Last week, I attended a first page session organized by Kathy Temean and Laurie Wallmark for the New Jersey Chapter of SCBWI. (Those ladies are tireless, putting on events every month, from what I can tell.)
The two critiquers were Chris Richman, agent at Upstart Crow Literary, and Rebecca Frazer, editor at Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. While Chris is interested in middle-grade and young adult, especially books featuring male main characters, Rebecca acquires picture books through middle grade but no young adult. Some of you are familiar with Sourcebooks because of the recent contest run by the inestimable Georgia McBride over at YALitChat.
I noted on Twitter that Chris referred to himself in a Tweet at the ‘short guy in the front talking a lot’. I think he sold himself short. (sorry Chris, you left yourself wide open) Chris is direct but he is also very funny, he had the room laughing on more than one occasion. Rebecca was warm and enthusiastic – but also honest. (Another one I can add to my growing list of hard-working editors who are passionate about the work they do.)
I had participated in a first page session in January, when I attended the NJSCBWI Mentoring Workshop, so I had a sense of what to expect. Each attendee submits the first page of his or her manuscript anonymously. That is, we turn in the first page with genre and title but no name. The pieces are each read aloud and the critiquers comment on the fly. (I imagine that for some editors, it must be a harrowing experience to come up with constructive and kind comments with no time to think ahead).
Though most of the submissions were picture books, I took away advice that can be applied to MG and YA works. Again and again, Rebecca and Chris reminded writers that there must be a hook, something to draw the reader in: What makes the character special? What makes him shine? Why do we care?
Chris noted overuse of adverbs and reminded writers to avoid them whenever possible and especially in dialogue. Rebecca and Chris reminded writers to speak to the audience. Be aware of the vocabulary you are using and write to the reader’s level.
They complimented a strong voice or an original story, when they heard it. But they also noted when they saw a plot line that felt like it had been done before and reminded writers to try to find a new and original way to tell a story. While many writers hear the advice to start with action – and both critiquers were proponents of this – there were cases when Chris suggested that writers slow it down. He advised not to start with too much urgency because it may be hard to maintain the pace.
Another way I’ve heard it is to start your story on the day that’s different. If a book is more literary, it might not fit to start with action. But it always makes sense to start on the day that’s different. We, as readers, don’t care so much what the main character always does. It’s what happens when things go awry that grabs our attention. We become vested in how the main character handles the new situation, how he or she grows from it.
Since I served as one of the volunteer readers, the night may have felt a bit longer for me than for others. After reading for well over two hours, I was ready for a tall glass of water and a cone of silence. Based on feedback, I’ve decided that if the writing doesn’t pan out, I may have a future reading to the blind. What nuggets of wisdom have you heard that you carry into your writing?