17 April 2009

Learning By Example

I don't know about you guys, but I happen to be a visual-kinesthetic learner. I really don't learn well by listening; I need to see what we're talking about in front of me.

On the other hand, I also learn pretty well by doing and discussing - if I'm talking it out, I'll remember it (oral rather than aural learning), and if I can touch it, grasp it, move it around and do it myself, I'll also remember it.

So when I started writing, and people told me things like: Your beginning needs to be hooky. You need to have voice. Your query must be professional. You have to tell the story without telling the whole story.

...I really had no idea what they meant.

Thankfully, in the last few months a really useful resource has popped up to combat this: it's the blog of Authoress, Miss Snark's First Victim - specifically, the Secret Agent contests. Have I entered them? Actually, no.

So how have I learned from them? By immersion. By doing. When you read through 100 or 50 or however (large) many first pages in a reasonably short space of time, you begin to realise what works and what doesn't. All that advice actually starts to make sense, and you can see things like voice, and hooks, and begin to get a feel for openings that are boring, or overworked, or trying to hard - or are just right. If you've never read through the entries in a Secret Agent contest, I really encourage you to do so. You don't have to comment on them if you don't want to or don't have time - just read them, and read them all, for your own benefit.

Interestingly, the quality of the submissions really seems to be increasing. In the first few rounds of Are You Hooked?, there were maybe 5% of entries that caught my attention and really hooked me. These days, I can find anywhere between 10 and 15%, and I'm getting pickier; I read faster, I totally skim, and an opening has to work hard to make me stop and read it properly.

So. Where is all this going?

Well, in a meandering sort of way, besides wholeheartedly recommending that you go read through the lastest round of Secret Agent entries, I'm getting to querying. It never occurred to me that the breakthrough I had in reading so many first pages might also be applicable to queries; but thanks to Nathan Bransford and his current 'Agent for a Day' contest, I've realised it is.

I've read every single one of the 50 queries entered, and I'm down to a short list of 14, although I could have made it 16 if I was feeling generous. Because this post is long enough (and my husband is waiting for me!), today I'm going to let you know what my top picks are. Over the weekend, before the contest closes on Saturday night, I'll narrow down my options (we're only allowed to 'request' 5 manuscripts) and on Monday I'll dissect my choices and see what I've learned about queries, and the querying process.


Okay. These are my top 14, in no particular order:

#9 If It Ain't Broke: boy sets out to break every bone in his body, because we all know, they heal stronger...

#20 In The Driver's Seat: a memoir about truck driving throughout America. Great voice.

#22 Star Fragments: YA, 'media darling shattered by Hollywood's depravity'. Voice, again.

#26 Glyph: a spec thriller based on Aztec mythology

#27 Ghostland: Genetically modified outcast children. Mm.

#28 Long Shot Lost: Sci fi. Reads pretty standard, but a hint of an exciting voice.

#30 XLI: It's humorous, and the MC is a monk. Rah!

#33 Beneath the Heart of Beauty: mainstream about a man who has recurring dreams that he suspects are based on the events of a period of amnesia he suffered.

#36 Rosie's Child: mainstreamish, about a family geneaology mystery. Sounds pretty cool.

#37 Secluded Alleys: serial killer/cop mystery, with photography.

#38 Birthright: YA fantasy set in the wild future, where humans live in sanitised cities - the MC learns she's heiress to the wild...

#40 Becoming Emily Novak: YA coming of age. Solid, solid query.

#43 The Lion's Mane: YA fantasy. Time travel back to Roman Britain with a talking cat!

#1 Watcher's Web: Well, it's Australian for a start, hoorah! :D Fantasy about a girl who can talk to animals, and is being fought over by the great forces of the universe.

Even reading back through these now, a day after I initially picked them, I can see differences between them that help me make up my mind - to the point where I actually removed two off this list because I realised they weren't up to par with the others.

Finally, there's one query that I didn't even have to think about: auto-request. I'll dig it out and examine it on Monday. In the meantime, get yourselves over there and learn by example what a good query feels like! :)


beth said...

I am so with you on these. I learned so much by reading through both MSFV entries and the recent Nathan Bransford ones. I used to think it was ridiculous that someone could quit reading a first page or query after only a few sentences, but when I found MYSELF doing that exact same thing, I suddenly understood what it meant.

Anette J Kres said...

I learned from MSFV too! Like you, I havn't actually entered a Secret Agent contest, but I read all 60 entries one time and did the same with a couple of the F2S rounds.

I'll have to head over to the Agent For a Day page. Thanks for the suggestion.

Yunaleska said...

I haven't read all the queries, but I've read some and yes, I learn quite a bit from them.

Inkblot said...

Beth - I once had a long "conversation" (O:)) with my middle step-brother, 15, about exactly that: he thought (and still thinks) it was preposterous that someone could make a judgement based on so little. But exactly like you, I find the more I read, the quicker I can judge, and the faster I do judge. Makes you realise just how important those first few lines really are!

*Note to self: Must fix the opening of Jesscapades! :D

Anette - You're welcome! :) I hope you get something out of it. The Secret Agent contests are GREAT for learning what a snappy opening looks like - but yeah, it's a bit hard for me to enter, being in Australia, given the entries usually fill up in one minute flat!!

Yuna - Good on you :o)

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