Today will be the first in a series of posts passing along some tidbits picked up at the SCBWI-Iowa spring conference. Said tidbits were only written down if I thought they were helpful, so I hope you all agree 🙂

The first speaker was Ammi-Joan Paquette (pictured), an agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency (she goes by Joan, for future reference). In just over one year as an agent, Joan has negotiated eleven sales, including two 3-book deals, and is also a published author. Her presentation focused on how to make your manuscript stand out from the slush.

1. Find your voice. Ah, the elusive “voice.” Everyone in the industry talks about it, but how to define it? Joan described voice as the author’s “unique way of expression” and “the current under the words.” She also addressed perspective, recommending first person point-of-view for more character-driven stories and third person for a more plot-driven manuscript.

2. Be unique (just like everyone else). Find the original twist you can bring to your manuscript. Joan quoted Bruce Coville, “Story is two sticks rubbing together.” With the example of The Hunger Games, one stick is the story of teens fighting to the death on national television, while the other stick is a girl having to choose between two boys. Each is a good story, but rub them together, and you get a fire. Joan recommended playing the “what if” game to brainstorm ways to up the conflict and push your characters.

3. Start with a bang. Four opportunities to do so: first line, title, first chapter, and formatting

     a) We’ve all heard about the importance of a first line, but Joan pointed out it also needed to hint at the kind of story the reader was getting  into. (So now it not only has to be great, it has to encapsulate the tone and story. *sigh* Back to the drawing board) Joan gave the examples of Feed and Because of Winn Dixie. (I must admit, because of that first line, I checked out Feed from the library)

     b) Going along with the first line is the title. Yes, it will probably be changed, but make it as strong as possible to start with. Also, Google your title to make sure there are no giant conflicts. 

     c) Like the first line, start with a strong first chapter, a promise of what the story is going to be about. “Great writing has the seeds of the climax planted in the start.” Joan also hinted the first chapter should be “an echo of the last chapter.”

     d) Another thing Joan recommended was to be aware of white space. When trying to catch an agent or editor’s attention, a large, imposing block of text can be very off-putting. Make the reader keep saying “I’ll just read one more sentence,” instead of presenting a large block of text.

4. Get feedback. (Note: family members generally do not count as objective feedback.) Find a critique group that’s a good fit and be comfortable enough with your work that you know when to take a note and when to not.

5. Revising is important. Put in the time! Make sure any submission is your best work.

6. Listen for your tone. “Take a microscope to your words. Say what you want to say.” Similar to voice, tone is “the magic of having words flow.” (Or, as my Mom would say “Tone check. Check your tone.” Except it usually meant I was in trouble, versus writing, which is allowed to be sassy.)

7. Raise the stakes. Don’t be timid with your main character and think big. Think what’s the worst thing that could happen, then make it worse. If there are two doors, one going to the middle road and one to the dungeon, you should always go to the dungeon.

8. Let it steep. Take some time and mull things over. Revision needs fresh eyes.

9. Have something to say. Don’t be preachy, but have a current of meaning or theme under the plot.

Joan also took time to answer questions about the market. She said middle grade was on the rise (must…write…faster), YA is still going strong, but paranormal has to be unique and spectacular to catch editors’ attention, and there’s plenty of demand for action/thriller/mystery stories. The picture book market is slow.

(Not part of the presentation) I had a critique appointment with Joan and she was very personable and thorough. She made points my critique group hadn’t and took time to answer some general agenty-type questions. Oh, and she’s looking for a good food book (but I didn’t have time to ask her favorite kind of cheese.)