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Author Topic: What to put in those opening pages  (Read 447 times)
Tigerlily1066
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« on: May 17, 2017, 08:23:21 PM »

Hi, everyone! My local chapter of Mystery Writers of America did a round of "Author Idol" last week, in which three agents provided quick, public feedback on the openings of 28 manuscripts. I've mixed feelings about the Author Idol format, but it was very interesting to hear their real-time reactions and I thought it might be useful to share some of the nuggets here with you. I finally had a few spare minutes to type up my impressions! I hope they are helpful. Smiley

1. The agents wanted to be oriented very quickly as to place and character. A lot of the stories opened with action or dialogue and the agents didn't like it when they had no sense of who was talking or why. If the pages began with one character killing another with a lot of blood or tense murderer POV about how the victim must die, the agents said they just didn't care. They wanted to connect with the victim or the killer before the action got started.

2. They wanted a balance of showing versus telling. Too many manuscripts leaned heavily on one or the other.

3. No pee, puke or poop in the opening paragraph.

4. Pacing was probably the most common problem. They wanted to see the tension increase as the story went on, not decrease. Example: A Jewish man in Nazi Germany receives a letter demanding that he report to the police station immediately. (Very tense!) Then he goes home to make tea and contemplate his photo album. (Less tense) Or: a woman lies badly injured in the street. Paramedics come to her aid, and as she is taken away in an ambulance she thinks back to how it all started four years ago... The agents did not want to be plunged into backstory in the first few paragraphs, and they encouraged us writers to sprinkle it throughout the novel.

5. Some stories may not be yours to tell. A white male writer in his 60s submitted pages for a novel he wants to tell that is from the POV of an African American teenager. The agents said they did find his voice authentic and that it would be hard to sell that story as belonging to the author.

6. Specifics always make your manuscript more interesting and are a way to reveal character. "I was watching a YouTube video" versus "I was watching a YouTube clip from 'I Love Lucy.'"

7. The agents did sometimes disagree on whether the pages had merit--in about three cases, two agents said they would pass while a third said he/she was still interested. So obviously there remains a high degree of subjectivity with this whole enterprise. Out of 28 submissions, the agents listened all the way to the end for just two of them. Of these two, they made offers to one. But, they gave a reasonable hearing to most submissions. Only one got stopped at the first line (see earlier warning about no poop).
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mgmystery
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« Reply #1 on: May 18, 2017, 07:38:25 AM »

Thanks for sharing, Tigerlily. Lol, it's kind of worrisome that #3 is something that has to be mentioned.
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Tabris
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« Reply #2 on: May 18, 2017, 09:56:25 AM »

Don'tchaknow it's edgy to have your character after a wild party yarking into someone's bushes? I may have read that story in grad school because it seemed like The Futility Of The Party was its own genre in writing workshops, and it perseverates into YA fiction.
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« Reply #3 on: May 18, 2017, 10:06:31 AM »

5 takes me a little aback.  I mean I get it, a white guy, early forties, writing a teenage black gay male character sounds like a bad combination (that's me I'm talking about BTW), and it can be a problem, but with the correct research and skill, it can be done correctly.

what worries me most about this statement is the seeming push to write more POC into works in leading and main roles that seem to be the call of the day, and then this statement seems to contradict that exact statement. Am  I supposed to write POC or not?  Personally, I'll take this as what I said earlier; if you are going to write People of color or people of differing sexual orientation, or basically anything that isn't your norm in life, then you need to do research and be ready with sensitivity readers to make sure what you wrote comes off as authentic.
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yqwertz
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« Reply #4 on: May 18, 2017, 10:07:44 AM »

Quote
5. Some stories may not be yours to tell. A white male writer in his 60s submitted pages for a novel he wants to tell that is from the POV of an African American teenager. The agents said they did find his voice authentic and that it would be hard to sell that story as belonging to the author.

Has our passion for identity politics brought us to this?  What does it mean to say a story has to "belong" to an author before he/she can write it? What does he/she have to do in his/her life to claim ownership? Does the color of an author's skin, or their gender, or their religion, or their sexual orientation determine what stories they are allowed to write? Must an author have lived in every city and every country mention mention in his/her novel? Must they have lived through every experience they put down on the page? Need an author be an expert in every profession exercised by his/her MC?

To whom should we apply for permission before we sit down to write our stories? Or is the goal here self-censorship? Don't write anything anyone could criticize (apart from the writing itself)?

And is this really what readers expect?

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Tigerlily1066
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« Reply #5 on: May 18, 2017, 10:47:47 AM »

I don't know what readers expect. I also don't think there are lots of easy answers to this controversial topic. John Scalzi posted some musings on the subject of fiction and cultural appropriation a few days ago, and I thought they were a worthwhile read: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/05/13/diversity-appropriation-canada-and-me/

I think some key considerations are what kind of story you are telling, from whose POV, and what role race or other similar "identity" aspects play in your story. There is a difference between telling a story about a pair of detectives, one of them white and one of them black, as they seek to investigate a routine murder, and telling the story about a black detective taking on the issue of racism as it pertains to, say, police shootings of unarmed black men. In the former, race is an aspect of your story, and one that should be handled thoughtfully, and in the second, race is at the heart of the story; it is a main filter through which your tale is being told. Maybe it's just me, but yes, I would find it potentially distasteful to read a white man's thoughts on this as filtered through a black character, especially if this racial aspect is the whole point of the book. In the case of the white male author in this example, he wanted to tell story from the black teenager's POV, and it would be focused on his feelings about racial integration following the civil rights era.

Partly this goes back to a broader issue of diversity in mainstream publishing. There does seem to be some waking up to the idea that true diversity doesn't just mean having one or two writers of color and then a bunch of white people writing POC characters. Unfortunately, it has been historically true that POC authors were turned away because "We already have Amy Tan and we don't need another Chinese author." No one ever said, "Oh, we have too many stories about aging white professors trying to get laid." Except finally, maybe, a little bit...this could be changing.

I think all authors should do due diligence. I think yes, white authors should continue to include POC characters in their work because the world is a diverse place. Then they should listen to any criticism of their attempts to represent experiences not their own, and try better next time. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm a white woman and my book opens with two Latina characters; I still walked out of there with two offers of rep. My primary characters are white and mixed-race. I use a diverse sixteen-person beta team to help me flag all kinds of possible identity-related issues, including, race, religion, sexuality, adoption, geographic differences in conversation across the USA, etc. I may not make every change that the betas suggest, but I take every suggestion very seriously.

But I have heard similar tales from other agents. For example, one white USA female author wanted to write her novel from the POV of an Afghan immigrant coming to America. Her agent told her the project would not sell because she doesn't have the life experience to adopt that POV. At the moment, publishers really are looking for their fiction to come from an authentic place. If that opens more doors for women and POC writers, then I am all for it.

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mgmystery
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« Reply #6 on: May 18, 2017, 02:18:24 PM »

I think, too, there will always be authors writing to trends (just meaning many are asking for POC/diversity right now) and agents can see this a mile away. If it's done really well, with a believable voice and a story that needs to be told, I don't think they'd turn it away.
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Falthor
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« Reply #7 on: May 18, 2017, 02:25:54 PM »

that's how I took the statement, but at the same time the wording was a little harsh and someone without the experience (HA!) might think that it was a sign to not write those stories. 

I fear that my story already isn't living up to my vision, but then first drafts seldom do.
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Tigerlily1066
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« Reply #8 on: May 18, 2017, 02:51:53 PM »

I think, too, there will always be authors writing to trends (just meaning many are asking for POC/diversity right now) and agents can see this a mile away. If it's done really well, with a believable voice and a story that needs to be told, I don't think they'd turn it away.

Well, except that is in fact what I am hearing from agents right now: they will turn it away. Not saying all of them will, or that this trend will last forever. But right now what many are saying (and I've heard this from roughly 10 agents over the past month or so in various venues) is that they don't think they can sell a minority POV novel written by a white (esp male) author. This is not to say that white authors can't include POC or other minority perspectives in their fiction; they are encouraged to do so. But when a POC character is driving the action, and especially if the story centers on aspects related to the minority experience, then the publishing industry right now expects to see your bonafides before they'll take you on.

Again, I am not saying that if you're a white writer and have a minority character in your story that agents won't take you and publishers won't publish you. This is very clearly not the case. But if you are a white writer trying, as the white male writer from my group was, to focus on a minority character's feelings about culture and cultural experiences, you are facing a VERY uphill battle right now.
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Doggy Teng
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« Reply #9 on: May 18, 2017, 11:50:34 PM »

Quote
5. Some stories may not be yours to tell. A white male writer in his 60s submitted pages for a novel he wants to tell that is from the POV of an African American teenager. The agents said they did find his voice authentic and that it would be hard to sell that story as belonging to the author.

Has our passion for identity politics brought us to this?  What does it mean to say a story has to "belong" to an author before he/she can write it? What does he/she have to do in his/her life to claim ownership? Does the color of an author's skin, or their gender, or their religion, or their sexual orientation determine what stories they are allowed to write? Must an author have lived in every city and every country mentioned in his/her novel? Must they have lived through every experience they put down on the page? Need an author be an expert in every profession exercised by his/her MC?

To whom should we apply for permission before we sit down to write our stories? Or is the goal here self-censorship? Don't write anything anyone could criticize (apart from the writing itself)?

And is this really what readers expect?

While they're unpleasant to think about, these are certainly valid questions. In addition to its disturbing implications, such a statement simply makes no sense in the context of writing fiction, because if you followed it through to its logical conclusion, it would mean no one could write anything but autobiography! eek

This also shows there's something to be said for the philosophy behind the practice of having blind submissions, as some contests and short story publications do.  With the authors' names removed from the manuscripts, so those who evaluate them have no idea who wrote them, they can only judge the merit of the works themselves.
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mgmystery
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« Reply #10 on: May 19, 2017, 07:36:53 AM »

To be honest, it makes me kind of glad to hear that agents are now saying not all authors have the experience to write those stories. For a period of time, it was implied in many blogs that diversity is what everyone should be writing.
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Falthor
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« Reply #11 on: May 19, 2017, 07:54:20 AM »

MGMystery, I don't think that call for diversity has changed at all though.   we just now have a line in the sand that says "Do not cross".

When I first wrote "What Happened at Kate's House," I wrote an all white cast because it's what I know.  The cast was still a little diverse as I had a couple Gay Women in it, but that was where my diversity ended. I took criticism for this, which I fully expected after seeing the landscape of the writing world.

When I came to write the "expansion" (which I'm working on right now) I made a choice to try and include more POC, and ultimately out of my 6 main characters, 3 of them are POC, and one of the main storylines revolves around Latent racism and traditionalist attitudes.  I would just hate to think that this book would get passed over because I "don't have the background to tell this story"

In the same breath, I see their point though.  I would never try to write a story about Syrian refugees trying to flee their war-torn country and the several injustices they face in the hopes of starting their own life.  To me, that is way too far out of my experience for me to even have a reference point on.  The trouble I see with the attitude is that different agents willsome. draw that line in different places, and some of them will likely be ultra conservative.

at its heart, the idea is coming from the right place, but the implications are worrisome.
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mgmystery
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« Reply #12 on: May 19, 2017, 01:20:05 PM »

I totally get what you mean. I don't think the issue applies to you though. Saying you couldn't write 3 out of 6 characters POC would be crazy. It would suggest authors could only write characters who are varied clones of themselves. Your research and your ability to make these characters believable will show through.

I agree that the call for diversity hasn't changed too, but I think it should be about more than nationality and sexual orientation. All of my characters come from very different backgrounds. I hope that counts for something.
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yqwertz
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« Reply #13 on: May 20, 2017, 06:07:02 AM »


Quote
To be honest, it makes me kind of glad to hear that agents are now saying not all authors have the experience to write those stories.

Quote
All of my characters come from very different backgrounds. I hope that counts for something.

How do you differentiate the two? If an agent says that a WASP male is not allowed to write a story with a black female in a lead role, why should a secretary from Macon County, Georgia be allowed to write a story about an FBI agent who stops terrorists in New York City? If the claim is that extensive research cannot make up for first person experience, then this rule should apply across the board and not just to gender and ethnicity issues.

As Doggy Teng said: ...if you followed it through to its logical conclusion, it would mean no one could write anything but autobiography! .

The one exception might be historical fiction, because no one expects first person experiences in stories set more than a hundred years ago...
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Tigerlily1066
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« Reply #14 on: May 20, 2017, 06:56:50 AM »

It is the difference between writing about the job someone has (FBI agent) and writing about who they are (Chinese, gay, Jewish, etc.). The first one is fine, whereas the second one can sometimes be problematic.

For years and years and years, publishers let straight WASP men write pretty much all the books, about whatever kind of characters they wanted. Then they opened the door for some white women. Everyone else has lagged way behind in terms of publishing opportunities. They are now starting to appreciate that when you are talking about fiction driven by a character's cultural identity, it might be preferable to let those people tell their own stories. It is not cool to keep giving deals to WASP authors to tell stories about other cultures when you are denying people who live those cultures the same opportunity.

If you can't see the difference between a WASP author telling a coming-of-age story about a group of friends, one of whom happens to be black, who go their separate ways after high school, and that same WASP author trying to tell the story of a black teenager's feelings on forced racial desegregation during the 1970s, I don't know what I can say to convince you.
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