Monday, September 17, 2007

Workshop Notes

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?


iyan and egusi soup: said...


it's good to have you back! the agent workshop sounds great.

liz fenwick said...

Lisa, great post thanks. I am just beginning the first rewrite of A Cornish hHouse so question you pose is very important. You need to set up the story and much of what you reveal will be important later. I think giving enough information to make the reader care about the protagonist is vital......

The Writers' Group said...

A bit of advice I was given at one point was allow the reader to get to know the characters and their lives the same way one would a person they've just met. It should be gradual, revealing the nooks and crannies of their lives as time passes. That's helped me a lot.


Ello said...

This is great advice! I'm going to keep it in mind as I go over my editing. It is slow going, but steady!

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks for taking notes for us. I appreciate the information. Most of it I've kind of thought of but it's good to hear it again. As for giving or witholding information, I've sorta been thinking that you should never provide information until the reader absolutely must have it. But maybe that's once you're "into" a book. I can see that up front you need to give plenty of teasers at least.

Larramie said...

From a reader's perspective, I need to be told enough about the protagonist to pique my interest, while not being overwhelmed and confused. And in line with Amy's advice, another writer suggested the scattering of informative bread crumbs along the way.

Patti said...

good question. i pretty much think of me when i write, as in how much would it take to keep me reading if someone else wrote this? i give quite a bit in the first few pages. in the first page, usually the first sentence i introduce the conflict. "it was a dark and stormy night."

then, as if i am telling you the story myself, i will backtrack and shade where needed. conflict is key for me. early and often.

Yogamum said...

Thanks for sharing that! I'd love to hear more about the conferences!

Carleen Brice said...

Man, she's right! I've got to practice reading out loud. I'm a stare-down-at-the-book-and-go-fast reader, too. Oy.

Lisa said...

Olufunke, it feels like I've been gone for a while!

Liz, it is a delicate balance, isn't it?

Amy, that's really great advice.

Ello, I've been wondering how that's going and rooting for you!

Charles, I'm always inclined to hold back a lot of information, but I suppose when there are lots of secrets and complex characters, there's sometimes a need to be a little more forthcoming up front. I'm feeling my way around on this one!

Larramie, I love the image of scattering bread crumbs! And I also like to get some early hints that do make me want to read on -- I don't necessarily want everything hand fed to me though.

Patti, I love that -- backtrack and shade -- I think that's what I tend to do too.

Yogamum, I'm happy to share when I get a chance. I learn twice as much that way!

Carleen, I'm glad it's not just me! I'm the worst when it comes to reading fast -- I think it comes from all my years in the military when high ranking officers would often use hand signals to people who were presenting to them to "speed it up -- bottom line it for me". It was the complete opposite of reading fiction aloud.

Lisa said...

On a related note to all of this, Kristen at From Here to There and Back emailed something to me a week or so ago that I thought was perfect so I'm copying and pasting it right from her email:

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, pg. 78

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book. or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

I just love this little book. I think you would too. I also love this nugget:

"I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better. This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress with turn on you."

reality said...

Thank you Lisa for sharing the notes and the email with us.
I guess every story is different. Some need to be spelled up front, others they just have to work their way slowly into the readers mind. There is no one formula.

As for my own WIP, thats where I get unsure of what is the best way.

kristen said...

As always, you've created such an interesting dialogue. In some ways, you are running your own little salon and workshop right here on this blog. The thoughts and comments of your readers always make me stop and think. The learning never ends.

Thank you!

Lisa said...

Reality, our own work is always the hardest to be objective about, isn't it?

Kristen, I've found there's almost no question I can toss out here where the great people who stop by can't offer up all kinds of great insights -- that Annie Dillard quote you sent me really hit home, and Susan at Spinning (Susan Marie Rose Maciog on my links) also posted about it at her place today.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing so much of what you learn with's really invaluable for those of us who are on the same journey with you. This is good karma, Lisa! :)

As far as how much I share with the reader, I am also one of those who scatters breadcrumbs...I establish my character's voice and place and situation (i.e. her main plot issue) pretty early on, but try to bring in additional information organically over time, so it doesn't feel like a "history dump."

And those are great quotes...the one about "using it all up" especially resonates with me because I have a tendency to want to hold back the "good stuff" for fear that there won't be any more "good stuff" in the future!

Lisa said...

Mardougrrl, We can all use all the good karma we can get, can't we? That quote really resonated with me too, but I'm letting go and believing that if I pour all the "good stuff" into the work, more will follow. faith :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf