I have a confession to make. I wasn’t very excited about attending the Alaska Writers Guild Conference this year. Well, I suppose I was excited, in the strictest sense of the word, but not in a good way. I was in one of my mental downswings and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that wouldn’t be as good as last time. I couldn’t get over how little forward progress I had made in my writing career over the last few years. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was already the has-been that never was.
Nevertheless, my ever fantastic husband made me go. I wasn’t planning on it and couldn’t stop staring at all those red numbers such a splurge would send our monthly budget into. But he would hear none of it until he heard, “Ugh, fine. I’ll go.” (One of the best things you can do for yourself, as a writer and as a human being, is to find someone who has more faith in you than you do and hang on for dear life.)
Just getting down there became riddled with complications, despite the very best efforts of everyone around me to make it a simple shot from here to there. I dreaded it more and more the closer it came, somehow feeling simultaneously that I was being swept away in a dangerous undertow, and that I was trying to slog forward against a neck-high current of cold molasses.
The first morning of the conference, I was too nervous to eat well, too exhausted to consider what this would to do me, and too depressed to think I would accomplish anything but the most spectacular of failures. I arrived late, snuck in the back of the room, and slipped into the first empty seat I saw.
Only to realize I had planted myself right beside the next day’s keynote speaker, who also happened to be my dream agent. She smiled at me and I felt a jolt of pure cold horror.
Like the release of a taut slingshot, my thoughts snapped away from everything that was wrong and awful, and into that very moment and exactly what needed to be done. It was game time. I sat up straight and took notes. I was attentive and respectful, and I did my best to appear professional and charming and confident. And that magically made me professional and charming and confident.
Everything from there on was great. Maybe this conference didn’t have all the serendipitous splendor of the last, but I hustled my bustle and did what I went there to do. I didn’t have anyone else to fall back on but me. And I was delighted to find that I alone was more than enough. I was ready. I had prepared. I had researched the speakers and presenters and organizers, and I made sure to meet them all by the conference’s end.
In addition to some wonderful socialization and networking (and- along with everyone else there- talking the super fun Andy Kifer of The Gernert Company out of hiking alone through bear country), I also got the inside scoop from the industry pundits who graced our conference this year. And I’m happy to share the straight dope with you fair readers! As with the last conference, there’s a lot more than can fit in a single week, so I’ll be breaking it up into several posts.
To kick things off, let’s talk first pages!
At the end of the first day of the conference, I listened in terrified delight to a panel of agents and editors reading the first hundred words of several submissions.
It was brutal. Of the dozens read, only one was met with unanimous approval. Nearly all of the submissions still needed a lot of work, and the panelists took the time after each reading to explain exactly why.
Many of the passes were simply because it wasn’t that particular agent/editor’s cup of tea. This is why research is so important when considering who to query. Even if your first page is glorious, if it isn’t something they work on, they’re going to pass. Do your own research and only send your work to those who can do something with it.
The panelists all agreed that a killer first line is important. Use short, interesting opening sentences. Start at the right place, and start from a unique angle. Keep your cast and setting simple enough to take in at a glance, and absolutely avoid anything that might be confusing- unconventional formatting, murky prose, unclear POV, etc.
Most of them also mentioned the importance of triggering an emotional response. If you can get your reader (in this case, an editor or an agent) to become emotionally interested in what’s on the page, they’ll want to keep reading.
Keep descriptions to a minimum. Too many specific details slow readers down- don’t pepper the reader with facts or observations. More prose = less confidence in what you’re saying. Furthermore, inflated language (such as excessive adjectives, unusual verbs, repetition, or a laundry list of unimportant things) distracts the reader, drawing them out of the world you’re trying to construct. Get readers to zoom through your first words- let nothing slow them down or stop them.
And don’t start with a dream. Even if it’s a really important dream, this is apparently an automatic turn off for pretty much every human alive at this point. The entire panel jumped all over this one.
But above all else, superior writing rises to the top. Work on your craft. Write as much as you can, getting in as much practice as possible. And then, when you have a particular project drafted out, edit the snot out of your first twenty to fifty pages. Go over it again and again, then pass it off to beta readers for feedback, and go at it again. Repeat this as many times as necessary.
Those first few words are the gateway into the rest of your story, so let them shine! Only after the beginning is absolutely perfect can you turn your mind to querying.
To learn more about querying, tune in next week, when I’ll take the combined wisdom of three literary agents and mash them into a horrible nightmare conglomeration. Until then, happy writing!