Saturday, August 9, 2008

All it takes is 100 words

100 words.

If you only had 100 words of your latest work in progress could you capture the interest of an agent or editor and convince them to ask for more? This past spring Bookends Literary Agency ran a series of 100 word contests. They asked authors to submit one hundred words from completed manuscripts and WIPs for them to read. The winner in each genre they solicited got a critique from one of the agents. It was too good an opportunity to pass up and I entered in the historical category. I didn't win, but the effort of excising the first 100 words from my manuscript was eye opening.

This was my entry from my completed novel, Seeking Truth:

His stallion’s hooves pounded like the beating of his heart as Lord Eaduin Kempe shook damp black hair from his eyes. Though a gentle spring rain fell, it felt like a driving storm; like the driving storm in his soul. The presence of his beloved foster mother blunted the emptiness of his keep, but if he lost Judith. . . Nay. He wouldn’t think on it. All had seemed normal with her, so well did she hide her pain. Was he blind? How could he have missed something of such import? Eaduin rode on grimly, determined to find aid. Today.

Is it perfect? Nope. And it didn't win...there were entries in the contest that blew me away. Still, it took a lot of editing to get it this tight and I worked hard to inject excitement. The first version was a bit more static. The paragraph conveys action and voice. I also think it makes a reader want to know what happens next. Does he find help? Where does he find help? How? Those are the things you want those 100 words to do for you.

The opener is your work horse. This example provides clues about where and when you are right away. From the language alone the reader knows this will be an historical. It's set in England because of my hero's name. And if you note that he lives in a keep and his name (Edwin) is spelled Eaduin - you get that this is a medieval.

An opening has a big job, but if you write it right, you can do a lot with it. And even better, it can do a lot for you. It can keep an agent or editor reading beyond that first paragraph of your work. We've all heard the advice that if you don't get 'em in the first sentence you can forget about a request for a full let alone a sale. I think they give it a little more than a sentence, but if you don't catch them quick, you don't catch them at all.

Here's another one. This is from Protect and Defend:

If just one more Mad Max driver cut her off in traffic, he was dead. After that, getting to her appointment at the Crime Lab on time would cease to be an issue because Lieutenant Diarmid Redwolf would come to her. Mad Max’s homicide would be very bloody, but highly satisfying. Mikaela Laughlin heaved a sigh of relief when she turned onto the street the Crime Lab called home. Yes! She pulled into a parking spot smack in front of the door to the lab in the visitor parking lot. What a stroke of luck!

You'll notice it has a completely different voice. And the clues I offer my readers are completely different. Contemporary language and culture references tell you that you're in the here and now. You know the heroine is on her way to meet a Lieutenant in a crime lab. And if you look at his name, Redwolf, you might guess this guy is gonna be a shapeshifter. If you guessed that you'd be right.

I know this one works. Why? I submitted it to Ellora's Cave and they requested a full. Not only did they ask for a full, but a couple of months later they made me a contract offer. This week I signed the contract and mailed it back to them. Yep. You're reading it here first. I am so excited I could scream but I'll just do my happy dance in the privacy of my office instead. I'm waiting to get a copy of the countersigned contract back, but I think I can make my announcement at this point. I don't have a release date or anything else, but it's a great start.

Now, you'll notice the above paragraph was not in any way shape or form, perfect. But it caught an editor's eye enough that she kept reading and liked the rest of my manuscript. I am not claiming to be an authority on the subject, cause it's my first novel-length sale. Still, I like to think it was that paragraph up there that got my foot in the door.

So are there any brave readers among you willing to share your first 100 words? If you'd rather not put your paragraphs out there, share a comment instead. All lines are open. ;-)


  1. This is a good point about the first 100 words. It's definitely a good way to tighten the focus for the opening.

    I find that if an author hooks me in those first 100 words it's easier for me to stay with the story.

  2. Woo hoo, Francesca! You go girl. When you come down off that cloud, you'll have to tell us more about THE CALL.

  3. Thanks for the congrats, Lori. It was super.

    Zoe, working on the first 100 really made me rethink my openings and tighten things.