Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Those Aren't Your First Ten Pages - Memory Lane

Earlier this week I offered some twitvice to an aspiring author. She said she'd just finished proofreading her manuscript and felt it was ready to submit. She wanted to know what her next steps should be.

My response:

Next step is to write the best darn query letter and synopsis you can and make sure your first 10 pages ROCK. Then agent.

Her response (slightly edited):

It's the first 10 pages I dislike the most! The first 10 pages are taken up with detailed descriptions of the characters. I feel like they're too long, but backstory is needed.

Then those aren't your first ten pages. In about 85% of the manuscripts I evaluate, I end up suggesting that the author cut the first ten page they're currently using entirely. Sometimes it's the first 50. Sometimes the first 100. Why? Because those pages are filled with backstory and character description.

But isn't that stuff important? Yes, of course it is. It's vital that YOU know everything about the characters and their histories. But when a reader first picks up your book, that backstory is the last thing they want to know. They don't know your characters yet. They haven't become involved with them - haven't had the chance to connect with them. So why the heck do they care when they went to high school or what their parents did to screw them up? There are ways to work those details into later parts of the book if it's important (sometimes it is; sometimes it's not).

Start with story. Start with plot. Start with things happening. Make your reader WANT to know more about the characters BEFORE you tell them. It's okay to be a tease.

There's another reason those first ten pages MUST be more than description or backstory. Let's ignore the reader altogether for a moment (but just a moment!).

The first people you want to impress? Literary Agents.

To emphasize just how important those first ten pages are, let's take a little trip down my memory lane, to a time when I was the only intern/assistant at a large literary agency.

Every week, hundreds of queries land on my desk. Hundreds and hundreds. Mounds of them. We didn't accept e-mail queries back then.

We did accept the first fifteen pages in query packages, which is still fairly common.

Every-other morning I sat at my little desk in the back hallway (really) reading those queries and pages and pulling out submissions my agents might be interested in reading. Within two months I could correctly gage which ones they wanted to see and which ones they didn't about 95% of the time.

If you wanted to get to them, you had to go through me. And all you had to impress me - and stand out from, again, HUNDREDS - was a query letter (1 page) and the first ten pages of your manuscript. That's it. If you haven't made me sit up straight by the end of those pages - if I'm not thinking "I must read more! This is great! What happens next? Tell me!" then you haven't stood out from the pack, and you become one of the hundreds of authors to receive our form rejection letter every week (I HATED that part of my job - which is part of the reason why I do this).

Okay, so, let's say I loved the pages or the query and thought my agents would too. Generally, that means you're one of about a dozen per week. Now you have my recommendation scrawled across the bottom of your query, and you're on their desk. They have a million things to do every day, and will, most likely, get to your pages sometime that week. What are they going to be judging you on?

The same thing I did. The query. Your first ten pages. And that's it.

If you grabbed the agent with those first ten pages, a request came back to me, and I called you up and requested the rest of the manuscript. And yes, if that wasn't darn-near perfect and publish-ready, you'd end up getting a rejection letter anyway (with a comment or two if we'd requested a full - so at least there was that). But if those first ten pages don't do their job, you never even get to that stage.

So kill your backstory. Kill your character descriptions. Kill anything that's "tell" instead of "show." Or at least work all those things into later portions of the book.

You have ten pages to make me want more. Give me story. Give me action. Give me reaction. Give me flavor. Give me the best writing you've got.

Anything else is NOT your first ten.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Go Read This! Website Edition

This week our Go Read This! feature is a blog I just found through Twitter (yes, yes - you were right, it's highly addictive).
Nixy Valentine's blog includes fun writer's groups, writing challenges, publishing news, and book reviews. If you're looking for a little distraction or inspiration today, head over to, and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You Win, Twitter.

Okay, fine, my Web 678.0 adept friends. Fine. I will follow the great Oprah and join Twitter.
I can now be found at
What will I do with it? I have no idea. For right now, I'm thinking once-a-day inspirational/advice posts for my writers/readers.
So here's the deal for now - you follow me, I'll follow you. So please go to Be my friend. Or Twit. Or whatever we're all called in Twitterland.
And if you have any advice on getting started with Twitter, please leave them in the comments!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stuck in My Craw: Rejection Letter Edition

Last week, a client sent me the following rejection letter he'd received from an agency I've always considered top-notch. He wanted to "let me know the state of the industry." So I had to do a little research - and what I found has been bugging me ever since.

First, the rejection letter:

Dear [AUTHOR],

Thanks so such for querying us, but we are unsure that this premise would work in this tight market. All said we would encourage you to do what many of our clients have done prior and self- publish with a reputable, and recommended, publisher. This is a new age in publishing, and as evidenced time and time again, neither The New York Times bestsellers list nor major booksellers discriminate against the self published. Oftentimes, authors choose to get proactive in order to build a sales record and boost their chances of being picked up.

I would like your permission to pass along your information to someone who can help you get started on your path towards getting published. If you are ready to become proactive about your career we will let them know more details about your manuscript and how to get into contact with you. There are a lot of publishers that seem to have gotten the better of new authors, the two that we refer you to are not of that ilk, they have had a number of successes.



It's a form rejection. Sent to everyone this firm is rejecting. And they're shilling for iUniverse and AuthorHouse. Who have referral programs.

Without even getting into the EXTREME stretching of the facts that is present in this letter (I'll let Anne and Victoria handle that - go here and here for damn good posts on the subject), here is the problem with this rejection letter.

Agents have different tastes. What's right for one agent is completely wrong for another, and agents themselves will tell you that time and time again in their blogs, at conferences, and in the articles you read in publishing mags. But by sending out this rejection letter, this agency is not just saying "it's not right for us." They're saying "it's not right for traditional publishing. Go self publish."

Self publishing works great for some people (including some of my very successful clients). It's not for everyone. There are some serious problems with the way this letter is presenting the self-pub process. To quote Victoria and Anne (because I'm just that steamed):

"Also deceptive: the book claimed to be on the New York Times bestseller list is Lisa Genova's Still Alice, which is currently number 7, but debuted last week at number 5. However, although Genova originally self-pubbed through iUniverse (which is owned by AuthorHouse), her book was picked up last summer by Simon & Schuster. That's the book on the bestseller list, not the iUniverse version."

I suppose the message I'm trying to get across (other than the fact that I'm ticked - was that made clear yet?) is that if YOU get one of these letters, you should know that the self-pub suggestion has NOTHING to do with you or your manuscript. It's a form rejection, just like any other. Treat it like any other.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Details Make the Character

I love Yogi Tea Simply Green Tea. Not because it tastes any different than regular green tea - it doesn't. And not because I wouldn't rather have a cup of coffee (I would  - the doctor says no).
I love it because the tag on each teabag has a little message. I open the pale green pouch, take out the teabag, wince a little at the smell, and pull the tag and string away. I put the bag in the cup, draping the string over the side, and pour the boiling water in on top. I walk back to my desk, and arrange my stacks of papers and red pens in front in of me.
Only then do I allow myself to read the message. That's my little moment.
Today's message is "Live with reverence for yourself and others."
I'm not telling you this because I honestly believe you care about my tea-drinking routines. I'm telling you because these little detailed habits are what bring characters to life - what makes them real - what inspires them.
What does your main character do when she needs a moment?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reader Question #2 - Mag Tricks of the Trade

Stay tuned later this week (looking at my schedule, probably Friday) for fun posts on the economy's silver lining (really) and five things to do before you hire an editor to make sure you're getting the most bang for your buck.
Now on to the question of the day!
There are so many writers magazines out there. Which ones do you subscribe to? (Publishing and otherwise?)
There's that softball I was looking for!
Great question though - there are at least a dozen magazines for writers to choose from. My advice is to go to a Barnes and Noble, buy yourself one of those amazing frozen latte drinks, and page through each of them. I think it's entirely a matter of personal preference - some people adore Writer's Digest because they keep it simple and provide monthly inspiration - others swear by the more serious Poets & Writers.
Personally, I'm a fan of Poets & Writers. Sure, it can be a bit pretentious, but I honestly learn something new in each issue. It keeps me thinking in new ways about the material I'm working on, the authors I'm working with, and this crazy industry of publishing. 
Truth be told, that's the only publishing rag I get by mail anymore. I have subscriptions to MediaBistro and Publishers Marketplace, but they're online only.
Other magazines?
Cooking Light, Gourmet, and Eating Well. I'm a total foodie, and I LOVE to cook - it keeps me sane (for the most part). For the record, I never actually have enough time to cook anything from Gourmet - but I like to look at the pictures and dream of hosting big, complicated dinner parties.
Psychology Today. For when the cooking isn't enough to keep me from going off the deep end. Actually, I think this is an often overlooked resource for writers - bringing characters to life is the writer's job - and this magazine can actually give you insight into aspects of your characters you never knew they had.
Real Simple. I am a WASP. I can't help it. Also, my home will never look as clean as the ones in this rag. But a woman can dream...
People. Yeah, again? This is hereditary. Every woman in my family - Grandmother on down - has a subscription to this magazine. It gives us something to talk about at family gatherings. (Who am I kidding - People, a cup of coffee, and a muffin on the porch on a nice summer Saturday morning? Perfect.)
NYT Book Review. This doesn't really count as a magazine, I suppose - it's actually the book review from the Sunday Times, delivered by its lonesome every Tuesday. When I was in college, one of my most impressive (and imposing) professors told me that if I ever wanted to be a serious writer or editor, I had to read this each and every week. And I have ever since.
There's one more...but I'm going to keep that one between the mailman and me. An editor has to have a little mystery about her.
So that's my mailbox. And yours? Anyone have any magazines they live for?
Thanks again for the question, Mindy!
If you have a question you'd like answered, please e-mail me at editor at murdockediting dot com.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Your Questions: When should you seek an editor's help?

As promised, I'm going to use today's blog post to answer reader questions.
When is the right time to stop editing for the new writer and seek professional help? For the beginning writer, when should they seek an editor's help?
 - Writer Cynthia Hernandez (
First of all, thanks for the question, Cynthia! So much for starting with softballs, huh?
Second of all, for all of my readers, I know this question seems a little too perfect - the kind you'd have a friend ask just so you can launch into your sales pitch. Full disclosure: Cynthia and I belong to the same writing and editing Yahoo! group, but there was NO question coaching.
Now, there's the long-winded easy (and sales-pitchy) answer - everybody can use an editor, you need one if you think you do, etc. You can get all of that on my company website.
I decided the best way to answer this question was to chat with some of my former and current clients to find out how they knew it was time. They had some great answers, and I'm happy to share them with you.
It might be time to seek an editor's help if:
You've edited and edited and edited. Then rewrote. Then edited some more. Then queried. Then read a book on making your first pages snazzier. Then queried. Sent in a few partials. And nothing is happening.
Turns out this is one of the most common reasons my writers get in touch, and I think it's my favorite. When an author has this much dedication to their work, but starts to feel like they are spinning their wheels, handing that manuscript over to a publishing professional WHO WILL ACTUALLY READ AND ANALYZE THE WHOLE THING can be an enormous relief - and unbelievably useful. These tend to be the authors who get their manuscript evaluation reports and send me an e-mail within 24-hours to say something along the lines of "I can't believe I didn't notice that before!" or "Did I really use the word 'bodacious' 678 times???" If and when I get to read the next draft, I almost always get to do my Happy-Editor-Jig, because they've nailed it.
You're getting back suggestions and comments on your partials (or fulls) in your agent-rejection letters, which is great. Except none of them seem to agree on what is actually wrong with the manuscript, you disagree with half of them, and some of them don't even sound like they're about your book. And you have no idea what to do about any of them.
This was actually more common than I expected, and yes, I think this is a great sign that you may want to bring on an editor. One paragraph of vague suggestions can be hard to implement - a fully-marked manuscript is a little easier to attack.
You ARE a writer. You know it in your soul. And you've finally finished your first manuscript. But you're also a mom, a wife, a lawyer, a friend, a student, a family-chauffeur, a cook, a dog-walker, and about a million other things. You know your manuscript isn't perfect or ready, but you also don't know where to begin when it comes to editing or rewriting (or, if it's a second or third draft, what to next). You need someone to take that stack of paper (and you) and act as editor, writing coach, motivator, teacher, friend, and, to some extent, task-master.
We ALL know editing our own work can be absolutely overwhelming, especially if you don't have a ton of confidence in your writing chops just yet. Writing groups work for some people. Reading books on writing works for others. And for some, working with an editor who wears just as many hats as you do can be just the guided kick-in-the-pants you need to achieve your goals and Make it Happen.
You ARE NOT a writer. You know THAT in your soul. But you've got something very important to say, and you want to say it in book form.
Yes, you need an editor. This answer came mostly from my non-fiction self-help writers and one of my memoirists. Unless you're Britney Spears' mom or the inventor of Twitter (yeah, I still don't get it), you need a clean and well-written manuscript, no matter much the world needs to hear your story or big idea. Some published authors aren't "writers"- they're experts. And experts often need developmental editors who know how to take the Big Idea and translate it into something that works for readers.
There were plenty of other answers, but those were the big four. Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments section. If you have any questions for me that you'd like to see featured in next week's blog post, please e-mail me at editor at murdockediting dot com. (Maybe something softer? Like about how many cats I have?)
Thanks again to writer Cynthia Hernandez. Go read her blog at!