by Adria Quiñones
The November Professional Series agents panel, always a sold-out event, was for the first time presented jointly with the New School’s Writing for Children MFA program and held at the New School. Each agent on the panel gave a specific piece of writing advice; afterwards, they fielded questions on submitting manuscripts (a book should be as good as you can make it), query letters (do your research, proofread your letter and don’t forget the hooks) and the life of an agent.
Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary Media: ”Two pieces of advice”
Show, don’t tell.
While this rule is often quoted as a narrative technique, Townsend applied it to the story’s emotional underpinning. “When I became an agent, I expected to see terrible manuscripts, but for the most part, I see a lot of manuscripts that are good–but they are only good. You want yours to be better.”
What makes the difference is the author’s ability to connect the reader to the character. “I often see great voice, great concept, great pacing, but I have trouble connecting to the character emotionally–the character is almost held at a distance, and then it’s hard to feel like you want to follow this person.” Emotion has to be appropriate to the age group, authentic to the character and integrated into the story. “Make sure you have a balance between what the character tells in their voice and what you show through the character’s actions.”
Keep those pages turning.
Townsend recounted how Stephen King gives his drafts to his wife to read and then marks every spot where she puts the book down. “You want to make the reader stay up until 4:00, to forget to eat.” Her suggestions:
- Get in late, get out early.
“If you wrote this up, you wouldn’t start with when we walked through the door; you’d start with the start of the panel.” (Point taken.)
- Don’t repeat conversation or details that we already know.
- End every chapter with a cliffhanger.
Leave the reader wanting to know what happens next.
Heather Alexander, Pippen Properties: “Avoid rhetorical questions”
“I see these all the time, even in query letters. I always want to say, ‘We already know that!’”
Alexander illustrated the worst pitfalls of rhetorical questions and gave a suggestion for what to do instead: “Trust your reader to follow your breadcrumbs. Let them find their way. Without the questions, your reader may not know what’s going on, but that’s perfect.” Remember, cliffhangers are good.
“Did I get my point across?”
Alexander Slater, Trident Media Group: “Be economical, be urgent, be unforgettable”
“A strong opening is the first, best way to capture your reader, whether it’s a kid, agent or editor,“ Slater said. “That doesn’t have to mean a ticking time bomb, whizzing bullets or a runaway train. Start with the most interesting moment of the action, to tease the reader and keep them wanting more.”
“The opening is like a short story—it has to stand on its own. And it should hint at the ending.” It also has to contain the other elements that editors and agents are looking for: originality, sympathy and a hook.
Adria Quiñones finished her middle-grade coming-of-age literary mystery, The Disappeared, last Friday night. She was a winner of the SCBWI 2013 Midwinter Conference’s prestigious joke contest. By day, Ms. Quiñones is a technical writer and author of the blog, Insidious Intent.