So. Perhaps the biggest draw of any writers’ conference is the opportunity to meet with literary agents and editors. Pitch sessions are a sought after way to avoid the slush pile.
Sure, there are plenty of Do’s & Don’ts for a Writers’ Conference, and your Novel Pitch should address the 5 C’s, but you definitely need to make time for the literary agents panel if the conference is hosting one.
At the Florida Writing Workshop this past weekend, I had the opportunity to learn from and speak with a number of literary agents and editors. One of the most interesting and informative of sessions happened the Page-1 Critique panel.
This session provided an integral insight into the mind of a literary agent when they’re reviewing submissions. I took copious notes sitting among nearly one hundred other writers in attendance and I’m going to share my findings here.
Literary Agents at Work
Eight of the attending agents sat at the head of the room, a pair of corded microphones ready to be passed amongst them. They were to critique randomly selected samples of submitted work from the conference’s attendees. The normally airy hall felt cramped–the air thick with anticipation.
By my guess, there was a 1-in-80 or so chance that your Page-1 would be read for the agents. The session’s emcee, an amiable lady from the Tampa Writers Alliance, announced she’d chosen the anonymous samples based on genre, to give the agents a variety of work to discuss.
While the emcee read Page-1 for the audience, the agents were given a copy of the entry to follow along with, and were asked to raise their hand the moment they would have stopped reading the submission had this exercise taken place on a normal work day. Once three agents rose their hands, time was called (even if there was more to read on the page). From there, they’d all share some thoughts on the piece.
The gravity of the situation was not lost on me, and probably not anyone else in the now standing-room-only conference room. Sure, we’d paid money for 1-on-1 pitch meetings throughout the day, but this was the chance to get feedback from eight other literary agents.
I won’t go into the specifics of the Pages themselves, just the feedback that stood out to me. The block quotes below all come from the literary agents participating in the panel.
Each member of the panel took time to explain at least one aspect they noted for the submissions. Most of those notes were mistakes, but several times throughout the hour-long session, the literary agents praised a particular moment or technique.
The session was brutal. Especially for the 11 authors who had their work critiqued. While mine was not among them, I know I would’ve felt both elated and mortified had my submission come up. I sat there with my heart in my throat the entire time.
The critiques themselves, while potentially crushing for the writer, all featured a number of important nuggets. I furiously scribbled notes during each submission review, even if the review happen to be identified as Women’s fiction or Inspirational fiction or Historical fiction. (I don’t write in any of those genres.)
Here are some of the positive nuggets from the Literary Agents:
“If you’re going to break the 4th Wall and speak to the reader, you’d better be Deadpool.”
- Don’t start a story with reaction. Start with action.
- Open with Tension and investment.
- Starting with physical description isn’t engaging.
- Avoid over-description, wordiness.
“Anything that I’ve never seen before will catch my eye.”
- Use modern language for the modern reader. (Re: Historical fiction)
- If you’re showing something physical about the character, it needs to be purposeful.
- Stick to the necessary details which will help the scene go forward.
- Don’t start with Backstory.
“Root me in the setting within the first paragraph.”
- Whenever possible, get rid of the Intro/Prologue and start with the Story.
- The story should be told through the character’s Voice.
- Don’t start with questions in your opening lines.
Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript. –Noah Lukeman, from The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
“I would not turn the page.”
The most sobering aspect of this entire exercise was the timing of it. It took the emcee maybe 90 seconds to get to the bottom of each page, and most of the time she didn’t even get that far. Agents rose their hands at the very moment they would’ve stopped reading.
Imagine working for years on a draft, then your draft gets less than a minute before it’s discarded. Yikes.
Here are some of the comments the literary agents shared regarding why they wouldn’t have turned the page:
“Why don’t we start where all the trouble started?”
- Starting with unusual, stilted dialogue was off-putting. (Eye-Dialect)
- No action on Page 1.
- Too much Telling, not enough Immersion.
“I’m not going to be hooked in by someone’s everyday.”
- Not enough Sensory Information.
- Don’t “over-block,” describing every action to its minute detail so that it loses all meaning.
- Too much irrelevant detail.
“I didn’t get a sense of the character’s Voice. I got the sense of the writer writing.”
- Staring a story by cataloguing memories is a surefire way to lose your reader.
- Grammar Mistakes at the top of the page turned the agent off.
“Overloading with adjectives is the sign of a beginner.”
Of all the sessions I was able to attend at this year’s Florida Writing Workshop, the Page-1 Critique Panel was by-far the most enlightening. Special thanks go out to the eight participating agents: Nalini Akolekar, Sharon Belcastro, Lucienne Diver, Saritza Hernandez, Kaitlyn Johnson, Amanda Leuck, and Beth Marshea.
Even though I didn’t get feedback regarding my work specifically, the entire exercise was full of important information for the unpublished writer like me. I can only hope that the other writers in attendance pulled as much from that session as I did.
Have any of you ever had literary agent critique some of your work? Feel free to share what you learned in the comments below.