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Kim Tomsic

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What Agents and Editors Really Think When Reading Your First Page

DREAM TEAM:  Nick Healy, Caryn Wiseman, Andrea Brown, Jennifer Mattson, Melissa Manlove

Writers want to know the secret sauce that makes editors, agents and readers turn a first page in a book. Some say authors must get the inciting incident on page one. 

Screenwriting books advise the inciting incident should land on page ten (or for books, the first 10% of a novel). Wendy Loggia of Delacorte Press/Random House once told me it’s hard to care about an inciting incident until we care about the character. She went on to say that many writers want to get to the good stuff first, but it all has to be good.

To further understand the art of the first page, I asked Andrea Brown, president of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA), to host a panel session during the Big Sur in the Rockies writing workshop held in Boulder, Colorado. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, participants submitted the first page of their work-in-progress and gathered to hear feedback from a dream-team of publishing professionals—Melissa Manlove from Chronicle  Books, Nick Healy from Capstone Publishing and three ABLA agents Andrea Brown, Caryn Wiseman and Jennifer Mattson.  The panel provided insight on what works and what doesn’t on the first page of manuscripts, everything from picture books to YA novels. 

Here’s what I heard:
Don’t rob readers of experiencing the emotional state of the character. This is another reason agents and editors (and readers) want you to SHOW DON’T TELL. For example, writers should not write George was upset about his report card—that TELLS the emotional state. Write something along the lines of George wadded up his report card and shoved it to the bottom of his backpack

Picture Book Writers—WATCH OUT for clause filled sentence structure. Instead, choose an appropriate sentence structure for your audience. Also let sentences end so readers land on an idea. Simplify your language and let the art carry a good portion of the weight of the story. (And on a side note, it’s a good idea to keep emotional conflict out of bedtime stories).

All Manuscripts—
·        Avoid over choreography.
·        Read your pages out loud and listen for repeating words or repeating a character’s name—fix if you’re over using.
·        Choose active verbs. Instead of using “to be” verbs, choose verbs powerful enough to eliminate adjective and adverbs.
·        Remember that books set in the 1980’s are now considered historical fiction.
·        Don’t lead with generic circumstances that stay generic, stay away from common story line and add something fresh and original.
·        Don’t write a book with didactic intentions and please don’t write with a didactic tone; kids will see right through this. “We don’t go to stories for lessons.” Melissa Manlove  (though please see Melissa’s additional feedback listed at the end of this article).
·        Be careful so that you’re not long and heavy on details. Readers don’t want to wade through the mundane to get to the good.
·        “Many editors dislike prologues and we want you to be as rejection-proof as possible so don’t use them unless you really must.” Andrea Brown
·        Some panel members are not fans of mixing anthropomorphized animals with talking humans. That’s not a rule, just a note of preferences when querying this panel.
·        The Picture Book industry is currently hot on having character-driven picture books, but characters still needs to have a motivation.   
·        Another personal preference from this panel—they don’t enjoy reading first pages with names that are difficult to pronounce (i.e. T’sfard-ma-zia might be a prime example).

Using illustration notes in picture books. Please know this varies between editors (for example, never (never ever) send an illustration note to Beach Lane Books). Per the members on this panel, illustration notes are fine, but only if it is necessary for the editor or agent to get an inside joke or a something that is not relayed in the words. Do not use illustration notes to describe your character or provide unnecessary art direction.

Writing in Rhyme. If you are writing in rhyme, please take a look at any book that’s won a Geisel Award (p.s. fun fact—Andrea Brown worked with Theodore Geisel long ago!).
I’ve attended many conferences and though many agents and editors say they don’t like rhyme, many also say it’s because they don’t like bad and forced rhyme. Furthermore, if a story rhymes in English, that doesn’t mean it’s going to rhyme in French or Spanish, so rhyming books are difficult to sell beyond the U.S.  

Author/Illustrators—if work as both an author and illustrator, you should submit a sketch dummy for your full picture book along with only a couple of pieces of finished art.

**Post workshop Melissa and I chatted, and she states there’s another side to this list of advice. To learn more, I suggest you read her interview titled “Noir and Horror for your Kindergartner” by Maggie Tokuda-Hall posted on the Boing Boing blog 





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