Part One, Writer to Agent Q&A with Talcott Notch: The Manuscript

This second edition of the Q&A is with the lovely, informative agents from Talcott Notch Agency. The questions were asked during one of Writer’s Digest’s Boot Camp’s, back in mid-May 2014. The Boot Camps that Writer’s Digest offers are invaluable and I highly recommend them. Here are some of the Q&As that were asked by writers and answered by agents.
This is Part One of the second edition Q&A. View Part Two (The Query) here and Part Three (The Industry) here.
Like this? Check out the first edition of Q&A and other Writing Tips here


Q: It’s important to start off immediately with the main character in order to grab and hold the audience. Could you offer some suggestions on when or how this Da Vinci Code kind of approach works?

Jessica Negron (JN): Prologues are really hard to pull off. Often, they’re sort of a bait and switch, drawing the reader in with some extraordinary event and then starting the real story a chapter later. It’s basically tricking the reader and, while that was once a novelty, it’s an outdated tactic and there are much more artful and skillful ways to hook your reader. Yes, modern books still do it, The Da Vinci Code included, but–to be blunt–he’s Dan Brown. An author with that kind of established following can pretty much do whatever he wants because, at that point, people are buying the name, not the book. See also Stephen King, JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, etc…


The Openings You Should NEVER Use Anymore:

Q: How do you feel about opening a book with a dream? I know it’s not something you’re supposed to do (and I’ve known this since before Boot Camp) and I am willing to change it, but it’s so important to my theme, my story, my plot, everything.

Gina Panettieri (GP): Why don’t you open with your character talking about the dream, or recording it in a journal or diary or something? Trying to analyze it or work with it?

Paula Munier (PM): Don’t start with a dream because it is so hard to pull off in an original way. Here are some other beginnings that you shouldn’t do: Never start with weather, avoid prologues, don’t start with your character thinking alone (not doing anything compelling), and don’t start with a phone call/email/text/tweet/IM/voicemail/skype because they’re just not original.

Bonus content:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, which includes never starting with weather and avoiding prologues, were recommended by Talcott Notch and can be viewed here


World Building/Character in Chapter 1:

Q: What’s the acceptable amount of world building and character development in the opening chapter, before jumping into an action scene or event?

GP: That will certainly depend on the story and how different the world is from the one we live in now. I think readers’ patience has diminished in recent years and they’re looking for world-building to occur simultaneously with character development and plot development. Wool by Hugh Howey is a good example. Divergent by Veronica Roth is as well. Hook us with your character, with an emotional component, and a great plot hook (high stakes, big change) then build your world gradually on a need-to-know basis.


Too Many Characters in First Few Pages:

Q: How many characters are too many in the first 30 pages?

PM: There’s no magic number. You need to introduce your characters slowly enough and distinctly enough for the reader to keep track of them. You also don’t want to crowd your hero with so many people that readers don’t have a chance to bond with him at the beginning….


Starting Chapter of Sequel:

Q: Do I just jump right in to the sequel novel or should there be more description?

JN: The norm is that even if the book is a sequel, it should be written in such a way that someone brand new to the series would be able to pick it up and get filled in by the first chapter or so without problem. There should really be more there, briefly explaining what and who your characters are. Not in such a way that you’re just dumping a whole explanation of back story, mind you. You still have to artfully weave it in. But unfortunately you can’t just jump right in, expecting the reader to already know about book one.


Chapter Breaks vs. Sections:

Q: Would a reader be more receptive to a style where there’s no chapters – only book sections that have titles and within those breaks are numbered scenes? Opposed to a 60 page chapter…the sections would have 2 or 3 pages.


JN: Splitting your book up in creative ways can work, if it serves a purpose and if you pull it off brilliantly. You have to be aware, though, that as a new writer industry professionals will be wary of you experimenting because they won’t be confident you can pull it off. If I saw in a query that the writer mentioned she’d tried an experimental chaptering system, I would be cautious while reading to see if it works. And at that point, an agent an editor will be nitpicking anything that doesn’t land juuuuust right.

They’re going to put wayyyy more scrutiny on you than someone like Stephen King, who is…well…Stephen King. I mentioned this in another thread but he can do pretty much whatever he wants because he’s got millions of people who would buy just about anything he decided to write.


Dialect with Dropped Syllables:

Q: Do you have a preference in the visual of dialect? For example, using the ‘ to establish dropped syllables.

JN: I prefer the ‘  to indicate dropped syllables, but that’s personal preference. Also, it’s important to note that it’s not always needed. If you’ve done your job in establishing the voice of your character, and the reader has gotten used to the fact that your character sometimes drops syllables, then you can just write out those visually difficult lines “That’s not what I’m saying.” Because the voice has been firmly established in your readers mind (again, if you did your job as a writer correctly) then the reader will actually just infer that’s how the character says it, without you even having to point it out. There’s a point where readers get so immersed in the books that your little cues are actually lost on them, because they’re just going with the voice they set up for that character in their own head.

Try it out next time you read something with dialect. Notice how you develop the character’s voice in your own head, and then start ignoring what’s written on the page. It’s a bit surreal when you realize you’re doing it.


Omniscient POV:

Q: Omniscient POV: Is there certain key words that will help me identify when I’m using Omniscient POV? Can you explain a little more on the difference between Omniscient POV and third-person limited POV?

PM: Omniscient POV is God’s POV, that is, you as God the author who knows everything that’s going on in all the characters’ head. This is how people used to write novels, and is out of fashion now.

Third-person limited is third person limited to the head you are in, that is, one character’s head at a time.


Number of POVS:

Q: How many POVs is too many?

PM: No more that 6 total is the general rule


Repetitive Words:

Q: Do you have any suggestions of sites/resources that can help me find repetitive words and phrases?

Fellow Writer: AutoCrit and MS’ “Find and Replace” tool

JN: SmartEdit is a free program that does exactly that, and a lot more. I recommend it as a final pass over an already polished manuscript.

The best way to get a pair of fresh eyes on your project is to find more critique partners/beta readers. Some great sites for finding critique partners include Absolute Write,, and


The Cover Art:

Q: For future reference, I understand that the publisher likes to keep authors separated from the cover art/design team. If I have a designer that I like the stylings of and would like to throw her hat in the ring to be considered as the cover artist, would I show her previous samples to the editor? Or would she create a mock up of the cover? How far along in the mock-up should she get (i.e. outlines, color palettes, etc.)?

GP: That would be very much up to the publisher, but highly unlikely. Larger publishers tend to work with certain artists, or their own art departments, and beyond asking the author to fill out an art fact sheet describing characters and facts from the book, don’t give the author a great deal of say over the cover in most cases. We have had cases where out of the blue, a publisher used the author’s sketch of her own cover, but that was a true oddity. The publisher has their own ideas of what they want to see on the cover, often based on what feedback they get from sales and marketing.


Mainstream vs Crossover:

Q: How do you determine if a book is considered a Mainstream Fiction? Or cross-over fiction? How can you be certain?

GP: It’s really based on the themes, voice and plot. If the story is primarily directed at Young Adult with potential for adult readership because the themes and plot are so universal it will have adult appeal, it can definitely be a cross-over novel.

Mainstream novels will not be largely directed at a juvenile market nor will they have a primary romantic plot.


What Fantasy Conjures:

Q: Have you ever said something along the same lines as this: “I’ve been calling it a Fantasy. By definition, it’s a high concept fantasy. Perhaps an adventure fantasy. But every time I write that it’s a fantasy it feels wrong. It’s not “Swords and Dragons”?

GP: Well, keep in mind that “when you say ‘fantasy’ it conjures up dragons or hobbits. You need to be tactical about your approach to get the more receptive welcome [from agents and publishers].”

Fellow Writer: If it doesn’t sound like a true, blue-blooded fantasy (which can be a hard sell), you may want to look into alternative genres that it will fit into.


Common YA Mistakes:

Q: What are some of the common mistakes made by authors writing in the ya category?


A: Rachael Dugas (RD):

o 1. Not writing about teens and calling it YA! (Either too old or too young)

o 2. Really writing MG and calling it YA.

o 3. Inauthenticity, especially in dialogue. Teens will smell that a mile away.

o 4. Writing it because it’s “trendy” and not because it’s the story you want to write.

o 5. Trying to write YA when you don’t READ YA.

o 6. Writing characters you call 16 but that feel about 12.

o 7. Writing an adult novel that happens to feature a teen and calling it YA.

o 8. Dated language–techically, the 90’s is the past and stories set then are period fiction.

o 9. Ignoring omnipresent technology, like texting.

o 10. Dumbing your writing down–YA is more of an age range designation than a genre. It doesn’t mean YA readers are stupid/underdeveloped.


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