Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the first of many author-preneur workshops held by the Corvisiero Agency. As a client of Marisa Corvisiero, I was so excited to get a chance to see her and the other agents in person again and to soak in some more knowledge from Marisa’s different topical lessons. After all, it was at the last conference that I attended that I pitched Marisa and was offered representation on the spot. (That happens?!? Apparently so! You can read more about that here.) So, as far as I can tell, these workshops are magical.
In particular, the portion of writers conferences that many authors find incredibly valuable is the First Page Panel, in which anonymous first pages, submitted by attendees, are read aloud and then critiqued by a panel of agents. And because the authors’ names aren’t mentioned, agents don’t hold back – they let you know when (if) they would have stopped reading and what they did and didn’t like from the page. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly subjective, but so is the literary world in general. Here, I’m going to list out the most significant pieces of advice that I learned from agents’ feedback.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
Chances are, you’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating. Your audience wants to experience your book through visuals, sounds, smells, and even tastes. Your descriptions are vital to the experience. But there are ways to provide this information without doing what’s called an “info-dump.” How so?
When a character walks into the room, don’t launch into a paragraph description of the room itself. Instead, note the details as the character would experience them. Instead of “Sasha was tired and saw a big bed in the room, so she laid down on it. The bed was soft and covered in a white quilt,” perhaps consider why this information is necessary and tie it back to your character and what he or she is experiencing. “Sasha crossed the room and sunk into the bed, appreciating the plush quilt that molded around her aching body.” Doesn’t that sound better? It gets the message across, is relatable, doesn’t remove the reader from the action, and it stays in active voice instead of passive.
If you want someone to keep reading past that first page, it needs to draw them in. Choppy descriptions won’t do that.
2. Avoid the “Info-Dump”
Piggy-backing on #1, unless it is 120% pertinent to your story (and maybe not even then), don’t start your book with a ton of backstory or sci-fi terminology, including the dreaded prologue. This can either bore or overwhelm your reader and prevents him/her from immediately connecting to your main character. This information can usually always be sprinkled in throughout your story as your character reflects on things or talks about his/her experiences with other people. Once again, you want to draw in your reader, and the best way to do that is to make that connection to your mc. 99% of the time, your story can start somewhere else than a giant info-dump.
3. Introduce Your MC ASAP
This could probably fit in with #2, but it bears repeating. Your book is about a person (most likely), so if your reader struggles to figure out who they are and why they care about this character within the first couple of pages, they won’t keep reading. Maybe this is a product of our on-demand culture, but most people want to get to the point as soon as possible, and in a book, the point is your MC – who they are, what their personality is like, and what drives them. Don’t make your reader wait for this by taking the first 3 pages to describe the setting or backstory. While those things are important, they’re not the focus.
4. Avoid Cliches
This was one thing that all agents agreed on – avoid cliches in your opening scene. Characters waking up in bed to start their should-be-no-different-than-any-other-day day has been done countless times. Be creative. Make their activity – whatever they’re doing before the inciting incident that moves your story forward – relevant to their personality. Writing about a surgeon? Maybe they’re exhausted and scrubbing out after a surgery. Writing about a teenager? Maybe they’re playing sports or at school or jamming out to music or excited as they get ready for a date. Is your mc a detective? Have them involved in a stake-out, bored and trying to stay awake in their car. Anything, literally anything, is better than reading about an mc turning off their alarm clock and then following them through their boring morning routine (shower, teeth-brushing, breakfast). This isn’t to say that it can’t be done well and be relevant to your story (a soldier waking up in the trenches to an enemy assault, for instance), but if you do it, knock it out of the park (cliche intended).
5. Edit, Edit, Edit
Yes, I write, but I pay my bills by teaching. As a teacher, the biggest piece of advice I ever have to offer my students is to proofread their paper. After proofreading silently, read it aloud. After reading it aloud, get someone else to read it. After they read it, give it to someone else. And after each round, make notes of errors and revise. It doesn’t matter how many times we edit our own writing – inevitably, there will be errors. Tense changes, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and other formatting issues will do nothing to help you win over a prospective agent or reader. While most agents won’t reject you based on a few typos, it can certainly cause them to raise an eyebrow. Before you ever hit submit, trust someone else to look over your work for you. I know – I KNOW – how vulnerable it makes us feel to let someone else read our unpublished work. It’s like allowing someone else to see inside our imagination and heart and soul. You will do yourself a huge favor if you find a critique group, even if it’s online, because you’re all writers and you all (hopefully) understand one another. Other writers get it. And most of the time, they want nothing more than to help you write the best book possible. The worst thing that can happen is that they give you suggestions that you feel would sidetrack what you want from your book. If that happens, don’t use them. Simple.
6. Remember – Agents are Subjective
What one agent hates, another may love. Some agents like dialogue in the first line, others hate it. Some agents may be okay with starting a story with a wake-up scene, while others want to scream when they read it. Do your research and find an agent who you like and who fits your style. If Agent X represents a ton of historical romances, they’re probably not the best fit for your space opera. Websites like QueryTracker and Manuscript Wishlist are invaluable resources for querying writers looking to find an agent or publisher. I actually have a whole post on these resources that you can find here.
I hope you’ve found these tips useful. If possible, I do highly recommend that you attend a writers workshop. Getting to meet agents and pick their brains in person is invaluable. If that isn’t an option, get on Twitter and blogs and connect that way. Publishing is a community that you will WANT to be a member of. With that said, keep at it, stay creative, and be brave with your work!