Recently on my Sinc Guppies yahoo group, there was a long list of giving and receiving critiques. I found the thread interesting due to the mostly mean and hateful feedback stories these unpubbed and pubbed authors received. In that thread, the authors said they wanted the honest feedback, but that they wanted it done nicely. As most of you know, I intern for a literary agent and I think she’s the best at giving nice, but honest rejections. She does a great job of nailing down the overall reason the manuscript didn’t work, but first to help soften the blow, she lists several things she did like. After pondering this dilemma for a while, I came to the conclusion that everyone should be like my agent and offer the good with the bad.
If you’re a writer who’s been in the trenches for awhile, you know the importance of the first page of your manuscript. It’s supposed to do a myriad of things like establish voice, create character presence, and give an inkling of the premise. It’s a lot of pressure for one page. Recently, I received a critique back from one of my CP’s (critique partners) and she provided insight into the first page, but more importantly she reacted to my first paragraph. She pointed out what she’d learned about the story and character just from reading the first six lines.
I thought it’d be fun to do First Paragraph Friday’s, where I critique the first paragraph of either an unpublished manuscript or a recently published novel. If you want to participate, send me the first paragraph of your first page to writedahl (at) yahoo (dot) com and I’ll give you feedback about what I learned from it. Then you can decide if that’s what you wanted your reader to learn.
Today I picked a book that I’ve never read so as to provide feedback without knowing the story. Also, I didn’t read the back jacket blurb or look at the cover. That way I’m completely in the dark. However, I do plan to read the novel to see if I’m right or not.
I chose THE AFFAIR by Lee Child:
The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three doors, (4) each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the southeast option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the Metro and the bus station, because it was the busiest and the most popular (3)with civilian workers, and I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, (1) preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, (4) mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses. I wanted independent eyeballs on me, at least at the beginning. I remember the date, of course. It was Tuesday, the eleventh of March, 1997, and it was the last day I walked into that place as a legal employee (2) of the people who built it.
There’s a lot here for a first paragraph. I highlighted the sentences that provided me clues and coordinated them with the number. Here’s what I learned:
1. Main character is not only a citizen of the US, but also a military person.
2. That whatever adventure or journey’s s/he’s about to embark on will end his/her career.
3. That the MC appears reckless, but is really careful, like s/he will make rash decisions, but they’ll really be calculated risks.
4. The pacing of the story will be full of lots of details and twisty surprises.
If you’ve read the story feel free to comment as to whether I’m right or not. If you haven’t read the story, feel free to comment on things that you noticed. **I do plan on reading the book and will come back and update whether I’m right or not for those of you who haven’t read it.
If you’re a writer who’s been in the trenches for awhile, you know the importance of the first page of your manuscript. It’s supposed to do a myriad of things like establish voice, create character presence, and give an inkling of the premise. It’s a lot of pressure for one page. Recently, I received a critique back from one of my CP’s (critique partners) and she provided insight into the first page, but more importantly she reacted to my first paragraph. She pointed out what she’d learned about the story and character just from reading the first six lines. I was disappointed to find out that all she knew was that the main character must have suffered some really bad experience. That was it, she didn’t know anything else. Not the tone of the manuscript. Not the mc’s gender. Not the premise of the book. Nothing. Never mind the rest of the first page, I’d failed in the first paragraph.
So I thought it’d be fun to do First Paragraph Friday’s, where I critique the first paragraph of either an unpublished manuscript or a recently published novel. If you want to participate, send me the first paragraph of your first page to writedahl (at) yahoo (dot) com and I’ll give you feedback about what I learned from it. Then you can decide if that’s what you wanted your reader to learn.
Since this is the first post, I picked a book I just finished. It’s Jennifer Lynn Barnes, THE NATURALS, Book 2: KILLER INSTINCT. (My comments are at the end and in red.)
Jennifer Lynn Barnes, The Naturals, Book 2: Killer Instinct
*The majority of children who are kidnapped and killed are dead within three hours of the abduction. Thanks to my roommate, the walking encyclopedia of probabilities and statistics, I knew the exact numbers. I knew that when you went from discussing hours to days and days to weeks, the likelihood of recovery dropped so far that the FBI couldn’t justify the manpower necessary to keep the case active.*
I think the author was all about establishing the tone and premise of the book. The first few sentences led me to believe that the story is going to be about murder and the FBI. The main character is knowledgeable enough to know the FBI’s procedures. S/he might even work in a less active way with the FBI.
If you read the book, that’s exactly what it’s about; a teenage girl working for a clandestine FBI group and they solve cases. The one in this book is about several murders involving a serial killer.
Did you arrive at the same conclusions as I did? If not, what did you learn?
Hi all. I know it’s been a long time since I posted, but I’ve been super busy writing and learning about the publishing/agenting business. I thought I’d share some of my knowledge. Today’s blog posts discusses what happens to your manuscript after you sign with the agent until it’s pitched to an editor.
Your agent will provide you with an editorial letter which is a page or more describing the overall issues with your story. It can be anything from adding more depth to your characters or pacing issues. From there you will either agree or disagree about making the changes. (For the most part authors agree because they realize that the changes are improving the story. Of course there are some exceptions on both sides and for good reasons but we aren’t going to discuss those today.)
Once you agree to what you will change, you then go back to your manuscript and rewrite, cut more scenes, or add more scenes. Whatever is needed. Then your lucky agent rereads your manuscript and if s/he thinks it’s perfect then you are on to the next step. HOWEVER, you could receive another editorial letter detailing additional changes, which will require you to once again edit. This might even happen a third time until the manuscript is just right. Remember your agent isn’t trying to torture you, they want the manuscript to showcase your best work and best story.
After you’ve finished editing, your agent writes a pitch letter. A pitch letter is like a query letter and oftentimes the agent will pick things out of your letter to use. (That’s why those dang things are so important.) In essence, the pitch letter entices an editor(s) to read the now polished manuscript. Now it’s your agent’s turn to wait to hear back and sometimes that can take f-o-r-e-v-e-r! If the editor(s) doesn’t love it, the agent will pitch to another small handful of editors. And so on, until hopefully one of the editors falls in love with the manuscript.
What happens after that is another blog for another day!
The intern job I applied for required a test to gauge my abilities. The agent sent me four query letters with the first ten pages of the manuscript and a full manuscript. (For confidentiality purposes, the names were redacted.) My “job” was to read the query letters and the accompanying pages. Then I needed to write a few sentences on whether I would ask for more pages or pass and why. As for the manuscript, I had to write a report detailing the plot summary, discuss strengths and weaknesses, and make a recommendation.
Here’s what I learned:
Query Letters & 1st ten pages
- Too many names in query letters and the first ten pages make it difficult to read or follow along with the story line.
- Too much back story is distracting to the reader and disconnects them from the story.
- The query letter needs to clearly state the GOAL, MOTIVATION, and CONFLICT of the main character because the first ten pages cannot convey all that.
- If you start with too much action, it loses the reader and distances them from the story.
- One query letter didn’t even talk about the main character or the plot. The author only extolled the virtues of his/her writing.
- Don’t rush to submit your book. If you’re sick of writing the same manuscript, set it aside and let it rest for a while. The MS I read was beautifully written, but the plot fell apart a third of the way into it. It required extensive editing and was too much time for the agent to take it on.
- Ask your critique partners about the story’s timeline. Does it feel too hazy? Most of the time I couldn’t tell when the story moved on to a different day or the time of the day. It made me feel as if I were reading while drunk.
- Make sure your character’s motivations are clear. If your main character’s aunt is suffering a mental breakdown and the mc is worried about her, but goes outside to weed the garden, explain why that’s more important. Otherwise, it pulls the reader out of the story and the character loses its creditability.
I hope you found these insights as helpful as I did. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more in the future.
One of my critique partners writes YA and is a phenomenal person. Always willing to help. The other day, she sent out an email to a group that she belongs to asking if there were any thriller writers who’d be willing to speak to a friend (me). I’ve been frustrated about several issues that specifically deal with writing thrillers and have searched for blogs/tweets/anything that will provide insight. There are so many YA and Romance writers that blog and tweet helpful advice. Leaving the thriller category looking bleak. And I was feeling alone on this journey and yet, three people responded to my friend. They didn’t have to, but they heard a plea for help and they responded…within minutes. I haven’t connected with them yet, but I can’t wait.
To pay it forward, I volunteered to judge a business plan contest for college students. The prize, $30,000 to help the students launch their product. I can’t wait to help someone else fulfill their dreams.
I received more feedback on my current WIP that was helpful but made me want to rail against the world, shout obscenities, and bang my head repeatedly against the wall. However, deep down inside I knew the criticism was right. So, I wiped my tears and went back to work. Because what else am I going to do? Quit?
Nope. Not a chance.
Confession: I’m a reality television whore. I’ll watch almost anything that is a reality show. I started years ago with MTV’s Real World and I haven’t looked back. A few years ago, late at night, when I was breast-feeding my littlest, I even became hooked on Keeping up with the Kardashians. I know, I know, you think my head is lacking a brain but I assure you it’s there. I just can’t help it, I love watching train wrecks or people achieving their goals.
Since, I’m confessing my dirty little secret, I thought you should know that I glean secret nuggets of advice from them too. The latest that smacked me right up side my head was from Keith Urban (Mr. Hottie), one of the judges on American Idol. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “You need honest people in your life providing you with the truth about your talent because they are the only ones who will set you on the path to becoming better.”
I know he was specifically speaking to singers, but I really feel it can be applied to artists across the board, especially us writers. If we think our drivel is brilliant we will never achieve our potential–see our words sprout wings and fly. I want to be the best I can be and therefore I want to say thank you to all of the people who provided honest (sometimes painful) feedback to me about my writing. I wouldn’t be where I am without you and for that I’m grateful.
Ms. Authoress who runs the Baker Dozen contest offered to critique the first three pages for a miniscule fee. I decided to take her up and receive her professional opinion. I’ve made additional changes since the other critiques, except for the first 250 words because I wanted to know what didn’t work when I submitted it. As usual, I’ll post my feedback when I receive it.
A good writer friend who tends to save my butt when it needs it the most, happened by my blog and saw my post about my MC not being likeable. He sent me an email and offered to read the first chapter. (Thank heavens for small miracles.) Here’s the thing, I value his opinion and I asked him to also see if the pacing was right for a thriller.
His advice, which I completely appreciate, was that while my MC isn’t exactly likeable, she is vulnerable. That’s great, but I want every one to like her as much as I do. So, back to the editing page for her. As for the thriller part, he agreed with what my gut has been trying to tell me…the pacing in the first chapter is off. I guess Elizabeth George is right after all. In her book, Write Away, she said to trust your body, not your head when it comes to your writing because it will tell you the truth. The problem with logic versus emotion is that we’ve been taught to trust logic. Maybe one day soon, I’ll be able to trust my instincts.
A huge thank you to my friend and good luck to him in the Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference Writing Contest.