Photo: Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press
Didn’t think I would post twice today, did you? Well, I was up late, preparing some handouts for my querying class this Saturday afternoon at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there; the per-class rate is exceptionally reasonable.
Back to long-delayed business. Back in September, if you will recall, I devoted an array of posts to the Grand Prize, first place, and second-place winners in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since there were so many third-place winners in the YA category and the YA author originally scheduled to provide the feedback to those winners dropped out at the last possible second, I had hoped to rustle up a bona fide YA author to comment instead. A couple of months and a plethora of polite regrets later, and I seem still to be going it alone.
I would have liked to have some YA-attuned eyes on today’s Great First Pages Made Even Better prizewinner, David Jéan Fuller. His entry, page 1 of a paranormal entitled Bark at the Moon, was entered in the contest’s Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir. The judges felt, however, that not only was the subject matter better suited to YA fantasy, but the voice was as well.
See if you can tell why. Here’s the brief book description. Extra credit if you spot the formatting gaffe.
Could go either way on the subject matter, right? The dashes, however, cannot: in a synopsis, as in a manuscript, dashes should be doubled, with a space on either end (my blog program won’t permit me to show you a doubled dash in action, but here’s how to do it: wordspacedashdashspace). What we see here is an emdash, the super-long version the autoformat function in Word likes to use as a substitute for the doubled dash. Don’t let it — change it back.
But I digress from the book category issue. From the book description, this could be a book about 20-somethings — or 200-somethings, given the paranormal element — but remember, Millicent the agency screener tends to read a synopsis after a query (if it’s in a query packet) or the opening pages (if it’s in a submission packet). In a submission especially, the voice on page 1 is probably going to be the determining factor in whether she says, “Oh, this is a good voice and story for the specified book category — which is fortunate, because my boss, the agent, insists that I reject even very good submissions in categories she does not represent,” and “Oh, that’s too bad: this voice is clearly YA, and my boss represents adult fiction. Next!”
So, perversely, the strength of David’s voice here — and it is quite a strong, believable teenage voice — might actually end up being its rejection trigger. See for yourself — and as usual, if you’re having trouble reading the text, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to increase the image size.
Did you form an opinion, or did the formatting problems distract you? Here it is again, correctly formatted; see if you can spot all of the revisions.
Let’s start at the top, literally. In the original version, the slug line — the author/title/page # bit at the top of the page — appears at the bottom of the header, 1″ down, rather than in the middle of the header, .5″ from the top. The first title should be on the top line of the page, and there should have been two spaces after the colon.
Did you notice that I was able to get an extra line onto the bottom of the page, too? That’s because in my version, I turned off the Widow/Orphan control; if it is on (the default in most word processing programs), the bottom margin is not the same on every page? Why? Well, this function prevents a paragraph’s breaking so only its first line gets left behind on the previous page (the widow) or its last line gets stranded all by itself on the next page (the orphan). In a manuscript, however, you should allow those widows and orphans to fend for themselves; a submission isn’t a PowerPoint presentation, after all.
There was another spacing problem, but someone would probably have to have read manuscripts professionally for a while to have caught it in hard copy: some periods have a single space after them; some have two. A submitter may pick either format, based upon the stated preferences of the agents to whom one is submitting — although purists would prefer two spaces, they are less likely to be vocal about their desires than the fans of the newfangled one-space-only convention — but once that choice is made, the manuscript must be absolutely consistent in implementing it.
Speaking of consistency, while the second song title is rendered correctly, in italics, the first is not: it’s in quotes. Actually, if all of the song titles were in quotes, that probably would not be a deal-breaker for Millicent; she would just make a note for later on, after her boss signs this writer, to remind him to change the song titles to italics.
While these consistency issues might seem like very small things, hardly worth bothering about, to a professional reader’s eye, a couple of oversights appearing on the opening page of a manuscript says something more than the writer’s simply changing his mind about presentation. It says that the writer is not proofreading his work very carefully, which means in turn that he might be a more time-consuming client than someone who does.
Hey, nobody ever said that getting a first page past Millicent was easy.
Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” magnifying glass-wielding Millicents-in-training everywhere point out, there’s a Canadian spelling in line 7. While we’re talking about consistency, shouldn’t we be discussing the imperative to change metres to meters — or even changing them to good old American yards?”
Well spotted, nitpickers of tomorrow, but actually, I would leave the spelling as is, provided that David is planning to submit this manuscript only north of the border. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. More to the point, when in Winnipeg, write as the Winnipegians write. It lends a certain air of verisimilitude to the page.
Does that mean that no NYC-based Millicent will sigh over the spelling? Oh, she probably will. It’s just a risk that every non-U.S.-based writer querying and submitting to U.S. agencies has to weigh for herself.
Technicalities aside, what do you think? YA or adult paranormal?
To my eye — and the judges’ — the language alone would lead us to steer this toward YA. Perversely, for the older teen market, limited profanity is fairly routine. Especially as it is used here, where it’s apparently for its own sake, rather than…how to put this delicately…describing an act. That’s far more often a function of teenage speech than of adult narrative.
Also, the tone here is most definitely teenagery — quite authentically so — as is the subject matter. Since it’s hard to picture an adult protagonist caring, at least deeply, about what the protagonist finds engrossing on this page 1, Millicent’s automatic assumption would tend to be that the presumed reader is a teen, too. Although naturally, there is adult fiction where the protagonist starts out as a teenager and moves into adulthood throughout the course of the book, generally speaking, the voice and perspective is geared toward an adult audience.
There’s are a couple of other reasons that this first page just cries out YA, though — and not just because, rather charmingly, the narrator simply assumes that any conceivable reader will be familiar enough with the album he cites that he describes neither the song nor the band; the reader is simply supposed to see the song’s name and instantly picture the album cover.
I see three marketing problems with that. First, ask your parents what albums were, children. Second, if David decides to market this as YA, younger readers won’t catch the reference — and neither will Millicent, who is usually under 26. (Heck, I’m roughly the right age to have known the songs, and I had to look them up.)
Third, if he pitches the book as adult fiction — as, from the category of his entry, I believe he intends — readers old enough to catch the reference may become impatient with the teenage narrator. I tremble to mention it, but they may have teenage children. In any case, 40-somethings do not typically make up the target market for paranormals.
Have you figured out yet what the other YA giveaways might be? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at how Millicent might respond to this page.
Did you catch them this time? First, the occasional slips into the second person, either addressing the reader directly or using it in the colloquial sense, as a substitute for one, as in everyone knows everyone else and riding your bike into the bush is the only was to get out. That’s far more typical of YA narration than narratives aimed at adults — in most adult fiction categories, that your would be considered breaking the fourth wall, as theatre types day: it shatters the illusion that the reader is not, well, reading about this, but actually there.
The other narrative structure here much more common in YA than adult fiction is the frequent use of the passive voice: It was June; there was tall grass. In adult fiction, the passive voice is actively eschewed; many a literary fiction-screening Millicent is trained to regard it as inherently weak writing, more conducive to telling, not showing. The norms of YA, however, permit the occasional lapse into the passive voice, to echo more accurately teenage speech.
There’s one other misstep here that dogs both YA and adult fiction submissions. Again, it’s a subtle point, so I’m going to focus a giant magnifying glass on it myself:
“What?” I said.
See the logic problem? Technically, of course, said could be applied to anything spoken out loud, but practically any editor would change the sentence above without a second thought to this:
“What?” I asked.
Kudos, though, David, on an extremely believable teenage narrative voice — there are few things that annoy YA-reading Millicents more than a young person’s voice that does not sound legitimately young. (You’d be amazed at how many YA narrators come across as 42 — and a preachy 42 at that.) Congratulations, too, on a great author photo for a paranormal; I wouldn’t want to meet those blazing eyes in a dark alley, even under a full moon.
Perhaps especially under a full moon.
Just in case I’ve been too subtle here, were the I — or the judges — to sneak up behind David as he was preparing his query list, I might well murmur in his ear, “Add a few YA agents — and pitch it to them as YA. Oh, and while you’re at it, consider at least a handful of agents who represent both YA and adult authors, to give yourself a shot at the broadest possible market.”
And while I was murmuring, I would tell him — and all of you — to keep up the good work!