Querying Your Opening Pages to an Agent? Get an Insider’s Feedback Before You Hit “Send”.

gI_75614_LitReactor logoGuest Post by Shannon M. Parker

Hello, loyal Ingrid’s Notes followers! Most of you know that Ingrid’s YA debut, ALL WE LEFT BEHIND will publish in 2015 from Simon Pulse. My own YA debut, CRUSHING, will publish under the same imprint in 2016. And, as if being this Ingrid-adjacent wasn’t awesome enough, she and I also have the same agent. That’s right. It’s my whole promotional strategy for my upcoming book: To scream to the writing world that I am an agent and imprint sister to Ingrid Sundberg. Because she’s that awesome. And because I admire her writing SO MUCH. I’m certain you agree. And I’m certain you know Ingrid’s route to publication. Now, she and I want to help you with your road to publication. How? Well, Ingrid invited me to chat about my upcoming online class at www.LitReactor.com that aims to polish polish polish your first ten pages—helping them stand out in an agent’s inbox.

Perfect 10

10 Ways Aspiring Authors Can Benefit from “The Perfect Ten” Workshop:

1. Indulge in a Literary Spa Day: Literacy agencies typically request opening pages as part of the query submission process. They want to know you can write more than a query letter. They want to experience the voice in your novel, get pulled in by the tension of your story. Immediately. Or they will move on to the next query—and there are always other queries to comb through.

“The Perfect Ten” will be like whitening your manuscript’s teeth for an interview, giving it that spankin’ new, professional haircut. You’ll work with the instructor (moi) and other students to make your pages pretty. Well, beautiful, really—beautifully effective.

2. Find Community: LitReactor is an online resource for published and aspiring authors. This course will give you a chance to connect with writers who are at the same stage of the process as you, while enjoying access to articles from industry greats. Where else can you find:

  • Suzy Vitello, Goddess of Prose
  • Mandy Hubbard, Agent & Author Extraordinaire
  • Chuck Palahniuk, Industry God
  • You
  • People Like You

3. Get Validation: It’s HARD to send your pages off to an agent. So hard. You crave acceptance, but the industry is filled with rejection. And the nerves and the waiting and the nerves are enough to make anyone batty. This course will help you engage with classmates to see what’s working in your pages, what already has the reader clambering for more…

And what’s not working for the reader and why.

4. Gain Critiquing Skills: This class will help you with those opening pages, but it will also provide you with tools to help you edit deeper into your work-in-progress, as well as future manuscripts.

5. End the Loneliness: Writing can be a lonely business. No one thinks it’s healthy to be stuck behind your desk all alone. So, take an online workshop and be stuck behind your desk with other lonely writers who cling to their characters for social interactions.

6. Find a Crit Partner: While there is no guarantee this will happen, it happens all. the. time. Makes sense, really. After all, you’ll be connecting with other writers embarking on the same journey.

7. Make your Pages Sing: Tighten tension; invite us to love your characters instantly; build a believable world; perfect pacing.

8. Learn From Peers: Critiquing another’s work is a great exercise for helping you determine the strengths and weakness of your own work. LitReactor provides a safe, supportive community where we all upload our thoughts, fears, dreams and writerly hopes (as well as our pages) onto a shared Discussion Board. The Board allows you to pop on when it’s convenient for you, and it allows you access to see all of your classmates’ works and the feedback they receive from the instructor and each other. There’s always strength in numbers!

9. Indulge in One Week: It’s easy to say we’re too busy and prioritize other things over our writing. But one week? This intensive will allow you to do all that other pesky stuff (like parenting, working, breathing) AFTER the course if over

10. You wanna: I know you wanna join us. I just know it…

Ingrid discusses where to start with your query process in her blog post from September 1stQuerying 101. If you know who you want to query and want your pages spit-shined, join us at LitReactor for The Perfect Ten workshop. I can’t wait to see you there! For lots of details on the class, including a daily syllabus, head over to:

LitReactor Perfect 10 Workshop Info

Thanks for taking the time to read my guest blog today.

You can find me blogging at www.shannonmparker.com

And tweeting @shannonmparker

Come. Be. Perfect. (Don’t forget to bring your imperfections!)

Shannon_HeadshotShannon M. Parker is the author of the YA novel Crushing, due out in Spring, 2016 from Simon Pulse, a division of Simon & Schuster. Her short stories have been published and won awards, but she’s happiest when writing novels. She is a proud member of SCBWI, and a passionate administrator for The Sweet Sixteens, a group of remarkable children’s authors debuting in 2016.

Shannon is an educator who has earned degrees from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, University of Massachusetts at Boston and University of Southern Maine. For nearly twenty years, Shannon has been dedicated to eradicating adult illiteracy and believes we should all have equal access to participatory citizenry.



How to Wow an Editor With Your Book

“This book needs to be read!” Assistant editor, Rachel Abrams, of Harper Collins shared her insight as to how to get an editor to say these very words, at the 2010 SCBWI So Cal Writers Day. The following is her recipe on how to hone your craft and make your writing the very best it can be.

Your opening paragraph needs to…

  • Grab the attention of the reader and hook them.
  • Be powerful and punchy.
  • Set up goals for the rest of the book.
  • Establish perspective and voice.
  • Introduce your protagonist.

Abrams shared the following three examples of strong opening paragraphs:

1) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: This has a strong opening because it has a punchy first sentence which also tell us a lot about the main character. We immediately get a sense of the quirky voice of the book. We become aware of the conflict – that the main character has been dumped. Every detail is actually pertinent to the plot, including the bathtub, Archemedies, and the eureka moment (all of which come back later in the story). Everything is carefully planned and well thought out.

2) Gorgeous by Rachel Veil: We get a sense of an authentic teen voice right from the beginning. The setting is established, and the plot is introduced. Abrams was really pulled in by the snappy first sentence “I sold my cell phone to the Devil.”

3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: This book opens with suspense, and immediately the plot is set into motion. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous feeling you are still sucked into the mystery and the story. It also uses punchy, descriptive, plot driven words.

Finding your voice…

Voice is something that is very difficult to teach. As an editor, Abrams feels like she can’t teach you voice, but she can help you to hone it. Things that will help you to hone your voice include:

  • Know your market. Watch what teens watch. Read what they read. Get into your market’s head.
  • Find a unique perspective.
  • Get to know your characters.
  • In regards to historical fiction, know that the issues the characters encounter are similar – parents, friends, relationships. It is the setting that is different.
  • For the broadest audience, don’t use swear words.

Effective dialog will…

  • Reveal character.
  • Increase the pace of the scene/novel.
  • Add conflict.
  • Establish voice.
  • Reveal only limited back story.
  • What is not said is often more powerful than what is said.

Dialog pitfalls (to be avoided) are…

  • Revealing too much back story (aka: the information dump).
  • Characters who blurt out everything.
  • Chatty on the nose gabbing.
  • Adverbial speech tags – the emotion should be expressed in the dialog itself, which will make the speech tag unnecessary. (This is a personal pet peeve of Abrams’).

In regards to character development…

  • Character development is what Abrams really likes to focus on. In her opinion, plot is secondary to the characters.
  • Nothing should feel random or tacked on.
  • Detail does not equal development.  The details must matter.
  • Map out your character arc. Know how your characters will evolve.
  • Equip your characters with the tools to help them to get from point A to B and then to point C.
  • Know how the traits of your character affect the plot as it evolves.
  • Equip your character with motivation and a full set of personality traits.
  • Try and keep the number or characters in your book to a minimum.
  • Understand why your characters do things. This is about motivation, why do your characters act the way they do?

Lets talk about plot and pacing…

  • It is always good to fall back on a three act structure. Act One: Introduce characters, reveal characters, set plot in motion, establish setting. Act Two: This is longer and where the plot develops, the story becomes more complex, and you explore subplots. The act ends with a major event that helps to build to the climax. Act Three: climax and resolution.
  • Avoid episodic structure.
  • It’s a great idea to at least outline the major set pieces of your book. These are the big scenes that really affect the direction of the plot. Major set pieces are packed with a lot of emotion and are the scenes that your smaller scenes are leading up to.
  • Think of your scenes as mini stories with a beginning, middle, and end. There should always be a goal, conflict, and outcome.
  • Always push to raise the stakes of the plot!
  • If you are stuck in a scene try to throw in something that will raise the stakes. This is a great way to get out of writers block. Remember, you don’t have to keep it. Find out where the boundaries are by going past them.
  • There is nothing better than a good wrench in the plan! “A good story is only a good story because bad things happen” – ? What your characters do to get out of the situation is what makes reading the story rewarding.
  • Don’t bog down the plot with too much back story.

Ways to develop your own personal style…

  • The art is in the details. Editors want writing that sparkles. They want writing that will give them chills.
  • Dip into you. Look inside at yourself, and how you feel.
  • Editors will help you to make lovely sentences.
  • Weigh your words. Find the right word.
  • Details are a red flag to the reader which tells them to slow down and savor the moment. It tells the reader to pay attention. Therefore, details must be intentional.
  • Revealing sentences will tell the reader what they need to know.
  • “Fondle the details.” – Nabokov
  • Slow down and explore. Use as few words as you can to express as much as you can. A good example of this is the introduction of The Grey (a large horse) in The Graveyard Book. The author describes the horse has being 19 hands long versus using the word enormous. This has more impact.

Why it’s a good idea to get an agent…

  • An agent will help you to get a more experience editor for your book.
  • They will help your book get seen by more people.
  • They are the first filter for you, and will help you revise your book before you send it out.

Rachel Abrams is acquiring and she is looking for…

  • Mostly middle grade and young adult books. Also, a few picture books.
  • Paranormal and teen romance.
  • Middle grade series’.
  • Her favorite middle grade gooks are Walk Two Moons, The Wimpy Kid Books.
  • Her favorite young adult authors are Libba Bray and E. Lockhart.
  • Her favorite picture books include Spoon, Hip Hop Dog, and books that are quirky.
  • Editorial pet peeves include clunky dialog, adverbial tags, and underdeveloped characters.

Rachel Abrams is an assistant editor at Harper-Collins Children’s Books. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked closely with authors Avi, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Chris Lynch, and Rachel Vail, as well as illustrators Brett Helquist, Dave McKean, and Vladimir Radunsky.

Revision: What’s Wrong With Your Manuscript and How to Fix It!

So you’ve finished the first draft of your young adult novel. Where do you go from here? Well take a few cues from editor Anica Rissi, (from Simon Pulse) who shared her insights on how to identify what’s wrong with your manuscript and then fix it. She spoke at the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference. The following tips on rewriting are all based on Anica’s personal opinion and preferences and she assures you that there will always be others to negate what she has to say.

After You’ve Finished Your First Draft…

  • When writing a first draft always let it flow and let it all come out. Don’t worry about any of the following advice until you are ready to revise.
  • That said, Anica never wants to read your first draft!
  • After you’ve finished your first draft put it away for a minimum of three weeks. Preferably three months. You need to get some distance from the work. Then you will be ready to revise as you are able to see the work with new eyes.

Writing is About Discipline…

  • “If you think writing is easy, you may not be writing well.” – Rissi
  • Writing is about practice. Exercises will help you. Try and find a routine and use exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
  • When you are writing don’t stop when you are stuck or frustrated as you may not come back again the next day. Always stop when you are excited, so you want to write the next day.

Revise the Beginning…

  • As you revise your beinning you will want to start your book with conflict and tension. Start your book with something the audience can think about or ponder – mystery, a question, an explosion, action! You want to capture your audience so they will follow you to the next place you want to take them.
  • Start your book with a strong voice. Start with a question. Your goal is to raise questions in the audience to entice them to keep reading, to hook them in the first page, in the first sentence! Give the audience something to hold on to and want to explore.
  • Personal Pete Peeve: Do not start a story with a character that wakes up from a dream.
  • Write in the NOW! Start now. Don’t start in the past or in the future, be present!
  • Start you book with your character in a real situation. Introduce that character to us by showing us how they react to the situation. Don’t tell us who the character is. We want to meet the character in real life! Put your character in a situation that has forward momentum, so we want to see where the character is going. We want to see the character interact in everyday life and not see his/her resume. Show not tell.
  • Give some sense of where the story is going and what is at stake within the first few paragraphs or pages. What does this book/character care about and why? Show it!
  • Mistake Rissi often sees is too much back story and too little plot moving forward.

Think About the Overall Arc of Your Story…

  • Your story must always have two ideas to pull it forward. “One idea is not enough for a story, you need two ideas. You need two sticks to rub against one another to start a fire.” These two ideas or “sticks” should be the plot storyline and the emotional storyline. Together they intertwine and create the friction and tension and story.
  • Your characters MUST change!
  • Be sure to cross (interweave) your internal and external conflict.
  • You know when your manuscript is “ready” or “done” when you can explain what it is about in one sentence. You can tell the plot and emotional arc in one sentence.

Focus on Your Teen Voice…

  • Stay in the head of your protagonist! Don’t jump into the head of another character. It pulls one out of the experience/story. Don’t “look back.” Don’t be the adult looking back and reflecting on what has happened before. That robs the story of its immediacy and tells us that the character grows up to be said age of adult narrator. Teen lives don’t see that far into the future there is only the here and now and the immediate moment.
  • Emotions are universal. We all feel sadness, fear, happiness, etc.  How one experiences or feels those emotions are specific to the individual. This is part of voice and what shows the uniqueness of your character and makes an emotion feel authentic.
  • You are never allowed to tell the audience your character’s “good” or “bad” qualities. No explaining of emotions either. Show!!! Telling is boring. Being obvious is the quickest way to be dull. (Check out blog: www.sherylklein.com)

Revise Your Dialog…

  • Read your dialog out loud! Keep your dialog moving. Don’t put in meaningless banter. Show your character through gesture and word choice and avoid using adverbs.
  • He said – using the tag “said” is okay!! This is a word that starts to disappear. Other replacement words “explained”, “blurted”, “screamed”,  become more obvious and disrupt the flow. Ask yourself if you really need the other word.
  • Look out for curse words as they really stick out on the page. More may seem normal in regular dialog, but they pop out on the page.
  • Look out for “you know” or “like.” You also will probably have a word that you personally use all the time. Have a friend find it for you so you can get rid of it and use it less.
  • Your characters don’t need to smile, grin, or nod all the time. These also become repetitive. Trust that the reader can “hear” the smile in your dialog.

Respect Your Reader…

  • TRUST – trust yourself and your readers. They will get it.  Take out the specifics of how you want the reader to read a passage. Let the audience have and interpret their own experience as they read your book.
  • Beware of using a journal or blog as it is often a transparent device that does not work.
  • Don’t keep secrets from the reader if the character knew the secret all along. It create an unreliable narrator and a sense of betrayal at the end of the book.

Tighten Everything Up…

  • Everyone tends to either write too much or too little. Find out which one you are.
  • Tighten up every line. Ask yourself what does this sentence do that I don’t already know?
  • It is your details that will separate your story from any old story. Ask yourself what is different about your story. Identify what is different or individual in your scenes. Find out what makes your world/story specific and not universal. What is specific about the way you are writing it? This should be a story that no one else could ever write.
  • Symbols – be aware of your symbolic choices and your choices that could be unintentionally misconstrued as symbolic. Be aware of common experience and your character’s experience in regards to symbolism.

Working With Edgy Content…

  • Rissi likes to publish “edgy” books and she doesn’t shy away from topics like sex and drugs or heavy material. However, the “edgy” parts of the books must come naturally from the story and not be there simply because “edgy is in.” The story must be real.
  • Anica publishes books that have sex and drugs in them, but she also likes books that are sweet and clean. In regards to edgy content, don’t put it in to be trendy. If you use edgy content it must come from the story and be natural and truthful to your characters and world.

Anica Rissi is a senior editor at Simon Pulse and publishes young adult fiction. She used to be an editor at Scholastic before joining Simon Pulse. She likes quirky humor, smart writing, compelling stories, and characters she can’t get out of her head. Recent acquisitions include: Hallow by Jessica Verday, Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, Pure by Terra Evan McVoy, and Nothing Like You by Laurent Strasnick. Rissi does not accept unsoliceted submisions. You must have an agent to send her your work.

Crafting Books for Restless Middle Grade Readers

Ask a middle grade reader if they would rather read a boring book from start to finish or shave off all the hair on their head. What do you think they will pick? Shaving their head of course! Yes, boredom is our biggest enemy when it comes to middle grade readers. Boredom is like punishment, so you must create the biggest punch in the smallest writing space and then continue your momentum!

Author Kathleen O’Dell, said the above at the SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day this past weekend. The following are her tricks to keep middle grade readers turning the pages and hungry for more!

The Problem With Most Beginnings…

  • O’Dell finds that many books start with  what she calles “getting to know the gang.” This is usually a scene where all the major players of the book (or group of friends) are introduced in a quick, un-memorable way. The thought is that the reader needs to know who everyone is. The problem is that the reader has no connection to each character as they are introduced and forget them as soon as they meet them. Instead focus on the main character and his/her point of view.
  • Beware the character that wakes up in the first paragraph, then proceeds to admire themselves in the mirror. Oh yes, my lovely blond locks, my adorable dimple, etc. This is too generic. You need to spark interest. Plus this is very cliché!
  • Avoid the pedestrian set up. After all the News never opens with the weather.
  • Start with action in sentence one! You must wind up with action, and release it in the first paragraph. You don’t have to create something overly dramatic, just a sense of urgency. For example starting with the line: “I’m late.”

Find the Right Descriptions…

  • Be specific in your descriptions, but don’t be overly explicit. Find the right words and don’t go overboard.
  • Observe people in real life. Be nosy, and eavesdrop. Human behavior is very interesting. You will be surprised how much you can learn about two people with only a few cues. Watch couples, mothers and daughters, sets of friends. You’ll find you can learn a lot about them in how they dress, what they say to one another, the exchange of a glance, etc. You don’t need much – but you do need the right details.

The Deal with Dialog…

  • Dialog will always have a back and forth to it, but it doesn’t have to be tit for tat.
  • Listen to real conversations, in fact transcribe them as an exercise. People be-lie. They don’t really say what they mean. Instead they use other cues (body language, word choice, etc.)
  • Study bad dialog as a way to help you see what doesn’t work. Learn how not to write. Bad TV (soap operas, etc.) is a great place to start.
  • Beware the dinner scene! This is a personal pet peeve of O’Dell’s and yet she sees it in published books all the time. This is the contrived scene where the author gives the characters “meaningful business” in the form of eating in order to dump info on the reader. Often this doesn’t share anything about the character, and everything you write needs to tell us something about our characters, or move the plot forward.

Building Momentum…

  • You always want to move your reader forward! Don’t drain your character with too many subplots. Be careful of pulling the focus away from the main story to spend time with a secondary character.
  • Be careful of protecting your character like they are a child. You must give them conflict. They must make mistakes. They must make hard choices. This will push your story forward.
  • Don’t get carried away with pet enthusiasms. You must cut that three page description of the old haunted house even though it is the best thing you’ve ever written and you love it.
  • Fight the mushy middle! It’s that empty sea in the center of your novel where the wind has gone out of your sails and nothing is happening. Jump to something new! Be courageous and do something drastic – get the reader out of there! And don’t worry, you can go back and change it later.
  • Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. You know what the bad parts are. Get rid of them. Put the book away, and then go back and re-read it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you will see when you’ve had some time away. Give yourself the space to recognize it.
  • You need to use concentrate not juice. Meaning you want to concentrate as much as you can – keep the intensity and the punch. You don’t want less info, just more per sip!
  • Don’t be lazy!

The Fear of Revisions…

  • “There is bitterness in rejection, there’s fear in revision.” – O’Dell on the revision process with editors.
  • When you disagree with an editor’s note the best thing to do is to at least try it. She does this and often finds that the change is not that big of a deal. You often have to make compromises or barter, such as – this change to keep that.
  • Don’t freak out when you have to change or re-structure your book. It will make the book better.

Kathleen O’Dell is the author middle grade and young adult novels including the Agnes Parker Series, Bad Tickets, Ophie Out of Oz, and  The Aviary.

The First Ten Pages: TV Spec Scripts

In 2008, I entered the Warner Brothers TV Writing Workshop Competition. Though I did not get selected for the program, I was in the top five percent. The studio invited those of us who “didn’t quite make it” to the WB Lot for a little insight into what might help us make it in future years. The following information was provided in a discussion forum with Chris Mack (2008 television programming executive at Warner Brothers, and head of the WB TV Writing Program) and Jack Gilbert (who read all of the 2008 spec script entries – all 963 of them!).


I Only Read the First Ten Pages: Jack Gilbert read all 963 spec scripts submitted to the program. But when he says read, he really means he only reads the first ten pages. This is his first round of eliminations.  If you didn’t pass the first ten pages test you get  thrown in the “no” pile.

TV Executives Want to Say No: Television executives are always looking for a reason to say NO to you! Always imagine that whoever is reading your script is having a bad day, sometimes even the smallest thing will put you in the “no” pile. You’ve got to hit the ground running in the first ten pages!

We’re Looking for Energy: In the first ten pages they want to see energy, force, and direction! Immediately pull the reader into the story and keep the energy up!

Bring Bold Situations: Starting with an impossible situation will catch the reader’s attention. The harder the initial situation is for the characters the more likely the reader will keep reading. “I want to know how they will get out of this one.”

Don’t Be Predictable: Keep your reader guessing. Many of the scripts that didn’t make it through the first round of elimination was because Gilbert already knew how the entire script would end by page ten. Keep your reader on their toes.

Maximize Character Development: It is good practice to set up a situation in the first ten pages that will maximize the potential for character development in the following forty five pages. Utilize your characters and put them through the wringer. A great “gimmick” or “mind teaser” idea that does not engage your characters emotionally will not work.

Opening Lines

Was that an earthquake or did you just rock my world?

Okay, we may not be trying to pick-up girls, but we are trying to pick-up readers. First lines and first impressions are important! And it’s amazing how much a first line can tell you about a book; including tone, character, and intrigue.

What does a reader look for in a first line? I decided to find out first hand. For a fun Friday night, I headed to my local book bar (store) to put the YA book-bachelors to the test. I would randomly pick fifty books, read one line only, and let the most interesting and compelling line (in my opinion) pick me up. Or more accurately I would pick it up, and take it back to my place for a little cozy one-on-one time. And after one saucy night of literary bedazzlement, the following openers rose to the top of the stack:

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” – M.T. Anderson’s Feed

“The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.” – M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow

“Finn has been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.” – Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” – Maggie Strefrater’s Shiver

“Everyone’s seen my mother naked.” – Elizabeth Scott’s Something, Maybe

“Paradise sucked until I found the suicide note.” – Caroly Macker’s Tangled

“Holly will always be immune from the damage that infects me so easily.” – Ibi Kaslik’s Skinny

But who got to snuggle up with me on my sofa? That would be…

“Everyone thinks it was because of the snow, and in a way, I suppose that’s true.” – Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

If I Stay caught my attention because there is something intriguing and poetic about the first line, mysterious and sad. But what you would pick is probably different. Just like dating, there’s a different book (and first line) for everyone. I suggest you go out and try this exercise for yourself. Who will make you swoon?

Also, (if you want more opinions) you can check out the American Book Review’s: 100 Best First Lines of Novels

What about you? Who’s first lines made you turn a page or two? Please leave a comment and share!

Five Things an Editor or Agent Looks for in the First Five Pages

At the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference, editor Courtney Bongiolatti (Simon and Schuster), and agent Dan Lazar (Writer’s House) shared their views on what they look for in young adult and middle grade book openings.  It all boils down to five main ingredients:

1) Age

Immediately understanding the age of your character helps the agent/editor to get a feel for your book’s market. Age is often communicated through voice, therefore it is essential that your voice matches your intended characters age. Not to mention that the age of your character will change/effect the story you want to tell, so make sure it is appropriate.

2) Voice

Voice will be one of the first things to grab and editor/agents attention. They are looking for a strong and confident voice that  jumps off the page. Voice can make or break your book so nail it from the start.

3) Situation

Start with an undeniable and interesting situation. Don’t begin with a character waking up and starting their day. Get to the action! A great example would be to start with an explosion, followed by a kid falling out of a plane – on page one! Put action and adventure into the first sentence!

4) Tone

You need to know the tone of your book and define it for an agent or editor. The tone will reveal if your book is commercial or literary. If you open with an explosion, then you book is probably commercial. Whereas a book with beautiful descriptions is probably literary. Tone will greatly effect how your book is perceived by an audience.

5) Magic

The magic happens when the reader is drawn in by character, compelling action, or strong emotional elements.  Lazar explains that Saavy (by his client Ingrid Law) as a great example of magic in the first five pages. It opens with the compelling line: “When my brother Fish turned 13 we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane, and he caused it.” This was a story about a character who was moving away from the home they love, but there is a very unique reason why they must move. The book is full of energy, and the magic hits you in the face.

An additional note on prologues: If it is skip-able, you don’t need it. Prologues can be okay for fantasy or sci-fi, especially if the book starts with an every day situation, but it is often used to set up the world.

The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Perhaps we should start at the beginning…

As this is my first “notes’ post, I thought it only appropriate to begin with beginnings.  What will grab a reader/editor/agent and make them crave more? The following notes are author Maralys Willis’ thoughts on the subject.

The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Caution! Your beginning may become an ending! According to Willis, editors and agents will only read the first page or two of your manuscript. Unless you grab your reader on the first line, hold him on the second line, and fascinate him on the third line, those few words may be all he’ll ever read. A slow paced beginning, doesn’t honor well for the rest of the book. Beginnings are the hardest, the most crucial part of writing anything – book, story, or article. Most of us – even accomplished writers – re-work our beginnings over and over, anywhere from five to ten times.

Due to the invention of the photocopier, we are now in the days of multiple-submissions. Editors (literally) find themselves with rooms brimming with towers of manuscripts. They only have time for a page or two before something else demands their attention. In order to get an agent/editor’s attention (and keep it) you need to raise story questions within the first few paragraphs. This can be done through attitude,  an opinion, or emotional bias; surprise your reader, or hint at tragedy. Theses techniques will keep the reader engaged. For Example:

Attitude: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

Hint of Tragedy: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973.

Surprise: Unknown Romance Novel

From the waist down he looked promising.

Willis also suggests starting the book with a moment of high drama, or a moment of great change – one that will change a character’s life. Hook your audience! The audience doesn’t need to know a character’s back story, all they need are the facts relevant to the scene they are in. Back story can be sprinkled in later. Create a moment of drama that forces the reader to ask: “How did the character get here?” Or “What lead to this?”

But, why put a character in peril if we don’t know them yet? Can the audience really connect with them? To this argument, Willis asks if you look at accidents on the side of the road. Are we not immediately interested, even though we don’t know the people in the accident? We naturally want to know if our fellow human-being is okay. We want to know what happened. That same intrigue can be used in the opening of a book.

You must also orient the reader. Somewhere in the first few paragraphs, the reader must learn the five W’s: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The inclusion of the five W’s will anchor the reader. It will allow him/her to become part of the scene, to feel as if he/she is actually “living” it. Of course, the five W’s should not be laid out one after the other, but incorporated subtly into the story.

To Sum Up – Seven Things New Writers Seldom Realize about Beginnings:

1) Your book can’t afford to “warm up” – with description, dull sentences, or back story. It must start with a Hook.

2) You can’t wait for chapter three “when the story gets good!” If the story get’s good in chapter three, make it chapter one.

3) Good beginnings always include a problem – or conflict.

4) The problem in the beginning means the character’s lives are about to change – radically.

5) Most editors and agents read only the first page of a submission. If it’s not compelling on the first page, they imagine the rest won’t be worth reading.

6) Half the readers never read a prologue. So why include one?

7) No amount of work is too much to create a great first page.

Maralys Willis is the author of twelve books and memoirs including Higher Than Eagles, a  poignant memoir about her son’s tragic hang gliding accident. She is also a college-level teacher of creative writing and novel writing, and her most recent book is the acclaimed “How To” book on writing novels entitled: Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead!

This seminar was presented on March 20th, 2010 by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about IWOSC events and membership at: www.iwosc.org