Agency Lessons

Sample Page Tips
Last week I shared my best query tips. This week, it's all about sample pages.
If the agent you are querying allows you to include samples with your query, you are a lucky writer. How many times have you heard "The query was okay, but the pages really wowed me"? I hear it all the time. Of course, the opposite can happen and that is a death sentence when querying. So here are my tips based on queries I've seen come through the slush pile.

1. Introduce your main character
If your query focuses on a 12-year-old boy, you aren't doing yourself any favors but focusing those first few pages on his mom. Your reader (aka agents) needs to connect to your mc before they are going to dedicate 300 pages worth of time to him. Your main character needs to show up on your first page.

2. Give your character a want
Your prose may be eloquent. Your dialogue might be superior. Your world building can be awe inspiring. But if your character doesn't have a want on the first page most readers are already tuning out. You don't have to introduce the "big need" that will carry the majority of your story on the first page. Giving your character a want, even a small one, gives your reader a reason to turn the page. They will want to know if your character got what they wanted. There's a lot of want in there, but trust me that you WANT it all.

3. The three "Is" of dialogue
I'm not saying you can't have dialogue in your first pages. What I am saying is your characters shouldn't have a casual conversation about what to have for dinner in the first few pages. If you are going to include dialogue early in your story, it needs to be Intriguing, Informative and Intermittent. It's difficult for the reader to connect to your characters when they have nothing but ungrounded dialogue to work with. I suggest including small amounts of dialogue that provide essential information to the story and introduce the uniqueness of your story.

4. Sparse Setting
Everyone's story takes place somewhere and setting the stage is an important part of every story. That said, be careful not to waste your precious first pages with a lot of scenery. Little details woven into your story will enhance your pages. A full paragraph of nothing but world building will not. A general rule of thumb it to provide information when it is relevant. If your character is waiting for the doctor in an exam room, tell us about the crinkle of paper on the table, the canned elevator music or the pamphlets for ED on the wall. Don't tell us what the waiting room looks like.

 5. Avoid cliches
I'm not just talking about cliched sayings, though you should still avoid them like Uncle Harry after four glasses of eggnog. I'm talking about story cliches. These are things like starting the story with your character dreaming, waking up, driving a car, looking into a mirror, etc. My advice is to start your story with your main character doing the most unusual thing that makes sense. Brainstorm how you can change things up. Your teen mc getting a lecture from her mom isn't really a cliche but isn't fresh either. Your teen mc giving her mom a lecture, that's new. And much more likely to catch the attention of your reader.

Please keep in mind that these are tips and not hard and fast rules. Hunger Games opens with Katniss waking up. And I'm sure we could come up with a full list of novels that bunk each of these tips. At the end of the day, it still has to be your novel. Hopefully, these tips help you to make it your novel at its best.