Monday, January 28, 2013

Agency Lessons: Yes, the first page really is that important

When I first started my internship, I didn't spend a ton of time in the query box. I was busy working on other things, and to be honest, the query box intimidated me. Imagine an inbox where every email contains someone's hopes and dreams. Yeah, like that. So when I did review these emails, I spent a crazy amount of time reading each and every word, hemming and hawing over the merits of each submission.

Then I spent more time in the slush and got more comfortable with what I was looking at. I realized if the sample wasn't good, I didn't need to read the synopsis. I discovered that a convoluted query usually led to convoluted sample pages. You get the idea. The most important discovery I made was that you really can make a decision about a manuscript based on the first page or two.

Before my internship, I thought this was bogus and nothing more than agents looking for a shortcut. Now I realize I was wrong and right. Agents are looking for ways they can move through their submissions faster. When you get hundreds of queries a day, you have to be able to filter through them quickly or you'll never get to the really good ones. But agents aren't the only ones doing this.

I started really paying attention to the way I choose books to read. With everything else going on, my pleasure reading time has been drastically reduced. Because of this, I'm not going to waste my time reading something I don't enjoy. So how do I decide which books to read? By the first page.

When I'm standing in the library stacks or browsing the book store aisles, I'll crack open the front cover and peruse the first page. If I want to turn the page, then it's up for consideration. If I can close the book and not care at all about what happens on the other 300 pages that follow, it's going right back on the shelf.

So what does that mean for us writers? It means, the experts and advice givers are all right when it comes to how important it is to get that first page right. This means it needs to be right for the agent and for your future readers. True, every page needs to be good, but if the first one doesn't shine the rest of them might as well be blank.

12 comments:

  1. I choose books the same way. I give them one page to make me decide to read them.

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  2. I'm having pretty good odds with my request rate for my current ms, but I still think my first page could be stronger. The problem is I don't know how! But hopefully, some people like it or they wouldn't have requested...

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    1. Congrats on the requests. The best tip I ever heard for first pages is to make sure your main character has a "want" on the first page, even if all they want is a sandwich. A want automatically creates tension as the reader wonders if they will get their want.

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    2. My MC wants to meet the hot crazy (she dodges in front of traffic to save a turtle) new girl on the first page, but one critique said they want his "story goal" in the first two pages. That doesn't come in until a little bit later.

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    3. Wow, story goal that early! That seems a bit rushed to me. You can't really show the story goal until you have the inciting incident. I can't imagine trying to get all of that in the first two pages.

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  3. Great post, Sarah. I used to be the same way - hook me with the first page or not at all. EReaders have changed my technique a little. I'll download sample pages and if I breeze right through them, I buy the book. Sometimes, it takes a few swipes of the screen to reach a final decision. I think, as an author in the trenches of publication, I'm a little more lenient with books. I'll read up to the first five pages, and if I don't care after that point, it's a no go.

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    1. Good point. Ereaders are definitely changing our habits. Still 5 pages is a pretty small percentage of the whole book and the same principle applies. Those first few pages have to grab us. :)

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  4. After a while, I decided it wasn't so much about making sure the first page had some kind of explosive hook that would force me into launching my story prematurely--meaning before the reader had a chance to develop an attachment to my character. Instead, I focus on the writing and on creating that sense of big things to come. Not always easy. One thing that has helped me is deciding where my story really begins--not where it jumps off, but where it begins. Many have said that most writers can just throw their first chapter in the recycle bin. This may well be the case. You don't want to be guilty of staring at the girl across the room for so long that she goes home before you get up the nerve to talk to her.

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    1. Well said. Half the battle of writing an engaging opening is knowing when to start the story.

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  5. I think if I'm not interested in the first 5-10 pages, it's rare that I'll continue. It makes it really tough for writers but I think the end result is so worth it.

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  6. Great to have the insight into the industry. It doesn't take me long to put a book back if it doesn't grab me, there's plenty others to read.

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