Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Which I Hit A Webinar

So on Thursday of last week, I attended the Writer's Digest Webinar Starting Off Right: How to hook an agent with your first pages (this may not be the exact title. I was dumb and forgot to write it down. It's close though and I'm sure you get the gist)

I heard about this webinar from the lovely Roni over at Fiction Groupie, since it was her agent, Sara Megibow, putting on the webinar. The best part of the webinar? It comes with a critique of the participant's first 3 pages! Awesome, right? Totally worth the money. It's like they knew what bait to hang in front of us to entice us in

Funny Pictures - Chinchilla Gif
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

(also, she stated that, if she likes the first pages, she may ask for more. How awesome is she?)

Anyway, I took notes during the webinar so I could write this blogpost and let you all know what Sara said. I have to say, when the webinar was done, I felt totally confident. She said very little that surprised me and it seems I am on the right track.

She broke it up into a "why" and a "how" section, though most of the seminar was in the "how" section.

WHY (is it important to start off right)

  • The agent has to be engaged immediately
  • Sara says, for her to offer representation, she must love the manuscript AND think she can sell it
  • She also almost always knows within the first three pages if she loves the novel
  • She is actively looking for new clients (and she's with the Nelson Literary Agency. Pretty snazzy, IMO)
  • She is looking for: YA, MG, Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Women's Fiction and Literary Fiction with a commercial bent

That was pretty much it for the "Why" it's important to start off strong. She then went into the "How" and this was broken down to "Hot" and "Not Hot" sections

HOW (to start off strong)
HOT (what she likes to see)

There needs to be:
1. A clear inciting incident
2. Compelling Characterization
3. Command of the basics

1. the writer needs to be able to explain in 1 or 2 sentences what propels the novel forward. This should also be in your query. She says it is essential for the writer to be able to do this. For her, it is a deal breaker if there is no clear inciting incident

2. Why do we care about the characters? This is clearly important and good characterization needs to be present early on

3. This is broken down into more sections:

  • Superior writing. If you do not have a firm understanding of the basics of writing, this is a deal breaker for her. She stated multiple times that a writer needs to master the art of writing before one pursues the business of publication
  • Unique concept. Which mean, no vampires, no super powered children discovering they're the key to saving the world, no women opening bead and breakfasts, and in sci-fi and fantasy, no prophecies and cliches. None of these things are deal breakers, but you'd better have an interesting spin on it to make her love it or think she can sell it.
  • Effortless world building. She wants to be engaged by the world.
  • Realistic character motivation. For example, if your character finds a body, that character better have a damn good reason for investigating the murder instead of doing the actually believable thing of calling the police

NOT HOT (what she does not like to see)

1. Data dump - we all know this is a no-no for the beginning of your novel

2. Ineffective use of dialogue - all the examples she showed were obvious things such as "as you know, David, I'm the king and was crowned thirteen years ago on your birthday".

3. telling vs. showing - again, she stated the necessity to have masted the art of writing before jumping into the business of publication

4. mistakes with POV - a deal breaker for her would be an adult narrator in a YA novel. Or strange narrators like houses or jewelry.

5. prologues or dream sequences - this isn't a deal breaker for her, because they can be cut if needed, but it is a red flag. And if you've got some marks against you in other areas (sloppy grammar, etc) you're probably in for a form rejection.

Then the last few minutes of the seminar were wrapped up in questions. A lot of the questions were unproductive or had already been answered (questions about prologues, or questions regarding queries, which the seminar did not address) but I took a few notes.

  • it's good to keep momentum moving in the beginning. Shortening chapters is a way to do this, but isn't necessary
  • always keep queries short - like back cover
  • if the novel's momentum slows in a scene, it's typically due to too much data
  • For genre fiction - opening with action is important (though, for fantasy, it's acceptable to start off slower)
  • prose and imagery can function as a hook, however this is harder in genre fiction
  • if an agency's submission guidelines don't say it's not OK to submit to more than one agent in the agency, then you're probably OK to query more than one agent
  • read other books in your genre - especially what's selling well and has good reviews
  • if you're looking for critiques of your work from people "in the biz" she recommends the annual Brenda Novak auction (the link she gave is broken. Usually though there's a lot of buzz for it around the time). Yes it will cost money, but it's for a good cause (though in my experience, it's huge leaps above what I could afford).

And that was pretty much everything she talked about!

I would definitely recommend this type of webinar in the future for anyone who's interested.

I hope this helped, and now I'm off to work on my first three pages to submit for her critique.


Anne said...

i don't have anything to say about the webinar (since we talked about it already), but that Chinchilla is ridiculous

Joanne said...

Those opening pages are so critical in hooking any reader, agents included. Lots of good information here, thanks for sharing.

I clicked over from Maria's blog, enjoyed browsing here ...

Summer Frey said...

Thanks for the roundup. Some good points in there; I think I'm on the write track too (get it? get it? Har har har.)

Also, I love that chinchilla muchly.

Margo Benson said...

Thank you sharing that, Sarah - very interesting. I'll definately look out for webinars. It helps to know exactly what agents are looking for and discarding. Can you imagine being an agent and seeing cliche after cliche?....could be a story there!

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

Thank you so so much for sharing!

I have bookmarked this. Her points really make sense and it is funny how sometimes we KNOW what we should be doing yet we DON'T do it!! This is where lists like this really help me. I may print it off in a checklist form... hmmm...!

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

aspiring_x said...

thanks for taking notes for us!!! a bunch of good information here! and whoo hoo about you feeling confident!!!! :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Anne - right? I've been saving him for a while now.

Joanne - So true. Sometimes you only get the first couple hundred words to catch that reader

Summer - Hah! Zing! Also, i love that chinchy

Margo - oh yeah. She stated that even though some of the stuff she spoke about seemed like "duh" stuff to us, she still saw a lot of it sent in to her

Courtney - i know, right? It's probably why we read the same things on different blogs over and over. Sooner or later is has to sink in

Aspiring - it's always nice to feel on top of things for a bit. Of course, once i get a rejection the confidence will wain, but still...

Hannah Kincade said...

Awwww, that chinchilla is hilarious. I want.

I feel pretty good about my beginnings, though I have one issue with my NaNo book that I will ask you and Austin about once I shoot it your way.

Matthew Rush said...

Lot's of good info here. Thanks Sarah!

Her highness, Samantha VĂ©rant said...

Really informative! Nice recap! And I love that white chinchilla. I think I need one.

Gimme some sugar, Froggy Baby

Lola Sharp said...

OMG I want that adorable chinchilla! I would hug her and squeeze her and never let her go. (no naming her George. She's too cute to be a George.) Her little steps slay me.

You always do the best recaps. Very organized and thorough, you.


Elana Johnson said...

Holy cow. This is the best post I've seen about starting a novel. Thanks for sharing!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Hannah - and i will help you as best i can.

Matthew - i aim to please

Highness - i think we could all use chinchies. THEY CAN DO NO WRONG

Lola - i love her little steps that require minimal movement. I could watch her forever!

Elana - LOL thanks! You have a crap load of good posts on your blog as well (i have starred many for later reference)

Justine Dell said...

What great information!! Thanks, Sarah!!!

And after reading Hannah's comment, I'm SO glad she identified that little creature because I. Want. One.


Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post. I saw that webinar, but didn't get chance to take part. Thank you for sharing the awesome info!

Pk Hrezo said...

Hi, Sarah! I'm so glad you did this. I had considered taking the webinar but decided not to since I recently won a 30pg crit from Sara on one of her author's websites. Sara is amazing... she really nailed it for me. You'll love the crit you get back from her.
I did a post like this after I took Mary Kole's webinar a few months back. So I like your thinking... share the wealth of knowledge! :)
Nice to meet you!

Joan Crawford said...

Hey Falen! I have some xbox questions for you! Did you play Fable III? Was it worth the money? How was it compared to Fable II? How are you liking Alan Wake? Is it a lot of running while aiming and shooting? I am playing Mass Effect 2 but feel out of my depth... I am not so good at the controls yet and for some reason a lot of the text on my screen is so tiny I can't read it and so I have no idea what in the hell is going on. Oh, have you played Morrowind?
Thanks! Zoom!

Caroline said...

Isn't it funny how we can know something, and, yet, having it spelled out for us again can be such a kick in the pants? And sometimes it even makes something click that never did before. I always get off course, so I appreciate your post.
It reminded me to write myself a long note about how to revise my opening scene.

I've taken a few courses through Writer's Digest. Plot & Structure was particularly useful. Do you know if this webinar will be repeated? I'll have to take a look at their site and see what's coming up.

Hart Johnson said...

This was great, Sarah! I am bookmarking it for my checklist. I had a couple moments of 'uh oh' but mostly said YAY when I looked through the suggestions...

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Joan - OMG! It's YOU! awww, we miss you! And yes, to most of those questions, but i sent you a more detailed email.

Justine - omg right? SO CUTE! I wonder what they've got in that tube? Something nommy, apparently

Lindsay - oh heck yeah, pal. No point in just keeping it to myself. We're all in this together

PK - oooh good to know about the crit! I'm excited (well, also nervous). And i'm all for sharing. 90% of my understanding of the business of publishing came from blogs so i got to pay that back and forward

Caroline - so true. Sometimes we just have to hear something over and over again before it can become second nature

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

hart - aww thanks! I had a lot of moments of "Yay" that later turned into "should i really be saying yay?" concern. Ahh worry. I don't know who invited you

Shelley Sly said...

Wow, super helpful info! Thanks so much for posting all of this! I feel like as writers, we vaguely know that we want to hook the reader, but this goes into specifics of what to do and not do. Great to know.

Plamena Schmidt said...

Thanks for sharing! I actually really wanted to attend the seminar, but I couldn't afford it (especially right after Christmas).

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for sharing all of that - and taking such great notes!

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Sounds like a great session. I've heard of these webinars but haven't yet signed up. Glad to know they are worth every penny!

DL Hammons said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to post this for us!!! I'm definitely bookmarking this post! :)

Teebore said...

Thanks for sharing all this. I too am definitely bookmarking this post and then delving into an endless cycle of worry over whether or not I meet these criteria. ;)

Holly Ruggiero said...

Thanks for sharing -all good things to keep in mind.

Jules said...

PK Hrezo sent me over. Thanks for the notes and just totally awesome info. :)

But a chinchilla, really? I thought it was a weight study for obese mice :) Either way, LOL
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Shannon said...

Awesome post! Thanks for sharing what you learned!

And the chinchilla. Dude, I've been giggling nonstop. Want one now!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Hey cool! Thanks for sharing all the stuff you learned! Lots of great info!

Al said...

Sounds like a great sem..., uh webinar

Deborah Burns said...

Excellent! Thank you so much for sharing!

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Shelley - it's definitely nice to hear straight from the agent

Plamena - it was a close call for me, too, financially. But i managed to scrape it together. I might have passed on it for that reason if it weren't for the crit

Alex - thanks. I guess my college education taught me something useful ;)

Nicole - this was my first one as well. It was fun!

DL - aww! Thanks!

Teebore - well i can help your worry some. But yeah, even though i left confident, it probably contributed to my spiral of worry which popped up this week

Holly - yes they are. It certainly helps to hear it all again

Jules - LOL he's just chubby. More for loving and squeezing

Shannon - you're welcome! And i think most everyone wants one after seeing that gif. How could you not?

Carolina - Thanks and you're welcome!

Al - Hah! My Mom gave me a lot of crap too, about it being a "webinar" instead of a "seminar"

Deborah - any time!

Joan Crawford said...

I didn't get the email :(

Did you send it to joancrawfordcalling1 at

kmckendry said...

Thanks so much for doing this. Great info! I found you through PK Hrezo's blog.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Joan - wtf? I'll resend it.

Kmckendry - aww thanks! And thanks to PK for sending people my way

Heidi said...

Thank you for sharing that info!! I've never tried a webinar (but I know what one is!). ;-)

Rachael Harrie said...

Fantastic info, thanks heaps for sharing. Bookmarked!!! :)


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