Five Ways to Impress an Agent with Your Opening Pages

Standard

[ Note: This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter. Go RMFW! ]shutterstock_138099389

Today I’d like to tackle one of my favorite FAQs: What does it take to hook an agent with your opening pages? (Insert profanity if you’ve been through or are in the midst of this process!)

The truth is, on any given page of your novel, agents weigh dozens of factors based on their knowledge, experience, and personal taste. They’re also employing another vital skill: instinct. If their gut isn’t telling them to read on, their brain probably won’t win the argument. But I think I can boil it down to five key elements that really make agents swoon:

A Remarkable Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes one captivating and another lackluster? One major element is uniqueness—both at the “big picture” level (how your characters see the world) and in the details (word choice, flow, syntactic quirks). Another is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with our understanding of the characters and story? A third is unobtrusiveness; while not invisible, a strong voice effortlessly captures the reader without calling attention to itself.

Flawless Writing. An agent is hooked when she reaches the end of your pages and had forgotten she was reading a sub- mission. This happens when the writing is so polished that there was nothing to trigger her “agent brain” and pull her out of the story. The opening pages must deftly balance scene and summary, clear dialogue, and just enough intriguing backstory. Disappointment comes from sending out a project too soon. Find a critique group or writing partner you can trust to be brutal with your early drafts. You’ll thank them later.

Irresistible Characters. No matter how beautiful the writing, a manuscript is in trouble if an agent doesn’t fall in love with the main character(s), or at least find them hard to forget. Like all readers, agents want to feel a strong emotional stake in what happens to these people/dragons/aliens/werefolk. At the end of your sample chapters, you want to leave agents in anguish, dying to know what will happen to your characters.

A Compelling Inciting Incident. Another thing agents look for is an inciting incident within the first thirty pages or so. Granted, there are excellent novels that take longer to get there; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is an example. But Outlander is an 800+ page tome, and long stories like that are the exception, not the rule. An author has to have a good reason to delay the spark, such as relevant scene setting or character development. In the slush pile, a long delay is more often the result of unpolished writing that needs a trim.

Smooth Mechanics. As sexy as that sounds, this one has more to do with nuts and bolts than instinct. Still, it’s important enough to make the list. One or two typos is probably not a deal breaker, but if a manuscript includes frequent mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, agents start to see red flags: Is this author unprofessional? Downright careless? Would our working relationship be a mess, too? Don’t take chances—run it by your exasperatingly anal copy editor friend before you hit that “send” button.

Whether you’re about to start the submission process, or already in the trenches, best of luck!

Dream Team: Finding the Right Critique Group for You

Standard

TeamWork

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how isolated the writing life can be (and believe me, I can sympathize as an editor!). So today, I’m reaching into the Archive for an article that addresses this issue. Yes, writing is a solitary task, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. Before you ever sign with an agent or publisher, or hire freelance professionals to help you indie publish, a good critique group or writing partner can be an indispensable key to your success.

Here, some advice on how to choose writing partners who will help you bring out the very best in your work:

 

What to Look for in A Critique Group  [Updated article from the Word Cafe Archive]

One of the top pieces of advice agents and editors give to writers of all experience levels is this: join a critique group. There are many advantages to this, among them: help with finding holes in your plot (and other things that don’t work), a support system to cheer you through writer’s block, and a community of like-minded people who take writing seriously.

So what should you look for in a critique group? Here are some important things to consider:

    • Experience with your genre. This doesn’t mean everyone in the group has to be working on exactly the same type of project—there are pros and cons to that. But think of it this way: if you’re writing a middle grade boy book and all of your other critique  partners write adult fiction, you might not get the feedback you need. That is, unless the other member are avid readers of MG fiction (perhaps they have children in that age range), and they know the market and what it takes to hook a young reader versus an adult.
    • Success among the members. By this, I don’t mean you should turn a group down if its members are not NYT bestsellers. After all, if you’re a new writer, that would be pretty darn intimidating! What you should look for are writers with a successful track record of some kind. Ideally, at least one is published with a traditional house, and another another is achieving success with her self-published titles. Another member has just sold a short story to an online literary journal, and a fourth has just finished his first novel and is shopping it to agents and editors. You’ll learn a lot from this variety of experience levels, and no matter where you are in your writing career, there will be someone who has been there or is going through the same steps now.
    • Reliable group members. We all have busy lives and occasionally have to cancel a commitment. But if several members of your group consistently flake out, you may end up giving a lot more than you get in return, and that’s not fair. Before you join a group, ask about their average attendance and whether there is a system to encourage accountability. A critique group can be one of your greatest assets as a writer—but only if it’s a team you can count on. And don’t forget, they’ll expect the same from you!
    • Healthy balance of encouragement and criticism. When you join a critique group, look for people you can trust to give you honest, objective feedback—after all, if you wanted nothing but praise, you’d ask your mom. The goal for each member should be to make that feedback constructive and useful; a good way to do this is to start by highlighting things you liked or that worked for you, and following them in a respectful manner with your concerns, being specific about what didn’t work and why.

Now, the question is, where can you find a fantastic group like this? A good place to start is with your local writers organization. They should be able to provide you with a list of groups open to new members, or point you to resources for finding one. You can also ask your writer friends or writers you meet at conferences—networking is a great way to find a group. And while I’m generally an advocate for face-to-face interaction, online groups work well for a lot of people, too. Try www.critiquecircle.com, www.thenextbigwriter.com, or www.writers.net . Also, check out this helpful page from Colorado State University—it has more great tips and questions to ask yourself before joining a group, or to help you start your own.

A last piece of advice: go with your gut. If you join a critique group and you feel torn down rather than supported after each meeting, or you wonder if anyone actually read your pages, it’s probably time to let go and find a group of people who are as interested in your success as you are.

AgentSpeak: “Your Main Character? We Just Didn’t Hit It Off”

Standard

This week I’m excited to continue the “AgentSpeak” series here on Word Café. Today’s topic is another comment frequently seen on polite rejection letters from agents:

“I’m sorry not to have better news. You have a lot of talent, but I just couldn’t see myself spending an entire novel with your main character.”

Reading this from your dream agent, you experience a roller coaster ride of emotions. Exhilaration (she thinks I have talent!). Indignation (how dare she insult my character like that!). Despair (she hates my book!) And finally, confusion (what does it mean, couldn’t spend an entire novel…?). Let’s see if I can shed some light here.

SadSuperheroWhat the agent could mean is that she just didn’t connect on a personal level with your main character and story—a situation I described in my previous AgentSpeak article. But more likely, she means you have created an unlikable character. Yikes. Now what?

As with many other elements of fiction, the likability of your characters is subjective; what appeals to one reader may put off another. But, just like real-life people, some characters manage to win over an almost universal audience. (Think Katniss Everdeen, Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones.) How do they do it? By being witty, funny, charming, and good (but not too good)—the same qualities that draw us to people in the real world. By displaying an ingenious balance of strengths and flaws, with the strengths ultimately winning out. By being unique, while showing us traits we recognize in ourselves.

Now, the converse: what characteristics do readers—including agents—most often shy away from? Here are some of the top turn-offs:

  • Characters who are cynical, angsty, jaded, or just plain mean
  • Characters who are flat or generic
  • Characters who feel like vehicles for a message or agenda, rather than real-life people
  • Characters who show no growth or change from beginning to end of story (unless that’s the point—a tough one to pull off)

Once you’ve identified some possible reasons for the agent’s dissing your protagonist, you’re faced with a tough choice: change him, or stand your ground. Only you as the author can decide which of those actions is right for your book. There’s always a change the agent’s opinion was a fluke. What if you still believe strongly in your character? What if changing him would compromise the heart of your story? Then your best bet is to go knocking on other agents’ doors. And before you do anything drastic, get a second opinion (and a third, fourth…tenth). Did another agent make a similar observation? Is your critique group having trouble with your character(s) as well? If so, there’s a good chance the public at large will feel the same, and that spells doom for your book sales. In that case, you probably don’t need to scrap your protagonist, but it might be time for a little nip and tuck.