element click here. And you can read my positive review by clicking here.

Now onto Donna’s guest post.  Welcome, Donna!

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Challenge Yourself to Write in a Different Genre
by Donna Galanti

If you are a writer have you challenged yourself to write in a different genre? I tried it in my Write a YA Novel in 9 Months class. I like to write dark fiction for adults and this class forced me to find my own natural young adult voice. My teacher and NY Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry said he never backs down from an offer to write something new. He promotes that as writers we should not be bound to any one genre or point of view, but as writers we should write anything. I agree.

In researching how to write a young adult novel, I realized that I had already written young  voices in my adult novel as I propelled two characters into adulthood. But I took it a step further. I challenged myself to also write in a different point of view – the first person, rather than my comfortable third person. I found out how difficult it is to stay in the mind and view of one person through an entire book. And that of a twelve year old boy!

Here’s an excerpt from seven year old Laura in A HUMAN ELEMENT, contemplating what her real mother looks like:

All she knew about her real mother was she had been a runaway who showed up one day. Laura dreamed up many scenarios about where her mother hailed from. Once her mother was a trapeze artist from a traveling circus who got left behind on a tour, another time a royal princess who ran away to escape marrying an evil prince. And one time she was even an alien transported to Earth on a secret mission to see how humans lived.

Wesley often told Laura it was good luck to have two mommies. Fanny watched over her as her “Earth mommy” while Sarah was her “angel mommy” looking down from Heaven.

Laura was afraid some days that her “Earth mommy” would be taken from her too. 

Today felt like one of those days.

And here’s Laura at eleven spending time at her favorite spot to write, the lake:

She spread out her blanket on the grass and sat cross-legged facing the lake with her notebook and pen in hand waiting for the sun to hit the water. She wanted to capture in words the beauty of the summer morning all around her. The sun burst out of the treetops and shot shimmering jewels across the water. Laura shielded her eyes and her heart leaped with a thrill. She had made it just in time. The cool morning air blew off the water and embraced her. She closed her eyes for just a second to feel the warmth of the sun on her face, but instead a slobbery snout nudged her cheeks and hair.

“Hey,” she shouted in surprise and scrambled up to find an old, chocolate Labrador sniffing her legs. He had white whiskers around his jaw and a pleading, sad look. He became her friend instantly. She fell back down on her knees and wiggled his ears.

“Where’d you come from?” Laura scratched his head “You’re so cute!”

She laughed as he tickled her with his nose.

“Scooter,” a gruff voice called. “Come here, boy.”

Laura looked up to see a trim, old man whacking through the brush in the woods. She knew it had to be the hermit people talked about. She had seen him from afar, with his gray cap, but never up close. The old man twitched, startled to see her there with his dog. He stopped a few feet away from her. He didn’t look like a hermit but a nice, normal grandpa dressed in jeans and a green plaid shirt. He leaned on a crooked, black walking stick. He looked in good shape for an old geezer.

It was fun to realize I already had found my natural young voice in my adult book, and fun to “grow” with Laura as she grew up in A HUMAN ELEMENT. I also know I get bored with an author once a formula has been applied to their books, over and over. This happened with a favorite author, Dean Koontz. After some time I could pick up his book, read the beginning, and know how it would go about and end. That greatly disappointed me (I even wrote him a letter to that effect, but he didn’t respond :)). Sometimes we read an author because we know what they’ll give us, but sometimes we read an author because we want to be surprised.

John Grisham surprised me with two books that I fell in love with. THE LAST JUROR, written in first person, and THE TESTAMENT, written in third person. Both tell a story from the deep perspective of one person different from Grisham’s legal-thriller styles novels.  However, his try at non-fiction, THE INNOCENT MAN, did not work for me. Too dry and dull. But his book, THE PAINTED HOUSE, a coming of age book did draw me in. Again, a book in a different voice and point of view. Whether I liked it or not, bravo to him for trying new styles!

So do you like it when authors please their loyal-fans and continue to write in the same vein? Or do you want them to try new voices, new genres, new points of view? It’s exciting to be an author today as it’s become more acceptable to write across genres and in different points of view. It also gains you a crossover wider audience. John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Patterson. They’ve all done it. As for me. I’m game for trying something new. What about you?

LIKE Donna’s Author Facebook  page for news and updates! Her tour runs through April 11th with book giveaways, more guest posts, and interview fun, and a chance to win the big prize giveaway! So pop over to her blog to see the full tour schedule.

Donna Galanti is the author of the dark novel A Human Element (Echelon Press). She won first place for Words on the Wall Fiction at the 2011 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference. Donna has a B.A. in English and a background in marketing. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Pennwriters. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs. Visit her at: www.donnagalanti.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/DonnaGalanti
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DonnaGalantiAuthor
Blog: http://blog.donnagalanti.com/wp/