letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 57
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: N/A

No, that’s not an error. I really did only manage to read that many queries this week. Not counting the week I was away for the London Book Fair (during which I read no queries at all), this week is now this year’s lowest for the number of queries read and responded to. And the incoming pace didn’t slow in the slightest (it might even have gone up again over the last couple weeks, I think). I had been gaining on response times but this week wiped that out.

This incredibly busy week also means I haven’t had much time to think about an idea for a query wars entry. But, after last week’s post about the first five pages and Agent Kristin’s post last night about “the number one thing” opening pages lacked at the workshop she did at the Backspace conference (preceding BEA), I wanted to say this:

What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages?

To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.).

They don’t need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional.

These pages don’t need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful — watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: “Start the story as late as you can.”

Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That’s not why I’m reading them. I’m looking for a sense of things. The writer’s style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more.

All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn’t any more.

Pick up the nearest novel you have at hand and read the first page. What makes you want to keep reading? Or what makes you want to skip it for something else?

20 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. For me, almost always, trust and faith are sufficient to get me going past the first page. If I pick up the book at all, I assume that the editors who have chosen to publish the book have decided there is something good in there somewhere, and I’m willing to tough it out past the first page, first chapter, or even half of the book waiting for it.
    This works for me. I generally don’t regret it.
    Maybe the exception is if the material has something off-putting in it. Uncomfortable themes, depressing material, etc. Then maybe I need something more to keep me going.

    • Largely I agree. However, given the number of “runaway best sellers” that were turned down by numerous editors, agents, and publishers, I’m a little hesitant to assume they always know what’s best. True, the ones they select might be good, but a lot of “really good” never got published until it was rejected hundreds of times.

  2. I love it when an agent requests the first five pages. I feel it’s my best chance at getting an agent because I think I’m better at writing fiction than I am at writing copy that seeks to sell said fiction.

  3. I’ve always been a little charmed by my husband’s writing advice (he’s a poet and a tech writer, not a novelist, at least not yet): “Start with what’s awesome.”

  4. Oddly enough, I was pondering the first-five-pages issue while reading a book someone recommended. By the end of the book, I was hooked. But the first chapter didn’t do it for me. I wouldn’t have kept reading if I didn’t have my friend’s recommendation.
    Other books I love from page one. I love the tone and the voice and the character. Those are the books I’ll re-read. And I think that’s what an agent is looking for. Not just a book that hooks you by the end, but one you will happily waste hours in again and again and again.
    Sure, it may be a good book. You might even be publication ready. But how many times will an agent read a manuscript before it’s published? If it’s anything like the editing I’m doing, ten would be the low end. And no one wants to read a book 10 times or more unless it’s incomparable.

  5. Pick up the nearest novel you have at hand and read the first page. What makes you want to keep reading? Or what makes you want to skip it for something else?
    Over on the Absolute Write message boards, James Macdonald does this exercise all the time. He’ll type out the first page to, say, a Frank G. Slaughter “nurse” novel, or Twilight, or Harold Robbins, or anything, and asks “Would you turn the page? Why? Why not?”
    It’s an interesting exercise.

    • Try it when you don’t know the author’s name. It would be interesting to see if the page somehow loses it’s appeal. I just read the first page of A Civil Campaign, one of the best books in the last decade, and it starts off quite sedately. The first page is no stunner, but I didn’t try the whole five pages exercise.

  6. I like when the story grips you from the beginning. My question is, what if the first chapter is longer than 5 pages? Do you send the whole chapter?

    • No. Just five pages.
      Obviously don’t cut out in the middle of a sentence. (I made my cut-off point a question, so the agent is left wondering….)

  7. Yeah, I read where Kristin wrote that most five pages lacked a sense of urgency. Just one more thing I didn’t know when I started writing.

  8. That’s really good advice. I never thought of picking up a book (slapping forehead now) and reading the first five pages to see what makes me want to keep reading. One thinks about excitement, action, editing, but not something as simple as that. Thanks! -HeatherM

  9. I may be the exception, but I think too much emphasis is put on the first few pages of a novel. I have never in my life read the first pages to decide whether to buy a book or not. If I buy it, it is almost always either because it was recommended to me by a friend, or I read a blurb somewhere and it looked interesting.
    Is this really common practice by readers? I see people reading the backs of books (and I have too), but I’ve never watched anyone in the bookstore open to read the first few pages before adding it to their stack.
    I only ask because when I think of my favorite books, sometimes the beginning isn’t especially strong or riveting.
    (I’m reading Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS right now, and it took me over 100 pages to really get into it… but I’m glad I stuck it out.)

    • Amen. If you want a simple example, read the first five pages of The Great Gatsby. Then tell me if you honestly feel compelled to continue. Despite that, the work regularly appears on the lists of “greatest books” of all time.

  10. Great post. Thanks for the insight. If you don’t mind, I’ll linking to it in Sunday’s Mad Genius Club blog (http://madgeniusclub.blogspot.com/). Thanks again for the advice and the insight into what you are looking for.

  11. First five pages should lead you somewhere!
    When I pick up a book and start reading it doesn’t matter if it’s slow or if it’s fast paced and energetic, but it does have to lead you somewhere, in other words, the manuscript should make you want to find out whats going to happen next. Usually this comes from an exciting character or compelling story, or both. Ultimately you may just find something that sparked your interest ever so slightly, which then again compels you to find out whats going to happen.
    To me, if you have this then I’ll want to read the rest.

  12. While I agree with the need to hook the reader early, I sometimes think we pander to the “gotta have everything now” members of society if we write based upon the “must have serious dilemma/disaster/action/whatever in the first page or two.
    You can start with a dramatic event, but if I know nothing about the character(s) personally I’m inclined to say…”so?” Stuff happens to people all the time, why do I care about what happened to “this person?”
    I know I’m out of the mainstream here, at least on this particular subject, but I really think we miss a lot of good stuff if we insist that a major plot point must occur in the first five pages. My current work, which will likely never be published, begins with a little narrative that introduces some characters, and then has one of them ask a simple question. It’s not an “exciting question.” It’s not an “amazing question.” It’s not an “earth shaking question.” On that basis alone, it’s probably not any good.
    However, without a little background on who she is and why she asks, the question itself makes no sense, regardless of the fact that it drives the entire book.
    Oh well.

  13. The first five pages
    For me, the first few pages, usually within the first two, is more about tone and voice than plot or character. I’ll pick up a book from the blurb because the plot sounds intriguing, but will put it back if the writing itself doesn’t grab me within the first couple of pages. The exception to this, if the voice doesn’t quite grab me right off the bat, but the first line or two does, I will give it a few more pages to see if I get hooked or not. For me, this says just how important that first line can be.

  14. For me, if it’s an author I’ve never read before, it’s the blurb on the back (or inside the dustcover) that gets me to buy the book. Generally, after that, I’ll read most of the book unless it’s truly horrid or predictable. Strong descriptions, complex characters and being able to follow a scene keep me involved.
    If I can’t picture the setting or the characters, or if the writing uses too many words I don’t understand, or even if things are too bland I’ll stop reading. But I’m so picky about what I grab in the first place, I don’t usually buy books that I never finish.
    For authors or series I already know, it’s a guaranteed finish even if I decide half-way through that I don’t like the story. But I always get through the first chapter.

  15. First five pages
    I don’t want to appear disagreeable, but the whole “first five pages” strategy doesn’t seem to hold water. Look at “Twilight” for example. My wife got me to read it and the first five pages are mundane; they even go against the writing advice for openings that you see perpetuated everywhere on the web, with Bella in a car, flying to a new town, etc. How do some books (and Twilight is certainly not the only example) become runaway bestsellers even when they appear to break all of the rules reiterated over and over again by everyone within the publishing industry?

  16. first five pages
    First off, I’d like to point out that we are looking at this matter from a different perspective than a non writing reader. Where writers have a different pov in reading than the average joe. (which is where most of your sales will come from)The average reader needs to be hooked or they won’t buy the book.
    Hooking a reader is more than compelling them to make it past the first five pages. If we take a look into our careers as writers think about how important it is to hook those readers. If we don’t, and they put that first book down without buying it, do you think they’ll be interested in picking up the next book we write? The answer is no, they won’t. However, if we can hook the reader with those first five and make them buy that book, it’s still not enough. If we drop the ball and loose the readers interest 200 pages into the book, then we are still not going to sell that second book. It’s our job, especially with our FIRST book, to not only hook the reader quickly, but keep them hooked so that when that second book comes out, they will without question buy it because they loved the first.
    Okay, so Stephen King’s novels aren’t always grabbing in the first 100 pages. However, for a known author who’s going to knock your socks off somewhere in that book, it doesn’t matter. Try not to compare to noted authors because we can’t compete with them at this point in our careers no matter how amazing our mss is.
    Now I also hear comments about books that came out 20-40 years ago. Back then, not saying it was so long ago- but we must admit that times have changed, people were willing to give books a larger grace period just because readers had more time on their hands and more patience. People weren’t running the rat race they are today.
    Now lets talk about Stephanie Meyer and J K Rowling. No, not all of their books were compelling and driven in those first few pages. However, they might also have been in a different category than your book is in. Sure, I wrote a fantasy novel- much as they have- however they have something I do not. They have the ability to reach a much wider range of readers than I do. Where MY mss is strictly for a mature audience, they wrote a book which could reach a multitude of readers. They wrote books that were tame enough to engrosse younger readers as well as mature readers. Right there, they have a larger chance at sales and so do not need to completely fit into the mold that I will need to fit into.
    Not that writers like to admit it, but agents understand these things better than we do. They look at the fact that they have this unknown writer sending them a query. In that query, they need to be able to see what genre you’re writing and where your target audience is. That is the first step to figuring out where your sales may lie. Now they also have to look into the originality of your idea… has this been done before or possibly over done? If so, sales just went down in their minds. Remember, they make their money off sales, so if they feel they can’t sell the book, they won’t take it on no matter how good the mss is.
    Now you have an agent willing to read the first five pages of your mss. In my opinion, this only enhances your chance of getting not only an agent, but the right agent for your project. This gives an agent the chance to see if they like your writing style. It also gives you a chance above and beyond to grab their interest. That’s important. Where an agent may not have been completely convinced in your query, your 5 pages could be what it takes to get a full read of your mss.
    In short, if your first five pages aren’t enough to capture one out of 50 agents interest, perhaps it’s not the right book to ‘start’ your career on. I’m not saying you need an explosion in your first paragraph to grab people, but these days you do need to hook them with something if you want to keep your career moving forward. Agents understand this and base their decision on which books they’ll take on for representation off all these points, whether we as the writer like it or not. Plain and simply, if they don’t feel their going to make money off our books, they aren’t going to represent us- even if they are passing up the next great American novel.

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