I’m super excited to have Tricia Levenseller guest blogging today. Tricia graduated with a degree in English Language and a minor in editing from BYU. While in school, she interned with me at the literary agency. She also interned for Shadow Mountain Publishing. She currently works as a freelancer for multiple publishing companies, reviewing and editing manuscripts. Tricia also edits books for authors looking to self publish or find agents.
Hobbies for Tricia include watching TV shows (some of her favorites are Firefly, The VampireDiaries, Vikings, Sherlock, and Orphan Black), working on long projects (like putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, crocheting blankets, and writing books), and playing volleyball.
You can follow Tricia on twitter @TriciaLevensell, where she regularly posts writing and editing advice, or at her writing group’s blog: theplotless.wordpress.com, where they talk about writing and the entertainment industry each week.
Thanks for having me, Kyra! I’m excited to be on Thoughts from the Agent Desk. You do a wonderful job discussing query letters, and all your followers are lucky to have your great insight every week.
Since you’ve got query letters covered, I thought I would talk to viewers today about sample pages—those pages that agents often request be sent along with a query when writers first submit to them. I’ve seen agents request anywhere from three to fifty pages, and regardless of the length, my goal is to help writers understand how to make those beginning pages the best they can be.
The short answer is to be INTERESTING and ORIGINAL. This is how you will stand out. But since it is difficult to know if you’re being interesting, we’ll go into this in more detail. First, let’s talk briefly about first lines. Believe it or not, as writers, you can draw in readers with your very first line. The trick is to make readers ask a question that forces them to read the second line. For example, look at Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil: “Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.” Upon reading that, you immediately ask yourself Why had she waited to be kidnapped? This is interesting, yes? Original? Absolutely. Does it encourage you to read the next line of the book?
Now I want to point out right away that you don’t have to be writing a fantasy book to have an interesting first line. Consider Elizabeth Scott’s Something, Maybe, a YA contemporary romance: “Everyone’s seen my mother naked.” Does it make you ask a question? Is it still interesting and original?
There are easy things that you can do to help out that first line. I tell everyone that starting out with setting is a sure way to send people into snoozeville. Don’t start out by saying it was a dark and stormy night. Or that the leaves floated toward the ground like butterflies. Draw people in to the story before you describe the scene. If you have only five pages to draw in an agent, don’t waste too many words describing the setting. TELL THE STORY. But, as with most things, there are exceptions to everything. Look at Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn “Ash fell from the sky.” Is that a common setting description? Does ash normally fall from the sky? No. It’s still interesting and original, and it makes you ask a question.
Personally, I adore opening books with a one-sentence paragraph that’s fun and jarring, but not everyone has to do this to be interesting. In fact, one of my most favorite book openings, from Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, does not start out with a one-sentence paragraph:
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.
Still interesting and original even though it uses four sentences instead of one? Still make you ask questions to encourage you to keep reading? The other trick that Maas uses here is helping us quickly get invested in her main character. Getting readers attached to your characters is a great way to be interesting, and there are three simple ways to do this. You can make your characters good at something. You can make readers sympathize with them. And you can put something new and unexpected in their lives. I quickly learned that the reason why I love the opening paragraph to Throne of Glass is because Maas uses each of these three things right from the start. Celaena is the best assassin. She’s lived as a slave for a year. And now there is a hooded man at her side. Talent. Sympathy. Newness. BAM.
So once you have your beginning paragraph, then what? Answer: keep up the pacing. Continue to draw in readers. There are simple rules to follow in order to do this as well.
1. Don’t info dump. Nothing will slow down the pacing more than you talking about the history of your world or explaining your magic system or giving your character’s entire backstory or pausing to talk about another character, etc. Your writing is a river. The added information are all the big boulders in the stream. Each time you hit one, the water has to veer around it before continuing downstream. A little information is good. It adds character. A lot is bad. It slows everything down. Give a little information here and there. Don’t dump it all in at once.
2. No flashbacks. At the beginning of your story, you should not be using ANY flashbacks. If information dumping consists of all the boulders in the water, then flashbacks are the dams that the little beavers are building. Doing a flashback brings the story to an abrupt halt. Then you have to get the reader’s interest AGAIN once you’re done, assuming you didn’t lose them once the flashback started. If you feel that your flashback is absolutely essential to know at the beginning of the story, then you started your book in the wrong place. Yeah, start earlier, BUT…
3. NO PROLOGUES. In keeping with my river analogy, using a prologue is like starting your book in a jungle and expecting readers to find the river. If you’re starting your book with a prologue that nobody but you can understand, TAKE IT OUT. There is absolutely no point to a prologue if it isn’t directly relevant to the story. And if it is directly relevant to your story, make it your first chapter. It’s as easy as that. There are so many agents that detest prologues. Usually because they’re not necessary. And you should always start your story with relevant information. But as I mentioned before, there are exceptions. If you’re writing epic fantasy for adults, a prologue is often expected—but for the love of writing, make sure it is relevant. If you’re thinking right now, Crap, I have a prologue. What do I do now? Look at Sara B. Larson’s Defy. She starts out her book with a “Before” heading. Then below chapter one, the heading says “After.” I’m not trying to say that calling the prologue something different will make it okay. I’m trying to say that Larson’s “Before” is directly relevant to the story, and it’s only three pages long. It’s short, to the point, and it doesn’t interrupt the pacing. In fact, it helps it. But the takeaway is to just start with chapter one. If your scene is relevant to the story, there’s no reason not to just start the book there.
4. Don’t introduce too many new/made up terms at once. These are your “muggles” and “hobbits” and other words you make up in your story. Readers can accept and remember a couple, but if they have to remember too many things at once, it’s going to distract from the story and encourage them to stop reading. How many is too many? How fast is too fast to introduce new terms? There is no definite answer. Have a friend read the beginning of your book and tell you what they could and couldn’t keep up with.
5. Show don’t tell. Everyone hears this, but it’s so true. Telling instead of showing is just as bad as info dumping. At some point in the future I will be doing a post on how to do this on my blog. For now though, just know that you should show your beginning as much as possible. Tell rarely.
6. Avoid clichés. Don’t start your book with a dream. In fact, avoid any dream scenes in your book if you can. Don’t have your main character look in a mirror and describe themselves to the reader. We don’t need to know what your character looks like right away. This can be an info dump if you’re not careful.
7. Always blend the familiar with the new. For example, if you’re writing a YA contemporary, don’t write the familiar school scene. We all know what a biology classroom looks like. We know what it’s like to be in P.E. We know what lockers look like and how that popular girl acts and what those jocks smell like. Do not describe things that people are familiar with. Describe what’s interesting and unique about that familiar scene. If there’s nothing interesting and original about that scene, you should not be writing it. If you want to read an interesting and original beginning school scene, take a look at Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush.
Okay, I think that covers the main points, and if you only take away one thing from this post, I hope it’s that you should be interesting and original in your beginning pages (and the rest of your book for that matter). If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to answer questions posted in the comments. Also, I will be giving a five-page critique to one lucky reader of this post.
Thanks again for having me, Kyra!
And here’s the link to the giveaway!