Lessons from Midwest Writers Workshop: Why agents stop reading

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For those of you who couldn’t attend the 40th Midwest Writer’s Workshop at Ball State in July, I’m writing a series of posts sharing some of the wisdom I acquired in my three jam-packed days in Muncie. If you want the full wisdom, be sure to sign up for next year.

Today, what Victoria Marini told us in her 20-minute Buttonhole the Expert Talk about why agents stop reading:

– The first line matters. Work on it. Polish it. There are three things the first line of your novel should do: peak the reader’s interest, demonstrate voice, and set the foundation for your story.

– Tension, tension, tension. You should create tension early in your novel. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things are happening fast; don’t mistake speed for tension. It does mean that your character has conflicts or obstacles. Tension can be about what you show at once and what you keep secret. Tension can be internal as well as external. Regardless, it should be there.

Victoria Marini

Victoria Marini at Midwest Writers Workshop

– “You don’t have to have exploding cars.” This might have been the best line of the whole conference. It’s about active vs. action. Do make your characters active; this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have action. Action is flying bullets and space monkeys. Active can mean someone sneaking back into their house or driving through a storm. There’s tension in those situations even though there are no exploding cars.

– “I can see you behind the curtains.” Don’t begin with over-contemplation. You know what this means–your character standing at a window…thinking. Don’t make your conversations in the beginning of the novel too lengthy. Avoid exposition dump. Most of it really can wait. Avoid too much detail. In general, take Elmore Leonard’s advice; make yourself as the writer invisible.

– Include your inciting event. The big thing that sets everything in your novel in motion should happen in roughly the first 50 pages or by Chapter 3. It never hurts to do it too early, but it definitely hurts to do it too late. This inciting event should also form the basis of your query letter.

– Deepen your characters. Exploding cars are not enough. If the car belongs to a character I don’t really care about, I don’t care about the car exploding, either. Deepen your characters by showing what’s at stake. What conflicts are they engaged in? What goals do they have and what’s in their way?

– Three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. When Victoria Marini explained this, I could feel a big light bulb going off for me. You, of course, want to avoid things like cliches. One cliche in and of itself does not spell the death of your novel. But mistakes accrue. Three cliches in the first 5 pages, and you’re probably done. Three grammar errors. Three misspellings. You get the idea.

Reading manuscripts for agents must be a lot like grading for professors. As much as you don’t want to, you get reading fatigue. The first time a student incorrectly explains some concept, it’s no big deal. The second time, it’s becoming annoying. The third time, I’m so over it. Avoid three strikes.

– Exercises to try. To avoid over-writing your first 50 pages, you might try re-writing the whole thing without any adjectives or adverbs. Really. None. They are not your friend. You might also try writing the opening from the perspective of a different character.

– Recommended reading. Victoria Marini suggested a checking out Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer. I have not yet, but because I was so impressed with the rest of her advice, I will be soon.

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