Four Red Flags to Avoid in the Opening Pages of Your Novel

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Warning light. copyIf you’re like me, this busy time of year can cause a dip in your creative energy. So, how best to use your time as a writer? ‘Tis the season for revisions! Whether you are just wrapping up NaNoWriMo or heading into your thirteenth draft, December is a great time to put on your editor’s hat. Most agents take a break from reading submissions over the holidays, so this will help ensure you have your novel polished and ready to go when they reopen in January.

Since your opening chapters are often what make or break your submission (or hook a reader if you indie publish), it’s worth focusing some extra attention on them. Based on my six years in the writing industry, I’ve compiled a bank of potential pitfalls for the beginning of a novel. Here, I’ll boil it down to four of the most common.

Four Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Opening Pages:

(1) Backstory overload. Also known as the “data dump,” this is one of the most common problems seen in first drafts by both new and seasoned writers. It consists of several paragraphs or pages at the beginning of a story with no purpose except to “clue the reader in” about the main character’s history or past events. It often happens when a writer confuses what she needs to know (in order to write the character and story), versus what the reader needs to know at this moment (which is usually much less). Fixing it means trimming material, or finding ways to weave in the essentials gradually, as the plot moves forward.

(2) Lack of physical grounding in the setting and the main character. Have you ever read a fellow writer’s first draft where your prevailing emotion was confusion? It was probably due to this problem. It occurs when there is not enough “grounding” information to help the reader picture the characters clearly and situate them in time and place. (How does the character see herself? How old is she? Is the scene happening in the kitchen or on the balcony?) The result is that the story feels disembodied, causing the reader’s attention to stray from the action as he tries to tackle those unanswered questions. [Notice I didn’t ask What does the character look like? Some authors give detailed physical descriptions, while others prefer to let readers fill in the blanks. The important thing is to give readers something–is she a teenager or a twenty-something; does she have physical attributes she is self-conscious of, etc.).

(3) Too much musing, ruminating, or psychoanalyzing by the main character/narrator. This is also known as introspection or inner monologue. A healthy dose is necessary for character development, but too much can spell doom for your opening pages. If nothing happens because your protagonist is too busy thinking and philosophizing, the tension fizzles and you quickly lose readers.

(4) No sign of the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the spark that sets in motion your plot arc. Without it, you end up with a story that never gets off the ground. It also plays a key role in your pacing and tension; a good inciting incident sets the tempo that those two elements must maintain. A common problem in early drafts is that the inciting incident shows up much too late. If it is not present within the first 25-30 pages (ideally, even sooner), you’ll have a very hard time getting your audience to read further. Often, this happens because a story starts in the wrong place due to backstory overload or improper sequencing.

As you get ready for your next revision, keep an eye out for these potential culprits. Better yet, have your writing partner or critique group do a diagnostic for you. Happy revising!

Pitch Perfect: How to Make the Most of Face Time with an Agent

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Pitch Session

One of my favorite things about fall is that I always have several writers conferences to attend. (Next up: Castle Rock Writers in Parker, CO, November 6-7.) In that spirit, I’m due for a post about the most fear-inducing activity writers face…worse even than writing a query letter…you know what I’m talking about: PITCHING.

In my literary agency days, I was often asked to take pitches, and for me, that face-to-face interaction was so refreshing after the relative anonymity of the slush pile. But I also knew how hard it was for the person on the other side of the table: ten minutes to make someone else believe in your dream is a lot of pressure. So, is it easier to get a manuscript request in person? Absolutely. Agents are more likely to take a chance on a project after direct contact with the writer. So take a deep breath and go for it—every time you get a chance.

Now, as an indie editor, my role has shifted to one I enjoy just as much: coaching writers on how to make the most of their time in front of an agent. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced pitcher, here are some tips to help you avoid the jitters at your next appointment:

Relax and be comfortable. Agents hate making people nervous (really!). Remind yourself that they are regular people, and they’re just as eager to find their next client as you are to be that client! They might be nervous, too.

Do your homework. Research the agents you are pitching so you can show you know something about them. Agents like to know you are interested in their agency in particular (not just any agency).

Along those same lines, be prepared for the agent to close the pitch session with this: “What questions do you have for me?” It’s a great chance to show your professionalism and satisfy your curiosity about the agent or the publishing business.

• Get ready to elaborate. Agents will usually ask for more information once you have delivered your initial spiel, so try to anticipate some of them in order to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights look. Here are some that I often asked writers during a pitch session:

Is this your first book? Are you working on anything else?

Where do you see your novel fitting in the market? Who is your target audience?

Does your book have series/sequel potential?

Where did the idea for this book come from/what made you just have to write this book?

What do you love most about your story? About your main character(s)?

What does your writing process look like? What do you enjoy most about writing?

• If you have extra time after your pitch, use it! For example, mention you have another novel completed and you’d love the agent’s take on which might be more marketable. Just give a very quick nutshell version—some agents might get annoyed if you’re clearly trying to pitch two novels at once.

What if the agent turns you down? This is the worse-case scenario, but it can happen. If an agent knows your book isn’t her cup of tea, she’s actually doing you a favor by being up front. Don’t be discouraged. Use any remaining time to ask for advice about improving your pitch—so that when you do get in front of the right agent, it will be right on target.

BEST OF LUCK!

Seriously, You Get to Read for a Living?

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shutterstock_322480529smallI love it when people ask me about my job as a freelance editor. It always leads to interesting conversations about books and the writing biz.

Recently, I got to continue that discussion through an interview in Southern Writers Magazine. I really liked the pool of questions they sent, so I asked if I could post some additional content here as a supplement. In true Southern style, they graciously acquiesced.
 

SWM: What are the biggest benefits of being an editor?

I think the very best part is that I constantly get to work on something new and exciting. One month I might be working on an epic fantasy and a middle grade mystery. The next, a contemporary YA novel and a paranormal thriller. It’s always fresh and interesting. Another big advantage is flexibility. I set my own schedule and as long as I have a good internet connection, I can work almost anywhere. It allows me to travel frequently to industry events or to visit my out-of-state friends and family, while keeping up with my work as usual.

The biggest challenges? Is it difficult working on your own?

Since every manuscript has a new and unique set of challenges to tackle, I never get to just sit back, relax, and go into autopilot. But honestly, that’s another of the perks—no chance of boredom! Time goes by so fast.

Working as an indie editor carries many of the same challenges writers face: you’re alone in front of a computer for long stretches of time with a manuscript, a stack of writing manuals, and your thoughts. There is definitely a potential for cabin fever! I mix things up by regularly presenting workshops at writers’ conferences and retreats. I also Skype with my clients, or if they’re local, we meet in person to check their progress and discuss issues in their works-in-progress.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an editor?

I’ve gleaned this piece of advice from the mentors and colleagues I respect the most: seek the right balance of criticism and praise. If you only point out the faults in someone’s writing, they may not see a reason to persevere. If all you do is praise what they got right, they might assume their work is fine and never grow in their craft. Somewhere in the middle is that sweet spot, where you help the writer understand both the strengths and weaknesses, so real progress can happen.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a writer?

Hmm…probably this: “Where you are today as a writer is not where you were yesterday, and it’s not where you’ll be tomorrow. Take feedback with a grain of salt and learn from it. Promise me you won’t stop writing.” That’s from agent Kristin Nelson, my former boss. I think that really says it all.

What do you think is the most important quality it takes to be a successful author?

Persistence. It takes years of honing craft and working through multiple manuscripts and drafts to become an excellent writer. Once you start submitting your work, rejection will happen. Shake it off and keep moving forward! We all know real-life examples of how this pays off (name your favorite author).

This wouldn’t be complete without a slush pile question…What are your query letter pet peeves?

Ha! Nowadays I don’t really get to have pet peeves because it’s my job to fix them. :) But thinking back to all those submissions I read…I’d say queries that are too long and rambling. It’s so important to be able to boil it down to the heart of the story in just a paragraph or two; without that skill, you can have a really strong novel but still miss your chance with agents. A good rule of thumb: if agents have to scroll while reading your email query, it probably needs a slim down.
 

 
Want to find out more about freelance editing or how to pursue this career? Two good places to start are The Editorial Freelancers Association and Author-Editor Clinic.