Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Contests, Pitches, Book Beginnings, and Walking the Line

After finishing a MG novel -- not the one I'm hard at work revising now, but the finished one immediately prior to it -- I of course began querying agents. I entered some online contests, too. And while most agents ask for either the query letter alone, or the query plus ten pages, or five pages, or three chapters, or sometimes even fifty pages, most contests ask for a very small sample of the actual work. It might be a pitch sentence plus, say, 150 words, or 250. That's it. And it does make sense. Those first 150 or 250 are crucially important in engaging the reader's interest. There are practical considerations, too. Most contests are slammed with entries, and accepting more than the first page or so from each entrant would become overwhelming.

Still, I've looked at my finished novel, and the one I'm working on, too, and have wondered if they really lend themselves to being evaluated in only 250 words. 400-500? Absolutely. But I've realized that the story structure in both of mine would be hard to get a good sense of in only 200-250 words. And the truth is, I have had much better results with the standard querying process than with contests.

I thought about this question again as I read the beginning of Kate Messner's MG novel Capture the Flag. There was nothing wrong with what I was reading at all. But, really, if the author weren't already agented, I'm not sure how the first couple of pages would fare in a pitch contest. Because there isn't a single child's POV in the entire first chapter. Through an adult's POV, three kids are shown sitting on a bench, but that's it. They don't look up; they don't speak; they're just noticed in passing. The children are not referenced until past the 200-word mark. My guess would be that if you handed the first 150-200 words to a number of readers, many would not realize they were reading the beginning of a children's book. Only the pitch sentence would say otherwise. Yet, in my opinion, the book does begin in the right spot.

I've made similar observations about two other books: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz. One begins with the dreaded prologue (and not a short one). You know, that thing you're not supposed to use because "everybody hates it"? Neither begins with a child character's POV. Both are awesome, and rather difficult (I admire difficult), MG novels.

If you've entered an online contest, or thought about doing so, have you ever felt that contests may be best suited to certain types of books? Or do you think what I'm noticing is mainly a matter of the three cited authors being allowed to do what they like based on past sales? Might I even raise the question of whether there are two tiers of novels: debuts and/or books from authors with marginal sales figures that need to walk a somewhat narrow line to maximize their chances to be published, and books from proven sellers who have earned the chance to expand into storytelling in all its fullness without always being hemmed by what you "can't" do?


Faith E. Hough said...

Marcia, I'd love to have a long conversation with you about book beginnings! I definitely agree with what you're saying here. In fact, I recently entered a pitch contest, and my pitch and one line got me through to Round 2. BUT...I'm wondering what they'll think of my first 250. I like starting a little slowly, which means the 250 was about 100 words short of getting to the real point of the chapter. Is that bad? I don't know... Most of my favorite books start like that--including the two you mentioned. I'd LIKE to write difficult MG books like those!
Or...well...even half as good as those would probably be pretty amazing. :)

Bish Denham said...

I hear you on this. The first 250 words or so of one my novels begins with two kids playing an imaginary game but the reader doesn't know that right off. So, a person reading just the first few 100 words might come away thinking it's two adults barreling down the Amazon.

Nowadays there seems to big a push of how few words you can use to get an idea across. But some ideas are complicated and deserve a bit more of our time.

Mirka Breen said...

Another thoughtful, good post, as I have come to count on from you.
Yes, the ’bang-up’ beginning is a must for all but the already established writers. I thought about it the other day when I decided to read the first paragraphs of thirty classics, not specifically kid-lit. In days of yore Dickens was the master, and his beginnings (= “pitches”) still hold up.

Barbara Watson said...

Well-stated, Marcia. I'm not fond of my work being evaluated in such a tiny snippet. And in published books, I often evaluate that ever-important opening line and think, "Well, that didn't blow me away."

Vijaya said...

Oh, man. I agree that some books fare better than others when being evaluated on very, very short snippets. But there are books of all different stripes, and I suppose that is the reason some agents only ask for the query, and others ask for a query + 50 pages (and anything in between).

Given how subjective this business is, I'll say that you can read a short snippet and know this is simply not the kind of book you want to invest your time in. As a reader, I am generous -- I'll give it 30 pages or so. Though there are some books I've given up on after just 2 pages. And I'll never forget Les Miserables -- I do *love* that book but it took me two tries to get into the book (years apart) but one day I picked it up and could not put it down.

You've touched on whether folks with a track record can break the *rules* -- yup, they sure can. They are a brand. This is why I am often disappointed in some authors when I read their later books. Don't even get me started ...

Marcia said...

Faith -- Me too; I'd like to write books like these, even half as good! I also like starting a LITTLE slowly. I have in fact heard agents say recently that the pace in some submissions is too fast. I sympathize with the writers, because they may feel their chances are lower if they don't gun it.

Bish -- I'm taking heart from those agents who say it doesn't have to be off to the races in the first paragraph.

Mirka -- That's interesting; I'll have to reread the beginnings of some Dickens novels with that thought in mind.

Barbara -- Yes, I see lots of beginning sentences that are no big deal, and others that are trying WAY too hard. The latter annoy me more.

Vijaya -- Yes, the ability to break rules when you're a top seller (not merely "published," I don't think) is a two-edged sword. You can write books like Schmidt and Schlitz, in which you can "relax" and use the entire arsenal of storytelling and know the agents, editors, and readers will trust you, or you can get sloppy. And we do see some sloppiness now and then.

Laura Pauling said...

I totally agree with your last paragraph. Established authors don't have to go crazy with their first couple pages like querying writers do.

Here's what else I've noticed too. The often crazy ideas (at least in YA) that are in new releases these days because authors have to go big with high concept to catch the eyes of the agents and editors.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the first page critiques at conferences. The agents, editors, and writers doing them expect an immediate hook, meanwhile so many published books start out much slower.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Everything you said I found myself nodding with or at the least, got me thinking. And congrats on 2 completions of MG work. Fantastic!


Jennifer Rumberger said...

Interesting post. I enjoyed reading through the comments. Gave me some things to think about with my openings!

Christina Farley said...

I always have found that agents like quick fast starts while editors like books to slow down and get to know the characters.

Janet Smart said...

Enjoyed the post. I try my best to have that great beginning they seem to be looking for, but it is hard sometimes. And, like some others said, I've seen published books that start out slow. I guess we just do the best we can and hope it captures the eye of a publisher.

Marcia said...

Laura -- Crazy ideas in new YA releases -- yes! They don't attract me as a reader. At all. Which concerns me.

Medeia -- The disconnect in that bothers me. Honestly? I feel like I'm back to looking for the secret handshake.

Jill -- Thanks!

Jennifer -- Openings: Don't know what to think about them right now.

Christina -- "Then why do editors even buy what agents are peddling?" she howled.

Janet -- I think beginnings need to ground the reader. I dunno.

Kim Van Sickler said...

I've wondered the same thing, Marcia. The online pitch contests do seem better suited to big idea fantasies. We should keep all avenues open, though, right?

Unknown said...

"But, really, if the author weren't already agented, I'm not sure how the first couple of pages would fare in a pitch contest."

I've read a number of books where I've thought the same thing.

I've had requests based on my one line pitch, but I tend to avoid those contests. Sure, the agent or editor might love the concept, but they don't know if they'll like the voice.

Marcia said...

Kim -- Yes, I think so. I'll query and enter contests, both. Thanks for stopping by!

Stina -- I guess I figure if a good pitch can get me read, they can figure out later if they like the voice. :) I do tend to think twice about contests that have a lot of complicated steps and hoops to jump through, and ones where you can only win a request for 10 pages, when you can query most agents with 10 pp anyway. But if it's a closed agent, then contests are a huge attraction.

Patricia A Miller said...

I am entering a Writer's Digest contest with a short piece you critiqued when I was in the ICL course three years ago.

I need to work on the opening paragraph, however!