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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Tips - from a seminar with Agent Mark McVeigh

I feel like I've gone to radio silence lately.  Holidays are crazy.  Work is relatively busy.  Edits are full-on.  Still, I know I owe you guys some Tuesday Tips.  So I decided to share the insights I gained from agent Mark McVeigh during his 90 minute webinar, Nailing Your First Chapter.
If you can't hook an agent/editor with your first chapter, they're never going to see another word you've written, so that first chapter is MEGA important.  In fact, Mark says an agent can decide if 95% of the manuscripts they get are right for them based on just the first page!

This webinar was geared exclusively toward YA authors, so keep that in mind as you absorb these tips.  Here are some of the more global pointers that Mark led off with:

*  Avoid "movie style" writing that starts off with a big bang or an action scene without letting the reader first know who the characters are
*  YA lit is primarily character-driven.  The reader needs to identify with the MC first and foremost.
*  Your first chapter is typically not the first thing you write.
*  Be SUBTLE.  No telling, no exposition, don't over-foreshadow, don't info-dump, don't overly set the stage of who, where, etc.
*  In the first chapter, you MUST establish: the MC, the voice (be sure to re-examine after the first chapter to make sure it's consistent), context/setting, and the conflict in some small way (need a sense of the conflict, but don't need to have a full understanding of it)
* shorter is better than longer
* just give a preview of what's to come - make the reader want to read more
*  focus on a particular element of the MC that will carry through; personality can have contradictory elements though.  You typically should have a likable main character.

Here are some more specific insights --

First Word: He doesn't like starting with a name (e.g. Mary sat on the couch...)

First Sentence:
*  Look at your first line like poetry.  Every single word must count.
*  Dialog can be a great way to start, but it must be provocative and tie into the story.
*  The first line must do one of two things: (1) drop the reader into the world OR (2) establish either the MC or the central conflict -- some element; don't have to give it all away.  An example is a dystopian novel that starts where something we take for granted no longer exists.
*  Too much info actually turns readers off.  Given them a general idea and sense of what's happening, but not much more.  Always leave the reader wanting more.

First Paragraph:
Here's how Mark views the first chapter. Imagine you're walking along a street and stop to tie your shoe next to a door that's slightly ajar.  You didn't mean to listen in, but you hear part of a conversation, and now you can't stop listening.  You've been dropped into a conversation and it's interesting and intriguing enough that you want to know what they're going to say next.

Your first paragraph should end strong.  He likes paragraphs that seem normal, but set the reader up for a fall/something unexpected.

First Chapter:
* if only can accomplish one thing, must have reader hooked on voice
*  also needs to end strong and have a tie-in to the next chapter

Last Sentence: should be charismatic, compelling, and be a good bookend with the first sentence.  While it can set the reader up for a fall, it cannot leave the reader wonder what's going on.  Be careful when handling large plot points in the last sentence because it can feel forced and not organic.

AVOID these things:
* being too long/expository
* telling - if doing that, take a step back and figure out how to "show" instead (an example of good showing can be found in Mindblind by Jennifer Roy)
*  lack of focus - need to be linear and specific
*  jumping back and forth with timeframe or POV - don't switch within chapters and especially not in the first chapter
*  foreshadowing past events is good; jumping completely back in time is bad.

Final Thought: check out the writing of Gillian Flynn, who wrote Dark Places and Sharp Objects.  She's  good with unreliable narrators, which can be a good way to hook the reader because it makes them question the information they're getting.  (While Gillian writes adult novels, she has strong teen voices.  Mark also recommends reading in the adult genres even if you only write YA).

There.  Hope that helps!  I probably won't be back until after Christmas, so I hope you all enjoy the season and take the time to count your blessings.  Glad Tidings!


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Great tips! Thanks so much for sharing! (And Merry Christmas!)

Shallee said...

Fabulous advice! Thanks for sharing this. It's a lot more detailed than most "first chapter" advice.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this info!

The Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for all the tips! I'll have to remember this post.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

Lynne said...

Nice post, Jessie! Thanks!
Nice multi-tasking BTW... :-)

Catherine Stine said...

McVeigh's first paragraph ideas are especially good. Thanks for the illuminating post! I'm over at if you want to join the chat on Children's Book Trends of 2011. Happy New Year.

blueeyedadri said...

Thanks Jessie!

Tracey Neithercott said...

This was wonderful. Thanks for the tips! I'm bookmarking this post.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Great post Jessie! Any chance you'll be in NY this year??? I miss you!!!!

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