First 250 Insights

Now that the feedback for the second round of PitchSlam entries has gone out, I thought I’d share some feedback about things that worked and didn’t work for me.*

Common Issues I Spotted:

  1. Starting in the Wrong Place: There are many ways that this pops up. I truly think that finding the right place to start your novel is the hardest part, but it’s so important.
    1. Starting Too Early: We don’t need to know everything that ever happened to your main character before the story begins. Something happens to incite a story. Try to pinpoint that moment.
    2. Dropping the Reader Into the Middle of the Action: If your story starts with a person fighting for his life, and I have never met that person, I have no reason to root for him. Maybe he just murdered someone. This about providing context, not backstory. If your story opens with a guy named Bill standing next to a zebra, I don’t care how about Bill’s childhood. I don’t need to know when and where the zebra was born. I do need to know if Bill is at the zoo, on a safari, or standing in his house, because those will all change how I react to find him standing next to a zebra.
    3. Common Openings Agents Prefer to Avoid: These are all over the internet. My first MS started with most of them at one point. But, in short: a character waking up, character dreaming, main character death, opening with weather, and prologues are all on the list. Open elsewhere.
  2. Introducing Too Many Characters on the First Page: As the writer, you know all your characters intimately. As the reader, if I meet seven people at once, I’m going to be confused. Look for ways to trickle in a couple at a time. Let us meet the narrator/main character before getting to know all of his friends and family members. Otherwise, it’s confusing.
  3. Head Hopping: Multiple POV is fine, but if you’re inside one character’s head, you need a scene break before moving into someone else’s. 
  4. Passive Voice: There is a place for to be verbs. That place is not in every sentence. Use them sparingly and only with good reason.
  5. Grammar Mistakes: Probably the most common one I saw was two complete sentences connected with and that didn’t use a comma (second only to two INcompete sentences that aren’t connected with and but have a comma, anyway). A couple of typos usually aren’t a big deal, but if an agent sees too many mistakes, it can turn a yes to a maybe or a maybe to a no. If you’re not good with grammar, find a critique partner who is or hire an editor.
  6. Sentences All the Same Length: This really impacts flow. If you only have long sentences, my eyes will glaze over and slide down the page, and I will never see the genius of your writing. If you only have short sentences, it can be choppy and confusing. Mix it up for the best results.
  7. Present Participles: Sometimes, they are the best way to say something. Most of the time, they just add to your word count. When you only have 250 words to show us something special, don’t waste a bunch of them on “was” and “were.” 
  8. Extra Words: You almost never need could. Don’t say “I could see,” say, “I saw.” Better yet, just show us what the main character is looking at us. We assume your main character isn’t walking around with eyes closed, so “I saw” and “I heard” are almost never needed.
  9. Distant/Passive Narrators: If your main character isn’t invested in the action, why should I be? This issue commonly arises with passive voice and telling. Look for active words to punch up the language.
  10. Complaining about the Feedback online: Not an issue with the beginning, per se, but the writer’s community is small. Agents and editors are everywhere. You don’t have to listen to our suggestions. The feedback is an opportunity to make adjustments, not a requirement. But be professional. If you need to vent, do it privately.

Things I loved:

  1. VOICE! This is really my #1 thing. If I love the main character’s voice, I will follow him or her anywhere. Some of my favorite entries are genres I don’t usually read, because the main character pulled me in.
  2. Descriptions that Jump Off the Page: No need to overwrite, but if I can see myself standing next to your character, I’ll keep reading for a bit. This can be accomplished in a few words – it doesn’t have to be the entire first 250 (and shouldn’t be).
  3. New Spins on Common Situations: Show me what it is about this character, this story, that makes it unique. That’s what I’m looking for. Don’t show me something I’ve already read.
  4. Entries without spelling/grammar Mistakes: For me, personally, if I see a lot of misplaced commas or typos, I don’t want to keep reading. So finding a story I like with a good voice that has clearly been polished and proofread? It’s my Holy Grail. Guaranteed to make my knees weak and get me salivating for more.
  5. And did I mention… Voice? That’s what it’s all about. Making a personal connection with the main character. 

* Note: These are my insights and my opinions about common issues and do not reflect any particular entry or writer.

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