The Boston Book Festival was yesterday, and I must admit I’ve become hooked on Writer’s Idol. This year the panel was much less brutal than last year (I was not the only person to comment on this), but there were two interesting themes in their comments I thought I would share:
- This year, description seemed to be the item that the panel focused on. Not that authors used too much or too little, but rather that most of the descriptions were bland. One of the panelists, Esmond Harmsworth of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, noted that you don’t want to describe a place the way you see it, but rather as a “68-year-old Croatian refugee” sees it. In short, you want to your descriptions to reflect your character’s personality, which is far more likely to make descriptions interesting.
- One of the entries said the genre was “Paranormal Historical Comedy,” and all the panelists rolled their eyes at that one. I can understand why. As a publisher, I have to assign a set of BISAC codes to every book we publish; these codes tell bookstores where to place the book in stores. If you check the BISAC code list, you’ll notice “paranormal historical comedy” does not have a code (and probably never will). The lesson is that you should not be overly creative in describing the genre of your work in your query – an agent or publisher will be less likely to make it through your query if the question sitting in the back of their head is “Does this cross-genre work really have a market” or “Just where would a bookstore shelve this work?”
I must admit my “I get it” moment about Writer’s Idol came during another session on the future of publishing. A woman asked a question about downloading samples on her Kindle. It occurred to me that this is what most people probably do now; once they’ve “discovered” a book (either through recommendations or by other means), the first thing they are likely to do is download a sample of the book. It used to be that to sample a book required going to the library or bookstore, but now it can be done right from your computer or smart phone. This probably means that more people are sampling books before they buy them than in the past. Thus, in a digital age, the first few pages of your manuscript really are prime real estate – they are the words that will make a person buy your book or move on to the next recommendation. While I consider Writer’s Idol to be entertaining, I also think it serves to remind authors just how important their choice of the first 250 words in their manuscript is.