Category Archives: Sample Pages

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!

Five Ways to Impress an Agent with Your Opening Pages

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[ 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!

Are There Second Chances in the Slush Pile? You Betcha!

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thumbs-up-down-iconsToday I’m drawing from the archive to bring you some mid-week inspiration. Whether you querying five agents or fifty (and btw, I recommend aiming for the lower end to start), the reality is you have to be ready for some agents to say, “no.” But is that the end of the story? Not always! As odd as this sounds, sometimes the quality of a rejection letter makes all the difference.

WHEN A NO ISN’T REALLY A NO

It’s a no-brainer: rejection stings. And when it comes from your dream agent, a “no” stings times ten. Time to move on and never look back, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes “no” just means “not yet.”

I’m talking about your partial or full manuscript. If an agent requested your work, then responded with a fairly impersonal “no thanks,” she probably just didn’t connect with your concept, style, etc., and it’s better to concentrate on your other top choices. If, on the other hand, you got personalized feedback on why the story didn’t work for her, or what you could do to improve it, chances are she’d be willing to look at your work again in the future—either the same project or a new one. And this time, you might get a whole different response. Want some real-life examples of how smart persistence pays off? How about amazing authors Marie Lu, Gail Carriger, Tiffany Reisz, and Michael Martinez. You can read their stories on the clients page of the Nelson Agency website for a healthy dose of encouragement!

When you resubmit, here are some things to include in your new query letter:

    • Make note in your subject line and opening paragraph that you’ve thoroughly revised the project based on the agent’s feedback, and give a few details about what aspects you reworked to make the project stronger. If the agent explicitly said he’d be open to your work again, certainly mention that, too. It puts you way ahead of the crowd and shows you have grit.
    • If you’re pitching a new project instead of a revision, there are pros and cons to mentioning your previous submission. On one hand, the agent could say, “Yes, I remember—this author’s work didn’t resonate with me.” On the other, it shows you have a history of great concepts that caught her interest, even if the writing itself wasn’t quite ready. In general, I favor being up front and reminding the agent you’ve “met” before. It might save her searching through her archive to see why your name sounds so familiar.
    • Include any updates since you previously submitted. Did your revised partial win a contest? Have you had a lot of interest from other agents or editors? These things show your new draft isn’t just different—it’s much better.  It also adds a sense of polite urgency: this project is hot—better take a look before someone else grabs it!

A final note: this advice assumes you agree with the agent’s feedback from your initial submission and your respective visions for the project align. If not, no matter how much you admire that agent and want to work with her, you’re setting yourself up for frustration, and it’s best to knock on other doors.

Best wishes!