Writer’s Conference 2016: Making those First Ten Pages Hook Agents, Editors, and Readers

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A lot of the talks at the conference had to do with improving your writing, imagine that? In this post I’ll breakdown Paula’s talk on really making your first ten pages hook your readers.

The First Ten Pages – Paula Munier

That opening scene has to grab your reader’s attention, if it doesn’t they won’t keep reading. We also need to think about how books are bought, if it’s not word of mouth, and it usually is, typically the cover, the back of the book, and the first few lines are what sell. Agents, editors, and publishers also tend to look at the first 140-250 characters which is only 1-2 sentences before deciding that your work interesting or passing on it.

Paula also said that agents will skip the query and only come back to it if the sample catches their interest. So how do you make those first ten pages pop and come to life?

  • Something has to happen, the story must begin
  • It has to be unique, either in voice, content or style while also being familiar enough that the reader can relate and has some idea what to expect
  • All fiction should be written with a strong voice which inspires confidence. This helps the reader connect with the characters and tells them what kind of story they’re getting into.
  • Dialogue should be realistic, if it comes out as unbelievable you’ll lose the reader
  • There should be emotional content, you want to evoke emotion in your readers
  • It should be edited for grammar, punctuation and spelling. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but a sloppy manuscript makes a reader’s job more difficult which is the opposite of what a good writer does.
  • Your prose should be clean, clear and concise

Let’s talk about the action. Your first ten pages needs to have something happen and that something should be interesting. No one wants to read ten pages where the character gets out of bed, makes coffee, eats breakfast and goes to work. Action provides the narrative thrust, it’s the engine that drives your story forward. Cause and effect are powerful here and really that’s the basis of every good story. A causes B but then C happens which leads us to D which pushes us to E, etc.

Watch this short explanation from Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

We also need to see the premise of your story in the first ten pages, the premise sets the foundation and explains to the reader what the story is about. It’s the ground on which you build the rest of your story.

Paula also said it’s important to have a big idea, this could be a theme or angle that is unique to your work, the sooner you introduce that, the better.

Then we talked about USP – Unique Selling Proposition, this is what makes your story yours. It can be explained in a logline, a one or two sentence summary, or it can be a comparison of your work to another title(s). This answers the question what is your book about and hints at the content.

  • Seaquest was Star Trek in the oceans
  • Games of Thrones is basically War of the Roses in a fantasy setting

Basically, what makes your book stand out? It can be your voice as a narrator or the point-of-view: The Lovely Bones (2002) as an example, is narrated by a young woman who was raped and murdered as she watches her family struggle to move on.

  • Setting can be unique, a place we’ve never been or a familiar place with a new twist
  • Characters that you love to follow, whether you like them or hate them

Action, conflict, and dialogue work together to drive a story forward and keep the reader invested so how do you keep the reader reading?

  • Structure: each scene has to have an arc
  • Present your theme early on, either in the first line or in the first few pages
  • Avoid starting with the weather unless it’s bad and challenges or hinders the hero
  • Avoid prologues unless it’s super critical and informs the main action. If you go with a prologue, don’t call it a prologue. You can use a time/place instead or simply state ‘Before’ or ‘Yesterday’
  • Don’t open with a dream, it’s cliche
  • Don’t start with them alone unless they’re doing something compelling
  • Show your hero in ACTION
  • No opening phone calls, text messages, skype calls, etc.

Given all that, it’s fine to break any of the rules but when you do there must be a point to it. It’s better for debut authors to follow them. We also want to leave out anything boring that the reader may be tempted to skip.

Lastly, Paula suggested we clean up:

  • Overwriting – “kill your darlings”
  • Interior monologues – make them concise and poignant
  • Cliches – best way to knock your reader out of the spell of your text
  • Weak verbs
  • Dialogue tags
  • POV changes

You want to make things easy on the reader and you want to keep them enthralled with your text. The object is to keep them turning the page. If you can do that for the first ten pages, you can likely keep it up for the rest of your novel.

 

 

 

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Writer’s Digest Conference 2016: How to make writing your full-time job

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In this post I want to focus on the talks that taught me useful bits on making writing a career. My last post plays into that as it gives excellent advice on querying but this post is going to focus more on mechanics and your behavior.

Go Hybrid or Perish – Vincent Zandri

Vinnie gave us some personal insight by describing his life’s story. It was incredibly educational. In short, he was doing a lot of variety in his writing. He wrote copy, magazine articles, short stories, and had relationships with editors across a variety of platforms. When he finally got his big break and published his first novel, he scored big: a quarter of a million dollar advance. The figure blew my mind as it did his.

He thought he made it, he stopped writing copy, stopped doing articles and quit with all the small stuff. He no longer thought it was necessary. Shortly thereafter reality came crashing down around him when his first book flopped. He had to reconstruct his career from the bottom up, just to stay afloat. That’s why he suggests folks who want to make this their career, who feel writing is their calling, must go hybrid.

A hybrid author writes a variety of material on a variety of subjects. They write daily and keep a steady output of material.

He mentioned some good tools, Kindle Direct Publishing lets you get stories out directly to your readership. The more you have, and the more you publish, the better marketing Amazon provides you with. Each story also becomes it’s own income stream, along with any other content you’re generating, the small streams from individual projects will add up. They also don’t have to be long, I’ve seen short stories up quite frequently.

Scrivener is another good tool for organizing yourself and working out ideas, or just collecting notes and research.  Also the low price tag of $40 makes it affordable.

Kboards.com is basically a digital writer’s cafe. Having trouble with your opening? What about the end? Need help with your queries? Basically it’s a free place to go and get criticism from other writers. You could spend thousands on hiring a professional editor or you can make friends and swap stories online. It’s also a good place to troubleshoot technical issues.

On Writing and Publishing with Emily St John Mandel

I’m just gonna throw this out there, Emily was ADORABLE… and I’m not even into women. She was charming, polite and insightful as she discussed her experience with writing and becoming a bestselling author. If you’re into dystopian fiction her latest novel, Station Eleven, is an award-winning hit and international bestseller.

Emily discussed literature as a way to reclaim identity, as a home that we can return to during times of upheaval or if physically returning to your home is impossible for whatever reason. She had some great advice.

  • You must write and you must finish
  • Be ruthless with your writing time, learn to say no to social engagements, and feel no guilt when lying about why you can’t attend
  • Learn to write wherever and whenever you have the time. If you can only write during sunny weather with the wind blown from the west and the temperature at a cool sixty-eight degrees this may be more of a hobby and less of career for you.
  • Solving problems makes you a better writer, embrace them
  • A compelling query and solid samples matter more than networking and having that MFA – in other words anyone can break in
  • Being nice and friendly is worth it – no one wants to work with snooty, obnoxious writers
  • Embrace uncertainty while retaining your confidence – try your best and let the chips fall where they may. If you’re not happy with the outcome, pick yourself up and try again.

Great stuff, right? The whole while she was super encouraging even though she’d never read anything any of us in the audience had ever written. It was inspiring and insightful and I really appreciated her candor.

Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 – What I learned about Pitching Novels and Magazine Articles

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This series is going to cover what I learned in the individual talks I attended during the Writer’s Digest Conference (#WDC16). I’ll try to keep them to 1-2 pages and summarize the most pertinent information. Comment and share to your hearts content!

Pitch Perfect – Chuck Sambuchino

This session was geared toward those of us participating in Pitch Slam (basically speeding dating for writers and agents). Chuck outlined some specific logistics, but he also gave some really good advice on pitching in general.

  • Agents are looking for good stories that are well-written, in other words if you want to be a writer you need to practice your craft and read a lot
  • A pitch is basically your query letter in conversation and you can practice this anytime, anywhere, with anyone – DO IT! Costs nothing and can only help you
  • Introduce your characters and the conflict
  • Never reveal endings
  • Be confident, relaxed, and SMILE!
  • When comparing to other titles in your genre avoid the big names (Harry Potter, LotR, GoT, etc.)
  • What’s interesting about your characters? What do they want?
  • Mention the inciting incident (what kicks off the story)
  • Set the stakes and describe any interesting complications
  • Unclear wrap up – avoid rhetorical questions (Will Jimmy save the day?)
  • Avoid generalities, specifics bring a pitch to life
  • Avoid subplots
  • Paint pictures, make it visual

Not only was Chuck hilarious and friendly, he gave really good advice. I highly recommend examining his work online as he has a plethora of articles as well as sample query letters that worked and landed debut authors agents.

Secrets to getting published in magazines that editors won’t tell you (but we will)  – Zachary Petit & Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Zach and Jennifer gave us an excellent roundup of quick tips and tricks in order to get yourself out of the slush pile and on your way towards getting published in magazines.

First and most important: do it. Publishing in magazines can only help you in your writing career. If you want to focus on writing in a specific area or genre it’s a great way to do research for a larger piece and get some experience.

Secondly, get a copy of the magazine (you should really read any magazines you want to query) and pitch the editor responsible for that particular section. Often you can discover the email formula for the magazine and then fill in the data to get the email address for the person you want to query. For example, if you know Barbara Johnson’s email is BJohnson@variety.com and you can’t find Todd Clark’s email, try TClark@variety.com

Media Bistro can also be a useful tool in this regard, it gives regular interviews with editors which lets you have access to the inside scoop on what they’re looking for and memberships are variable depending on what your needs are. Their paid memberships (they have free ones) only run $55/year.

Never attach anything to your emails, guaranteed way to get deleted before they even read your message. Zach put up his collection of tips for queries on his website.

Mention anything you’ve published or any relevant expertise you may have.

Always address your query to a person, never general Dear Sir or To Whom it may concern

Always ask for more money, at the very least know what you’re getting paid and other details like due date, word count and any paperwork you need to fill out/sign.

Also know if the piece will be First Rights or All Rights, basically whether they own the piece for ever and always or if they can only have the rights to publish it once and afterward ownership returns to you.

That’s enough for one blog post. I don’t wanna make these TLTR, so enjoy the tips, leave your comments in the comments section, and come back in a few days to check out what else I learned.

 

Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 – Impressions & Introductions

 

Walking across scorching pavement, the humidity higher than a blunted teen, I raced my way across midtown to make Pitch Perfect – my first session for the annual Writer’s Digest Conference. It was hosted by the Midtown Hilton here in New York City and since I live around the corner it was very easy to get there. Only problem was I woke up a bit late. I raced down the stairs with my man purse flailing on my hip, packed with my notebook and a proof-copy of Twin Souls and some skittles. Luckily, I was only a few minutes late and the host of the talk, Chuck Sambuchino, barely noticed me among the hundreds of other writers in the room.

As a writer who has never been to one of these seminar-style events, I found the experience really rewarding. In two articles, I want to explain my impression as well as what I learned, loved and thought could use a little work.

Writer’s Digest puts out eight issues a year and it’s chopped full of pertinent information to help new and practiced writers refine and improve their craft. Here’s their most recent cover:

WritersDigest

As you can see, they have authors and other industry insiders give tips, tricks and practical advice to help us improve specific aspects of our writing. The conference was basically a live, lecture-based version of the magazine and I enjoyed it so much I subscribed. I’ve also encouraged two fellow writers to sign up for the next conference, obviously I’ll be back.

They had an exhibition area with a mishmash of organizations and companies writers may find helpful. Createspace, Lulu, Your Book is Your Hook, and National Writers’ Union are a few examples. Each had a table that I browsed in between sessions, snagging pens, pins and Jolly Ranchers while exchanging cheerful tidbits with whomever was on duty.

I also signed up for Pitch Slam, which is basically speed-dating for writers and agents. Chuck primed us in his session on Friday, giving us the low-down on the session itself as well as what was expected of us as attendees. He was funny, apt and answered everyone’s questions with empathy. After that, I went home Friday night and rewrote my pitch until it was, well, perfect. I practiced repeatedly, cut out 20% of it in order to keep it under 90 seconds, and practiced more.

Waiting in line was the worst part. Collectively caffeinated, the line’s limbic resonance was high, making us all that much more nervous. The two girls in front of me were clearly jittery, so I introduced myself and suggested we pitch to each other. I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted practice or just to take my mind off of the ambient anxiety, but either way it worked.

I pitched to nine agents and eight of them wanted to hear more: twenty-five pages, ten pages, first three chapters, the whole manuscript, a hundred pages, the whole manuscript… I was thrilled with the reception Twin Souls had.

The one lady that politely told me she couldn’t sell it pointed me toward Dreamspinner Press, saying my type of story was all they published.

A bit blown away, I enjoyed the rest of the day elated with satisfaction that I gave great pitches and had email addresses and business cards of real agents who wanted more. I’m polishing the text a bit before sending it, obvi. I learned a few more tricks at the other talks which I’ll get into in my next article.

I also met a lot of other authors, friendly compatriots in the war for recognition. Their stories, kind words and companionship at the conference helped make the experience much more social and interactive. We bounced ideas off each other, congratulated and encouraged one another and shared meals and cocktails. It was as easy as saying hello, and just as my novel shows the experience of a group of characters, the conference reminded me that we are not alone. We are all sharing the journey and the struggle, the love for the craft and the perennial self-doubt that comes with being writers.