DFWCon Panel: First Page Deadly Sins

So, after lunch, I had the pleasure of taking a panel taught by my roommate, Laura, and the amazing Tex.  After the beat-down of the Gong Contest, this thing was packed with people.  And rightly so, because it was seriously insightful.

All information belongs to the two ladies linked above.

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I was sitting about 6 rows back.  Imagine the rest of the room.

This panel mirrored Dante’s descent into hell… or rather, the hell that is a form rejection letter by agents everywhere.  It was stupidly creative and awesome to listen to.

They started by talking about how you know your first pages are the problem.  Mainly, when your query gets favorable replies from agents, but your page samples don’t.  (Now, this hasn’t been helpful to me, since most agents I queried wanted both the query AND the page samples, and then I’d get a form rejection.  So I have no clue which was wrong.  But in theory, this makes sense.)

Then Laura and Tex dove right into the Sins.  There are three levels, with the surface level being the easiest to fix, and the problems getting more difficult the further down you head.  Sounds like fun, right?

  1. Sins of Sloppiness
    1. Careless mistakes
      1. EX:  “Dear Agent.  Basd on the color of your liiving room, it’s easy to see you’re a relaxed person.  Which is why I thught you might like to read my romance.  its perfect for sitting on the beach, like wen you visit your second home in South Padreh Island.”
      2. In case that wasn’t obvious enough, it’s things like sloppiness and misspelled words, not doing research (“agent” instead of their name), or doing too much research.   Just… don’t.
      3. This is more about the query, but it applies to your first pages all the same!
    2. Wordiness
      1. Remove distancing words.
      2. Delete general implications (anything the reader can infer).
      3. Delete redundant nouns and actions.
      4. Rewrite everything for immediacy.  The reader wants to know what’s happening now!!
  2. Sins of Excess
    1. Too much description.  Find key nouns and the most evocative words, and delete everything else.
    2. Too much exposition.  Despite what I said above, we don’t care about the walls of your character’s living room, unless they’re splattered with blood.   Cut anything that’s an ordinary routine (waking up, first day of school, etc) and rewrite into something with tension.
      1. Also, get out of your character’s head.  As I mentioned in the Gong Contest post, we can have maybe a paragraph or two of internal contemplation, but then something external (and exciting) needs to happen.  Get it?
    3. Too much action.  Believe it or not, action without context is just as deadly as a character’s internal musings.  Stop the battle to have a witty conversation that gives us clues into WHY they’re fighting, and WHO these people are.  We need to care about the carecters.  (See what I did there?  No?  How about, “Chare about the characters?”  Eh?? … Ah, never mind.)
  3. Sins of Indifference  (The deepest level of hell, and the hardest to fix)
    1. Cliches
      1. Click the link.  Cliches need to be nixed.  It’s okay to add them in the first draft, but they shouldn’t survive the reaping.
      2. Instead, flash forward to something interesting.  There has to be some drama you’re dying to write.  Try that instead!  You might be surprised at how easily the words come.
      3. One fix to this is to turn your cliches around.  Have your character wake up… in a sunken ship on the bottom of the ocean.  Make her start school… except she’s abducted before class starts.  Get it?  (Keep in mind that if you choose to use this option, you’d better get to the cliche twist pretty fast, or you’ll still run the risk of losing your agent.)
    2. Confusion
      1. Don’t keep your reader in suspense about the basics.  They need to know where / when the book is set, and fairly soon.  They need to know who’s talking, and why.
      2. Establish your character’s goal on page one!  What do they want?  It doesn’t have to be the overarching want of the story.  It can be as simple as, “Don’t die.”  And there, now we have stakes, too!
    3. Boredom
      1. Unfortunately, there’s no way to boredom-proof your story.  Everyone likes different things.  But there is a way to vastly appeal to most readers.  Pick ONE of these things to spice up your first page.
        1. Unique characters
        2. A daunting task
        3. A strange place
        4. An intriguing mystery
        5. An unexpected reveal
      2. The reason they said ONE of those is because trying to do all of them would overwhelm your reader.  Master one of these elements, and execute it well, and you’ll have them eating out of your hand.
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Their slides were hilarious.

Something to remember before I sign off for the night!  All this stuff?  It isn’t necessarily what you should do.  Know the rules, then know how to break them.

So, that’s that.  Take a look at your first page.  Does it survive its trip to hell?

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