I visited an “agent chat” at a local coffee house this morning, asked and listened to a bunch of questions and answers and at the end had the nervous thrill of hearing a “First Page” critique of my WIP from the agent and the other writers around the table.
What got read aloud (not by me– which was part of my education) in front of the agent & 7 other writers:
Garm’s low growl made Linnea pause before entering the clearing around her family’s homestead.
For a moment she gripped the nearest tree, feeling the papery bark under her fingertips as she balanced on her good foot.
Nothing could be seen to be out of order, except-she felt a shiver slide down her neck. There were footprints in the newly fallen snow. The dusting didn’t allow enough of a print to be certain, but Linnea felt uncomfortably that the prints were of bare feet. Larger feet than any she’d seen before.
She’d just rested her forehead against the tree when she started at a rhythmic sound behind the small house.
The slow, shnick–THUB… shnick–THUB… sounded almost familiar, if only the pain behind her eyes would let her think.
Releasing the tree, Linnea looked down to the shaggy white form of her sheeping hound. Her stomach tightened when she saw him, tensed to launch at her word of release.
A shovel in the earth.
That’s what the interminable repetition was. And the only thing behind the house was her father’s grave.
Understanding seemed to snap her windpipe.
Regripping her staff, Linnea started across the clearing as quickly as her twisted foot would allow. Garm raced ahead, reading her intent and barking a challenge.
The agent began by asking the listeners what they knew from the first page.
There were several good answers but the point she made was that the first page reveals nothing about Linnea herself. There is nothing uniquely character-building to set her apart from any other first page you might read.
One also pointed out that starting with Linnea’s POV automatically closes out the male readers. (Hence the various attempts to open with Tykone)
I was offered a chance to “pitch,” which I biffed, then begged leave to read my paragraph summary, which I then did.
I was shaking.
I couldn’t believe it; I’m not that nervous a person. But it seemed to help, sort of; everyone was so gentle and kind to me. Made me think of those public-speaking books/classes where the teacher assures you the audience wants you to succeed. It surely felt true this morning.
When sarsé Linnea, a crippled single mother, decided a beast was easier to face than her abusive stepmother, she ended up disenchanting a prince only his parents knew was missing. Before long she and her new husband had unknowingly complicated a plot between djinn and kings that had been years in the making.
*Everybody* immediately asked: Where’s the stepmother?! If she’s so bad a dragon can’t be worse, well, we need to see her!
And it was not long after that I realized I was a victim of my own hyperbole.
You see, a stepmother that bad looks really exciting in the pitchline (or, it did to me), but that’s not the heart of what’s going on.
The stepmother isn’t even the big baddie; but Linnea doesn’t meet that guy till the second half of the book.
Giving the summary of this exchange to my husband (I was already mentally organizing what could be changed to reveal Irene’s viciousness), we came simultaneously to the same conclusion: it would be much easier to change the pitch line than to change to story.
The trouble that arose early in this story is that Linnea was someone acted upon, rather than someone who took action or made things happen.
Giving her a child helped resolve this issue, providing as it did a believable motivation for the “desperate” decision she must make.
The trick is how to put this in one or two lines (and whether the result is worth the effort when the story moves away from this place so quickly):
Linnea is willing to marry a dragon that ate his last bride because she thinks it will obligate the royal family to raise her son– or at least to keep him from her stepmother.
So there’s her initial motivation, though before that she’s been picking up clues he’s not so bad. Then she meets him and that confirms her guess, along with her hope he can’t be worse than her stepmother.
In this case not because she’s *THAT* bad, but because he is almost good-hearted, and might even be human.
The fact that we reach the resolution of that tension 1/3 of the way into book makes me feel silly, though. I’ve read books that answer their blurb expectation/question that early and I instantly “panic”:
What’s this book about really and why couldn’t they tell me sooner?
Anyway, still working that out.
One of the most exciting things about this morning, though, is that Jay agreed it was important enough– my writing/novel/”career” growth– was important enough for him to stay home from his work and let me take this time.
For all that I learned this morning (and there was a bunch), seeing from his actions how Jay values my work was probably the most significant.