Querying is scary business. You’ve worked and cried and bled over your manuscript, sometimes for so many months or years that you pretend you’re not counting. Now, you’re ready to send it out. Your query is bright and shiny as a new penny, but how about those first pages?
Here are some tips to help you make you sure your sample pages are top notch:
1. Quickly & Viciously Annihilate Your Adverbs
Alright, I should probably tell you that I’m not one of those authors who absolutely hates all adverbs. In fact, I think some are quite lovely in certain places. However, too many of them can be a sign that your word choice isn’t as strong as it could be. Instead of saying your character “ran quickly,” try substituting it with something like sprinted, dashed, careened. The stronger your verbs the better.
2. Stilted Dialogue
The biggest piece of advice I can give you on this is: contractions are your friend! Think about it. Listen in on a conversation without really paying attention to the topic, but more about the way people are saying things. I guarantee you, you’re unlikely to hear someone say, “I cannot believe that you would not go to the store with me. You are such a jerk.” What you’re more likely to hear is something like, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t go to the store with me. You’re such a jerk.” Worried that your dialogue is coming across as unrealistic? Try reading it out loud. Or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Not only will they stumble over those stiff phrases, but you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s not working with ease.
3. Identify Your Quirks & Weed Them Out
We all have them. In my first drafts you’ll probably find seven-thousand uses of the word “that.” Your character might smirk a lot, maybe they smile or sigh too much, or their heart is racing so frequently they’re likely to keel over in some form of heart failure. Most of the time, your CPs and Beta Readers will point this out to you. Even so, make sure you’re internalizing your habits and paying attention to them when you’re revising.
4. Repeating Things Can Be Redundant
You see what I did there, right? Much like the ticks that show up in your writing, a lot of the time, usually subconsciously, you’ll describe things using the same words. The more unique the word, the easier it will be for the reader to identify it. This goes for verbs, body parts, everything. If you talk about your character’s hand in one sentence, maybe in the next one talk about their fingers, fingertips, or wrist. As best you can, vary your word choice. Curious about what words you may be overusing? Try something like Wordle which will generate a word cloud for you and show you what words are popping up frequently in your manuscript.
5. Make Your Character Names Stand Out
And by that I’m not suggesting that you name one of your characters Sequoia and the other one Rain. What I mean is that if you name your characters (or places) similarly, we’re gonna have a hell of a time remembering who is who. If your cast of characters includes Roberta, Rufus, Rusty, Rachel, and Raul, nine times out of ten I won’t recall which one is the five-year-old kid and which is the sexy mechanic. Even if there are only two similar names (Cara and Carol), because they’re so visually similar, I may accidentally sub one for the other. Save yourself and your reader the confusion by varying your name/place choices.
6. Filter Out Your Filter Words
Filter words are literally that–a filter that distances the reader from the character. Some examples: she saw, she heard, he realized, he thought, etc. Instead of saying, “She saw a bird take flight from a snow-laden branch and felt the snowflakes fall across her face,” wipe out that filter and say, “A bird took flight from a snow-laden branch, showering her upturned cheeks in snowflakes.” Much better, right? Try using the Find feature in Microsoft Word to single out those filter phrases.
7. Dialogue Tags Can Weigh Down Your Writing
Sometimes your dialogue just needs to breathe. Not every snippet of conversation requires a tag, and if you’re adding an action after whatever the character says, then including “said” isn’t necessary. Take this example:
“I guess I get what you’re saying,” he said and shrugged.
“I guess I get what you’re saying.” He shrugged.
Another thing to take note of–are all of your characters’ actions after the dialogue? Are they always before? Try spreading the actions around to make your dialogue read better and vary the structure.
8. Show Us Emotion, Don’t Tell Us
Quick, go search your WIP for sad, nervous, excited, mad, etc. Now, not all of these need to go, but most of them should. I don’t want to read that your character is angry, I want to feel it. Don’t tell me, “Mary is very sad.” Let me see it by allowing the character to convey it through their actions. If your character is sad, tell me something like, “Mary’s shoulders drooped, and her worn out sneakers scuffed against the floor.” If you’re struggling with how to express internal emotion through physical actions, one of the best resources you can possibly found out there is The Emotion Thesaurus. Trust me, it’s a gold mine.
9. Spice Up Your Paragraph/Sentence Length
Similar sentence structure is bad. So is repetitive paragraph lengths. This sounds like robot talk. Do not do this.
Seriously though, the key to making your paragraphs read and flow better is making sure they’re not all the same length. Same goes for your paragraphs. Another thing to look for is how you’re starting your new paragraphs. Does every one start with “I”? Maybe they all begin with a verb? The more variety you can introduce in your writing, the better.
10. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Okay, I’m reusing this one from my query-writing tips (in case you missed that one, you can find it here), but it’s incredibly important throughout the entire editing process. No, one misplaced comma or misspelled word won’t be the death of your query or pages. But a whole ton of them? Yeah, that probably will. The most difficult part of proofing your own work is that you’ve read it so many times your brain autocorrects words for you. The best way I’ve found to get past this is to look at it in a different format–send the file to your eReader, change the background to black and the font to white, read from the bottom up, read it out loud, and of course, utilize those CPs.
There you have it. Ten simple tips to help you make your sample pages shine. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!