Great Beginnings by Anita Mumm

It’s January and I’ve got beginnings on my mind—in this case, the opening pages of your novel. In 2012 we read 1,029 sets of sample pages and from those we requested 81 full manuscripts. So what made the difference between a “no thanks” and a “tell me more”? Here are five key elements:

  • Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes some stand out from the crowd? In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass calls voice “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world…” Another key element is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with the characters and story? This is particularly important for YA and MG—nothing turns young readers off faster than writing that feels like an adult trying to mimic them. In that sense, the voice should be invisible— effortlessly capturing readers without calling attention to itself.
  • Stand-out writing. We see dozens of fairy tale retellings and spin-offs every month. Nevertheless, one of our newest clients is the author of a reimagined Sleeping Beauty tale. Her secret? The story felt incredibly fresh while retaining key elements of the fairy tale—a recipe for reader satisfaction. Beautiful writing can make an old theme feel new; focus on polishing your craft, not worrying about what is in vogue.
  • Authentic world. While it’s especially important for sci-fi/fantasy and steampunk, world-building can make or break any story. Your goal is to create a literary microcosm that feels real (historical authors—don’t skimp on the research).
  • Stories with heart. We’re looking for novels that feature relevant issues without compromising story. Examples: stories about bullying, contemporary YA with teens battling real-life issues, LGBT stories.
  • Characters who face great challenges with grit and integrity. What they don’t do is become jaded, nasty, or overly angsty. That definitely works for some stories, but our personal taste leans toward characters who rise a little higher.

Keep in mind that these elements can—and must—be firmly established or at least introduced in your opening pages; we ask for thirty, but it’s usually obvious in five. Take a hard look at your opening pages and if they feel a little flat, it’s time to consider a revision. Because no matter how amazing chapter five is, without a dynamic start readers may never get that far.

May 2013 bring success and satisfaction in your writing career. Best wishes!

Anita Mumm is a Literary Assistant at the Nelson Literary Agency. This post was taken from their monthly newsletter and posted here with permission. To get more great industry news, subscribe to their newsletter.

Strong Query Letters by Anita Mumm

This past weekend I presented on writing strong query letters at Author Fest of the Rockies in Manitou Springs, CO. As an example I handed out NLA client Stefan Bachmann’s wonderful query for THE PECULIAR, which I first encountered in the slush pile a year ago. Last month THE PECULIAR debuted to much fanfare from GreenWillow/HarperCollins. With Stefan’s permission I’ll share the query, my comments, and the results of our discussion here.

Dear Ms. Megibow:

I would like you to consider my gothic steampunk fantasy for middle grade readers, The Peculiar. 69,000 words in length, it takes place in a Victorian England that has enslaved the population of Faerie, an England where magic and industry are at war, spells do half the chores, and clockwork birds carry secret messages across the sky. [Fabulous opening. We know three key elements from one succinct paragraph: genre, word count, and that this story takes place in a unique, fascinating, and well-built world.]

Bartholomew Kettle won’t live long. Changelings never do. [How’s that for a hook? Who could possibly stop reading? One workshop attendee asked if this could be used as the opening of the query. Absolutely. In that case, the information from the current opening would come after this paragraph.] The child of a human mother and a faery father, he is despised by both his races; if the Englishmen don’t hang him for witchcraft, the faerys will do something worse. So his mother keeps him locked away, keeps him hidden and cut off from the world in the faery slums of Bath. But one day Bartholomew witnesses a mysterious lady kidnap another changeling through a shadowy portal, and suddenly he finds himself at the center of a web of intrigue and danger that spans the entire country. Changelings are surfacing in the Thames hundreds of miles away, their bodies empty of blood and bone, and their skin covered in red markings. A powerful figure sits in the shadows, pushing the pieces in place for some terrible victory. When a sinister faery in a top-hat begins to stalk Bartholomew’s every step, he knows it’s his turn. Something is coming for him. Something needs him. But when you’re a changeling there’s no where to run. [There’s is a lot of meat to this paragraph, without an information overload. The book has undertones of horror, and this suspenseful ending to the pitch paragraph gives agents a nice taste of its dark tone.]

I am eighteen years old and a student of classical music at the Zürich Conservatory. My short stories have appeared in issues of Mirror Dance and Every Day Fiction. [Yes, naturally we did a double-take when we read he was eighteen. We generally advise authors not to mention their age in a query, but in this case, we were already so intrigued that it only increased our curiosity and eagerness to read his work.]

Thank you for your time.

Stefan Bachmann

Bravo, Stefan! This query got right to the heart of the story and left us begging for more—which is exactly what every writer should be going for. To see more examples of NLA client queries, visit Kristin’s blog and scroll down to her Query Pitch Workshop on the right side bar.