Agent Boot Camp

I pushed the SEND button with my first 10-pages this morning. It’s the second time I’ve done this Writers Digest boot camp. Getting feedback from an industry professional is invaluable and money well-spent.

I anticipate the “I can’t sell this kind of story” comment since the market is flooded with urban/contemporary fantasies. But I believe my story is different and stands apart from the typical fare. Why? Because my story is plot is a treasure hunt, a cross between National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark and Angels and Demons.

I’ll come back and give an update about the feedback I receive. So please stay tuned.


AND THE RESULTS ARE IN:
I received four valuable pieces of feedback from Paula Munier, Senior Literary Agent & Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary.

The First Scene
The first page is confusing. We don’t know where she is–on a plane, at the office, in a meeting, at her house? All of these settings are referenced, but none is established. You need to ground every scene in setting and point of view in the opening lines of the scene.

I cringed when I first read this comment. Why? Because most of my chapters start with setting. I lost my way by focusing on making a thematic statement. My understanding is the opening sentence of a novel should be about your theme. It’s the only time it is explicitly mentioned. The good news is learning that starting chapters with setting is agent-approved. At least for Paula anyway.

This opening is confusing and boring–nothing of importance really happens until the Councillor shows up and even then most of that conversation is just a poor excuse for backstory and info dumping.

Ouch, this one hurt. But after letting it fester for a bit, I better understand the importance of balance. Based on feedback from my critique partners and beta readers, I added more worldbuilding. They told me there wasn’t enough for them to understand the created world. Likewise, I received feedback that the readers didn’t know what was at stake. Why was restoring Absolute Power to the Society so important? Hence, the backstory. While they liked this updated reiteration better, the agent accused me of info dumping (the worst criticism for a writer other than “show, don’t tell”).

After much reflection, I concluded that the balance is subjective. Readers want more whereas agents/publishers want less. While I’m a little unsure about which party gets preference, I like to think there’s a sweet spot where everyone is happy.

You need to cut this scene by at least 50 percent. Focus on the Councillor telling her they need her, her balking because of her parents’ death at the Vice Lord’s hands and the grandfather magick pulling her back in. Then get her on to the mission. THAT’S when the story really begins.

And that’s exactly what I did, but only 30%. Some of the backstory could not be cut because it plays a major role in the story. It isn’t revealed until the end, but it’s an ah-ha moment for the reader. A question raised early on finally gets answered and completes the big picture.

USP
This genre can be a tough sell these days as the market is glutted so a strong USP is very important. USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. That is, what makes your story unique. What sets your story apart from the others of its ilk? What are your comps? How can you articulate your USP in your pitch? How soon in your story do you make the USP clear in your story?

There it is: the anticipated “I can’t sell this type of story.”

My USP is National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Angels and Demons with magick. Easy enough. What wasn’t easy was integrating it into the story narrative. I managed to get it done in Chapter 1, but it sort of felt like it was author-placed to me.

The good news was the agent thought it sounded a fun project and love it. 

Tired Tropes
Because this is an over-published area, and the tropes are tired, you have to find a way to make your story different, to set it apart from all the other stories like it out there. The sooner you get to the main action, the better. And the sooner you show us how you reinvent those tropes for your story, the better. Especially the magick.

More comments about a tough sell, but the door seems to be cracked if I reinvent the tropes I use. In particular, the magick (my purposeful spelling). Some of my magick is mundane: mind control, telepathic communication, etc. Yet part of it is different, but I’ll keep it under wraps for now.

Line Edit
You could use a good line edit.

  • Fix all typos, misspellings, missing words, grammatical errors, incorrect formatting, etc.
  • Murder all your darlings. This basically means that whenever you come to a sentence that you are inordinately proud of, you need to cut it. Or as Elmore Leonard liked to say, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • Go through and eliminate all redundancies, cliches, repetitions, etc. Aim to trim by 20 percent. That will help pick up the pacing.
  • For example, you should rework cliched lines like this one: I huffed a laugh of indignation and rolled my eyes.

I was a little surprised by this feedback. Admittedly, my submission was rougher than I normally present for review. The changes that I mentioned above had been added, but I didn’t get to do the usual 15-20 edits required to meet my own personal standard. So I’m kind of okay with this feedback. Just don’t like to hear it.

I disagree with the typos/misspellings. It’s the easiest part of editing/proofreading, and Word does it for you. Plus my other tools include spellcheck. I rechecked the submission afterwards, but 3 different checks found no typos/misspellings. I’m passing on the comment and moving on.

The cliché part might be a stretch for me because I use cliches in my everyday conversations. I know, but don’t roll your eyes at me. Likewise, I have a penchant for using fragmented sentences. I love the emphasis and tension they add to the narrative. Albeit, I use them judiciously because they break the rules.

The biggest take away (not included in this feedback) was to hire a professional copyeditor to review the first 50 pages. I thought it was a good idea because I have some doubts about some of my grammar usage.

Overall, the agent said my writing was solid and voice was strong. She thought I was a good writer. For me, this is the most valuable feedback.

I revised Chapter 1 accordingly and expected final comments back by July 6.

What’s in a Word?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Word choice is such an essential part of writing. It’s the difference between an awkward sentence and dialogue or a description that perfectly conveys the character’s emotion. I have a healthy respect for the power of them. Some of my self-imposed rules border the quirky, but I unabashedly own them.  

Like do you think about when the pronouns I/me and we/us are used? I’m quite conscious about it, and I don’t mean in terms of singular or plural. When dealing with characters who don’t like each other very much but are forced to work together to save the world, I make sure that they avoid referring to themselves as we/us. Before they find common ground, they are only allowed to see the world around them in terms of themselves. They are still in the “me” stage. This difference seems like a small detail, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Another rule I use is picking words associated with the metaphor or scene setting. For example, at the beginning of The Venerable Dawn, the main characters are in an airport, waiting to board a flight. During this scene, I use an occasional aviation term. Lilith, the protagonist, tries to remember something from her training many years ago but struggles to recall specific details. She searches for them in the cargo hold or belly of the plane. When she readily remembers some things, I liken their holding place to the easily accessible overhead compartment. Naturally, such references are done with nuance and not overused.  

I’m careful about the terms I use for descriptions. Not every reader knows the fancy names for various references. Most know what an oak tree looks like, but not necessarily a white ash. Or they might be familiar with a giant redwood, but not the term sequoia. Use too many obscure terms, and I think you risk losing the reader. Admittedly, the dictionary feature included with eBooks is great and helps build our vocabulary. Though using it too much can take the reader out of the story. My best practice is to keep it simple but not too elementary, a delicate balance.

Another quirky rule is when to use the terms top/bottom and first/last. I associate top/bottom as vertical and first/last as horizontal. Not always, but in general. I think it’s because I’m a visual person, and I have an overbearing sense of logic. Maddening at times, figuratively, of course.

At times, I tend to be a perfectionist, and the struggle with word choice is real. Sometimes, I agonize over the right one, spending far too much time looking for the elusive word. To remedy my fixation, I’ve learned to drop in the best word that I can think of at the time and highlight it for future consideration. I also add alternative choices as a side comment. Usually, the right word will come to me when I come back to it as part of my endless editing. And it’s a beautiful thing when it does. The difference between an unremarkable sentence and a work of art that stirs the emotions or moves the soul.

I wonder if any other writers are as meticulous as I am about word choice…