Agent Feedback On My First Page -- More On Internal Observation and Point of View

Note:  Hello First Page Blogfest folks.  This link is out of date.  The newest version of my first page is here.

This is a teaser for my upcoming guest post on Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog. I recently attended the Writer Idol event at Boston Bookfest. In my guest post, I will summarize general tips that I learned from the event. In the meantime, since my manuscript was among those randomly chosen for critique, I thought I'd share the excerpt and the feedback I received.

This is how the event worked. An actress picked manuscripts at random and read the first 250 words out loud for the panel and the audience. If at any point a panelist felt he would stop reading, he raised his hand. The actress read until two or more panelists raised their hands, at which point the panel discussed the reasons they stopped, or in cases where the actress read to the end, they discussed what worked. Helene Atwan (Director of Beacon Press) and agents Esmond Harmsworth, Eve Bridburg, and Janet Silver (all from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth) served on the panel.

Lets jump straight to my excerpt. Savvy readers will notice that it's actually 253 words (I'm sneaky like that).

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn't occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, the thief launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and placed a hand on the wall to steady herself. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger's motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt the job.

Well, first of all, none of the panelists raised their hands. That was a big relief because the vast majority of the excerpts had didn't make it to the end before two hands went up.

Now on to the feedback, which I'll do my best to reproduce here.

Eve Bridburg: Eve said she would keep reading.
Esmond Harmsworth: He would keep reading, but was wary of the "Allowed herself the luxury of pondering..." portion. Many of the excerpts they saw today were trapped in a character's head, which can be claustrophobic and distancing to the reader.
Helen Atwan: The jump was the most interesting part of the excerpt, although she agreed with Esmond on the "trapped in a character's head" point.
Janet Silver: Thought the excerpt was very cinematic, and had already cast Angelina Jolie as the main character. [I beg to differ on this one. Angelina Jolie is too buxom and flashy. I'd go with Natalie Portman.]
Eve Bridburg: She spoke again to play devil's advocate, saying she didn't mind the portion with the character's thoughts because it sets up the mystery for the reader. While she agreed with Esmond's general principle, she thought it was okay in this excerpt.

I later emailed Esmond to make sure I understood what he meant. He was kind enough to clarify that he has nothing against deep POV (where the reader sees everything from one character's point of view), but rather was warning against overly lengthy or obvious rumination inside a character's head, which can distance the reader rather than draw him closer.

Incidentally, Kim Davis of Kim's Craft Blog recently wrote about this in an excellent post on first person vs. third person.

Well, for one thing, the first person tends to solve a big problem that newer writers often have writing in the third person--namely, distance. Newer writers frequently have trouble backing off from their characters and seeing them from the outside, and so they tend to write exclusively "inside the head" of their main character. This is especially a problem, as I have noted, with autobiographical fiction where the writer identifies strongly with the main character. The effect, in third person, is that of looking from the outside, but looking only with laser-like focus at the inside of a single character. This creates a very claustrophobic feeling for the reader in the third person. If the writer switches to the first person, we are still inside the main character's head, but at least we are looking outward, at the fictional world, and the distance/claustrophobia problem is solved. This, by the way, is why you will note that many debut novels are written in the first person.

The entire post is quite good. I highly recommend reading the rest of it.

It's a delicate balance -- staying in a character's head but not getting trapped in there. How do you maintain that balance in your writing?

P.S. For the curious -- I decided to keep the passage as is for now, mainly because the camera zooms back out in the next paragraph. Actually, because I tend to write from movielike scenes in my head, my problem is more often that I forget to say what the character is thinking at all. But the suggestion is well taken, and I'll definitely be aware of that risk as I revise further.


  1. That was a great snippet of your story. I was very into it. Though I'm not an agent or publisher, I would keep reading as well. I want to know what happens. I want to know why she is a thief. I want to know a lot.

  2. There are different types of 3rd person perspectives, I think. They range from close POV with one main character and no explanation about the thoughts of others, to not-so-close with the ability to see several people's thoughts to very distant with no thoughts seen and only actions/words. It takes work but I think any of these could work.

    BTW your revisions are awesome. :)

  3. Well, congrats on the excellent feedback, first of all. It's great that the entire panel got through your excerpt without cringing (which would lead to raised hands, humiliation, angst, and all that stuff).

    Since I tend to write at a certain remove from my characters--like you, forgetting to say what they're thinking more often than not--I'm not sure what'll happen when I attempt a novel. It'll be interesting to find out, though...

  4. Hehe, yes, definitely going for the *no cringe* factor here. Thanks everyone! Amitha -- yeah, everybody's comments were really helpful. I think the 3rd paragraph reads more smoothly now.

  5. Fantastic work! Now you just need one of these agents to sign you!

    3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient are hard for me. I've worked with the former in short stories - nothing over 6000 words. The latter I always ends up morphing into 1st person. I think it's because I have trouble choosing which details to include; 1st person gives me a certain boundary, and I like that. It also forces me to get know my characters in a way 3rd person doesn't.

    Staying in a character's head - for me, the trick is to write like I speak. If I can't envision saying the words in a serious voice, or if they sound pretentious, then I know I've got a problem.

  6. I always wrote in 3rd person (my short fiction) but I tend to like my novels in 1st person - I've written 3 novels and all three are in first person - I just like that POV in a novel that I write - I like the intimacy, the immediacy - maybe one day I'll write one in 3rd. But, I rarely write a short story in first person.

    Anyway -I agree with the agent about being careful when a writer has too much internal monologue or thought or "action" and to make the scene more action oriented, however, I would want to know more! And, that's what re-writes and edits are all about, fleshing out the scenes/characters.

  7. This was just enough within the character's head to draw me in without taking the focus off the action. I'm a character driven reader - as well as writer - and I always need something from a character themselves to make me care about them in any situation.

    I read this from a readers Perspective; I liked it very well. Its both personal and active.

    Wishing you much luck.


  8. It is an interesting start - she is a strong female lead and I'd be happy to find out more.

  9. Good luck on the whole thing. Great start! My story's still swimming around in my head, and I haven't quite got up the nerve to get it down on paper yet.

    I completely agree about 1st person being somewhat claustrophobic. I'm an avid reader, as well, and in some cases I've found it to be limiting to a character's tale if only from the perspective of just the one character. No matter the genre, the reality is that people exist in more than just their own minds, and interactions with the world make us a part of something bigger than us a purpose, so to speak. Good luck to everyone!

  10. My first formal critique gave me a lot of the same feedback: the MS opens with us hanging around in the protagonist's head as she does stuff.

    I've addressed this by moving the opening as far forward in time as possible--the novel now opens with something important enough that it steals some of the focus from the main character. I also went over the sentences and trimmed savagely, so the passages in the protagonist's head were shorter and less stuffy.

    Awesome that your excerpt went over so well!