Sunday my blog discussed a session from the Boston Book Festival, Writer Idol, and I promised that my next blog would share some of the advice from the judges. Then a funny thing happened—an aspiring writer who had attended the session commented on the blog. Realizing that my perspective on the session might be different than that of an author I asked the writer, Judy Mintz, to guest blog about the session for us. What follows are her observations and comments. I would like to thank Judy for putting this together.
This was the third annual Boston Book Festival. Each year, I have submitted a page at the Writer Idol session hoping to have it read for the judges. My piece has never been chosen. This year, I submitted the first page of my current work-in-progress (WIP), a Young Adult manuscript. I’m sure it can use some tweaking, and I was looking forward to the help. Once again, my page was not chosen. I was disappointed, but I can apply the advice I heard to my own work. Here are some of the things I learned.
Details should only be given when they really matter. This could be why my critique group sometimes says to me, “That’s beautiful, really, but who cares?” I have a sentence in my first paragraph that reads, “Why then, was I in Terminal E at the airport waiting for the doors from Customs to swing open and let out the passengers from Lufthansa flight 424 from Sweden?” Maybe “from Lufthansa flight 424” is an unnecessary detail.
Slash without mercy. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. That was the mantra that underscored most of their criticisms; be brutal and take out unnecessary content. That argues in favor of lopping off “Terminal E” on my next editing pass, too. That would leave, “Why then, was I at the airport waiting for the doors from Customs to swing open and let out the passengers from Sweden?”
Get to the story point quickly. This is another way to present the first bit of advice; avoid using too much detail. One of the agents on the panel this year, Ann Collette, from Rees Literary Agency, represents mystery writers. She said it was particularly important in a mystery to get to the point quickly. Other genres may allow for a little more latitude, but even a non-fiction piece that was read was criticized for not stating its thesis in the first paragraph. The first sentence of my WIP is, “When my mother asked if I thought it would be a good idea to have a foreign exchange student come live with us, I said no.” Guess what this book is about?
It’s important to establish voice right away. See my first sentence above.
Don’t start with back story. Hmm. My first sentence could be considered back story. Are these rules? Do I have to change that because three literary agents said you’re not supposed to start with back story? It’s up to you. Or in this case, it’s up to me. This is advice we’re talking about, and free advice at that.
Avoid wacky titles. One of the panelists, Caroline Zimmerman, who is with Kneerim & Williams, was unrelenting in her disdain for what she considered bad titles. While I tend to put more stock in Ms. Collette’s assertion that it doesn’t matter what the title is because the publisher will change it, I think Ms. Zimmerman was making a good point. A wacky title sounds unprofessional, and if the title is unprofessional she is not going to waste her time reading any of the actual prose. And what are we trying to do if not get the agent or editor to read our work?
There were other bits of advice offered, some I’d heard before, some that seemed like common sense, some that were too subjective for me to take seriously. In the end, the one I found most useful was the panel’s recommendation that we read A reader’s advice to writers, by Laura Miller, a founder of, and writer for, Salon.com. It is interesting to note that the panelists did not refer to the article by name, but rather as a set of “writing rules.”
At the end of the session, the third panelist, agent Sorche Fairbank, read what she considered an excellent first paragraph from Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. It was a good, strong opening with lots of back story. So much for the rules.
About Judy Mintz
When Judy Mintz was young, she answered a classified ad in the paper (that’s how people used to find jobs before the Internet and networking) that said, “We’ll teach you personal computers so you can help our customers.” That’s how she got into high tech. After a brief stint doing technical support, she moved into marketing where, professionally speaking, she spent her entire adult career.
The downturn in the economy afforded her the opportunity to try writing full time. She is hard at work on her second, unpublished, Young Adult novel. You can read more about her here.