The weekend was busy, but it was great. I attended a really worthwhile 2 ½ hour Agent workshop on Friday afternoon. Several weeks before the workshop, I received eight ten page excerpts and synopses from the workshop participants. I signed up to audit, so I did not submit pages, but I was asked to critique the work of the eight who did.
The agent ran a great workshop. I’m not anywhere close to finished with a manuscript, but this was all very good to know for future reference.
Straight away, she asked what a writer needs to accomplish within the first ten pages in order to interest an agent and readers. There’s nothing new here, but it bears repeating:
Hook is huge
Make the readers care about your character(s)
Spell out a goal and introduce conflict
Ground the reader to a specific time and place
Voice needs to kick in immediately
Providing a good deal of information and/or withholding information can be effective ways of piquing interest. She pointed out examples of two excerpts where the writers managed to convey a lot of information and another where the writer managed to pose quite a few questions. All three worked well.
Her advice on query letters was short and sweet. The letter should reflect great writing and the writer’s personality should come through. If the book is humorous, it’s OK to let the letter reflect some humor too. Be careful not to go overboard with the humor. She gave two examples where the writers tried to be a little too funny and crossed the line into obnoxious (my word, not hers). Be careful not to come across as arrogant (apparently this happens frequently). She emphasized that nobody wants to enter into a business relationship with someone who sounds like they’ll be a pain in the neck, even if their writing is wonderful.
Her advice on pitch sessions – for those who attend conferences and have the opportunity: Tell your story in half the time allotted. If it’s a ten minute pitch session, tell your story in five to give the agent time to ask questions.Finally -- and here was advice I had not heard before -- she said writers should practice reading aloud. She said to focus on reading with your head up and to speak slowly and distinctly. She said most people tend to look down the entire time and to read too quickly -- Guilty!
The feedback she gave the participants was upbeat and encouraging. Of the eight submissions, she picked three as examples of good writing (I don’t think this extended to offering representation, but it had to be very encouraging to the writers). She asked each participant to read a page or two of his or her chapter and then she led a verbal critique.
The biggest personal observation I took away from this session and my other recent critiquing experiences is that many novice novel writers tend to want to withhold a lot of information up front. In many of the pages I’ve read lately, the writer could probably provide more information up front to build and sustain interest.
After having my first chapter critiqued last week, I got some great feedback indicating that some of the things I let the readers know over time, they would like to have known sooner and some of the things I didn’t tell at all they might also like to know. That's one of the best things about critiquing the work of other people -- it's almost always easier to notice areas for improvement when we read them in someone else's work!
It’s an interesting balancing act – deciding how much to tell readers and how soon.
Any thoughts on deciding how much to reveal in the first chapter?