Last week the three of us were lucky enough to attend a one day workshop led by the editorial genius of Writer’s Digest, Mr. Chuck Sambuchino. The day focused heavily on querying, getting published and creating your platform as a writer. All incredible sessions. In addition, a group of agents and editors were on hand to hear pitches throughout the day.
One of the options available to attendees was to bring copies of our first pages to be read aloud anonymously in front of the group to the panel of agents and editors. Knowing only the genre (and sometimes not even that) and the content of the first page, members of the panel were asked to raise their hands at the point where they would have stopped reading. After three hands raised, Chuck would stop reading and the panelists would give a short reason as to why they personally would have passed on that piece.
We reconvened later in the day, sitting in the overheated meeting room, collectively holding our breaths as one by one, our colleagues first pages were read aloud, and craning our necks to see the exact moment someone raised their hand. Heather, Monica and I all chose not to bring our first pages (*ahem* chickened out) and I both regretted and sighed a breath of relief at this. I KNOW it would have been invaluable feedback, but Oh Lord, I think I might have thrown up a little. It’s one thing to send a query or submission out into the universe. You hit send and then sit back anxiously awaiting a reply. Not knowing whether the person on the receiving end is kicked back with a cup of coffee and a smile when their inbox dings or if your query is lucky number 1000 for the day and they’ve just about had all they can take.
This wasn’t the case. Here you saw facial expressions, head scratching and those dreaded hands raise up, all happening right in front of you in real time. Friends, some of it wasn’t pretty. I’m talking like, after the first sentence or first paragraph or the first “he/she said...” those hands would shoot up.
It was a difficult, but realistic wake-up call. If going the traditional publishing route and hoping to snag an agent or editor, the amount of time you have to hook them is microscopic. Like the attention span of my three year old, but shorter. Now granted, this was going off ONLY the first page. No query, no pitch, no nothing. So some of their questions/concerns probably would have been addressed in that time, but that’s also assuming they made it past your query letter.
While brutal, most of their reasoning was absolutely helpful and has settled into the back of my mind to be a constant reminder as I continue working. Here are some of those reasons this particular group of agents/editors would have stopped reading your work:
- SHOW DON’T TELL!!! Heard it a million times, right? Easier said than done!
- Beware of Info/Bio dumps up front. Don’t need to know every character detail right away.
- Confusion about whether character introduced in the beginning was male/female. You don’t want your readers to be so distracted trying to figure out who’s who that they miss everything else.
- Along with that, make your environment clear. Ground your reader in the setting/atmosphere as much as possible and as quickly as possible.
- Opened with the dreaded waking from a dream/morning routine/driving scene. (JUST. DON’T. DO. IT.)
- Make dialogue ring true. Stilted dialogue turned off panelists fast.
- Adverbs, adverbs, adverbs
- The language was too mature/young for the actual genre.
- Opened with action sequence and then paused to basically smell the flowers. Always be aware of pacing and keep action moving forward!
After your rounds of editing and polishing are complete, when you feel like hitting ‘Send’ on that query, take another look at your first page. Hell, take a good, hard look at that first sentence and make it the absolute best of the best it can be. It might mean the difference between turning someone off to your submission immediately and making them want more.
And if you have the chance to take part in an exercise like this at your next workshop or conference, do it! You’ll be thankful in the end. Even if you do feel like throwing up a little.