2013 Character Boot Camp: First Pages & Queries

Originally Posted: February 2013

by Emily Goodman

photo by Jenna Ward

Basing her talk on the first pages and query letters submitted by conference participants, writer and editor Anita Nolan offered advice on topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of punctuation and word choice (“Eliminate extra or weak words from your writing; you don’t really need ‘of them’ in the phrase ‘one of them’ ”) to more philosophical questions such as, “What should your first page accomplish?”

Nolan said the main job of the book’s opening is to intrigue readers and keep them reading. “It’s important to establish a bond of sympathy between the reader and your main character right away,” she said, and she suggested writers can do this by identifying what their main character needs or wants and the obstacles in the character’s way. She cautioned against depicting actions or traits that would turn readers against the main character before this sympathy has been created. Quoting Delacorte editor Michele Peploff, she said, “Give a reason to care; tantalize the reader. Explain why things happen later.”

Nolan also suggested engaging the senses and using specific descriptions to create a clear picture of the action: “Not ‘the car’ – ‘the Mustang.’” She cautioned against starting with too much backstory: “The sooner something happens, the better.” And she suggested using “loaded words that catch a reader’s attention, especially at the end of a sentence or paragraph.” These are attention-grabbing words like kill, kiss, blood or stab, and different words are loaded for different audiences.

Moving on to query letters, Nolan stressed that they should first be easy to read. “Use 12-point type!” she said. “Don’t reduce the type size to make your query fit onto one page – cut out more words instead.”

She then divided the contents of a good query letter into three parts: the Hook (“Catch the editor’s attention with your strongest selling point, or describe the connection between you and the editor”), the Book (“Describe your story in a blurb of 5 or 6 punchy sentences, and try to get in some of your writing voice”) and the Cook (“Describe yourself, giving your writing and publishing credentials”). She cautioned against putting in too much plot detail: “A blurb is not the same thing as a synopsis; it’s shorter.” Finally, she said, writers must make sure they’ve described their manuscript completely, giving the genre and age group it’s written for and the word count and saying if it is finished. Writers should focus on one manuscript per query, Nolan said, and add one sentence at the end about other projects they’re working on, if they wish.

“Don’t emphasize a book’s message heavily in the query,” Nolan concluded. “The message should be subtle, just as it is in the book. Let the story speak for itself.”

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Emily Goodman is the author of the award-winning picture bookPLANT SECRETS, published by Charlesbridge, and is working on a novel.

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