I had a great time in NYC last week. Saw the fabulous WICKED (just in time, too, as the stagehands’ strike has shut down a chunk of Broadway), got to wear my hip city clothes and had the pleasure of participating in Backspace’s Agent Seminar. During the seminar, we were given the opportunity to peer inside agently minds, to hear what made agents take note, what made them groan, and what made them laugh (see mass query on Gawker).
We also were able to read our first two pages aloud for a group of fellow writers plus two agents. Because I did this on two consecutive days, I read for four agents. The experience was truly enlightening, since the agents were asked to stop a reader once they reached the point where they’d put the work down if sent to them as a submission.
Although I already understood cerebrally the importance of hook, these sessions drove home this point: To be taken seriously in the slush–and I’m including partial submission requests here–you must not only possess a first graph that’s going to get an agent’s undivided attention, but you’ve got to entice them on and convince them that your work is about as close to perfection as humanly possible. Ugh. But it’s true. Said agent Jessica Faust, “It has to be perfect to sell it.”
Agents face a mountain of slush and partial subs on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and they just don’t have time to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’d say the assumption when they peruse page one is that the work isn’t going to be good. Uphill battle? You bet. So don’t hobble yourself. Your story picks up steam in chapter two? Tough, no one’s going to read that far to see it. Your story gets brilliant on page three? Sorry, never made it past the first paragraph.
This hard truth upset a lot of people, but sitting through a live version of slush-pile processing, I’d have to say it’s undeniable. Perfection is an unpublished author’s one true hope of standing out. But is the flavor of perfection in those first few agent pages different than what we think of as perfection for the work as a whole?
Some of you may not agree with this, but I heard more than one person come to this conclusion: The first pages you send to an agent may be more likely to land you a request for a full if those pages are specifically constructed for agent maceration. Crazy? Maybe. But if a few tweaks get an agent to read on to page 3, 5, 10, 25, 100, does it really matter?
Like I said, I read both days. The first day, I read my current first two pages without alterations, which included a three-graph prologue. I wasn’t stopped as I read through my work, but I wasn’t commended for my approach either. “It’s not pulling me in,” I heard. “Nix the prologue.”
On day two, I revised. I removed the prologue entirely and tweaked the opening of chapter one a little, too. I removed reference to a secondary character to streamline the prose, for example, and got rid of other things I thought could act as “road bumps” in the work. I not only got through my reading but was praised for some craft elements including flow. Lesson? You know I’m not going to send my prologue in any partial request. Maybe for a full, but not for a partial. And, who knows, maybe I don’t need the prologue at all and will ditch it in the end.
Based on my experience as part of a group of writers at the seminar, here are some tips that may get an agent to read beyond your first two pages. Caveat: There are going to be exceptions to every rule, but these points stood out for me and others.
* Make it unique. Don’t let you prose be the equivalent of a sunset photo. They’re beautiful, but we’ve all seen them, we’ve all taken them. What you want is the literary equivalent of a “wildergibra,” as shown in today’s pic. AKA: One of a kind. Sure Alice Seibold was raked over the coals for her latest book, but her first line caught everyone’s attention (“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”). Seminar participant and agent Rachel Vater has a client, Jeaniene Frost, who just made the NYT’s bestseller list with her debut novel, Halfway to the Grave. First line? “I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck.” What about your work will make an agent put down his or her coffee mug and read on with interest?
* Polish your voice. Your unique writerly voice and the personalities of your characters should come through, even in those first two pages. Voice alone sometimes got readers in our groups through their reading, whereas a vanilla or clunky voice was sure to make an agent say “stop.”
* Make us care. Characters who are bored are going to bore agents and readers, too. Characters who are a little weird can make compelling characters, but remember that agents almost have to assume that your manuscript and story are not what they’re looking for. If your protagonist comes across as unfriendly, ubertormented or just plain psychotic, the agent may not want to spend more than a few graphs with them before moving on to clear more slush from their desk.
* Don’t jar the reader. Things that made agents stop reading immediately–as in, after a paragraph–included overlong or complex sentence structures, strange word choices, inappropriate language for the age of the character and plotlines that jumped around in time right from the beginning. Keywords here are smooth and professional.
* Nix the backstory. We all know this rule, but many still try to become an exception. Let’s try an analogy. Your story is dinner. Your would-be agent is a stomach. What’s more easily digested? A nice carrot-ginger soup, made with a few simple ingredients, or a bowl of chili made with tomatoes, onion, oregano, paprika, garlic (5 cloves!), ground beef, bacon drippings, scallions, Serrano chilies, chorizo sausage, chopped bell peppers, red hot chilies and cumin? (Phew!) The NOW of the story, by the way, is the beef. The rest is backstory, and in the first two pages it just provides indigestion. Don’t serve it up.
* Reconsider the prologue. Agents tend not to like prologues because they’re often unrelated to what comes next, which can slow the pace and create frustration. Prologues can also be backstory heavy and not very compelling on their own–a good excuse for an agent to set your work aside and reach for a form-rejection letter. Even if you want to argue later to keep your prologue in the story, strongly consider nixing it for purposes of trying to hook an agent.
* Careful with your beautiful prose. I personally enjoyed many of the pages I heard, though the agents stopped some readers if their openings were thick with poetic wordsmithing (and by thick, I mean merely a paragraph). Truth is, poetic prose slows the pace because it asks that the reader stop and appreciate, and when you’re trying to hook a busy agent you shouldn’t expect them to give you that time. Not at first, anyway. Not when you’re in the slush.
* Minimize description. In the first two pages, even your best detailed descriptions may seem like unnecessary clutter. Like beautiful prose, description can slow pace. Make sure your descriptive passages are compelling or get them out of there.
* Do your homework. Make sure you’re sending your work to someone who’s looking for the type of book you’ve written, otherwise it’s a waste of the agent’s time and your valuable resources. Though we didn’t get into this during the two-pages sessions, it was made clear throughout the seminar that following agent guidelines is critical. Take the time to read them. Some agents want queries, others prefer a query plus the first ten pages, etc… Personalized letters to agents stand out in the slush, too. These letters indicate that the writer has done some homework, knows what an agent is currently looking for and even compares their work to the work of current clients, if applicable.
HOMEWORK FOR NOW: Take a look at your first two pages. Do you think they’re enough to entice an agent to read on? What might trip up a weary and skeptical agent? Do you think altering first pages to possibly improve your chances with an agent is a nutty idea? Or do you think it’s all about finding the right fit for your existing work, period? Chime in.
People interested in the process of fine tuning first pages should definitely check out WU contributor Ray Rhamey’s Flogging the Quill. Ray, an editor, analyzes first lines on a regular basis and provides invaluable and insightful critique.
Stay tuned for more Backspace seminar talk. Write on, all!
Wildergibra photo courtesy Flickr’s Josi Silva