Friday, October 25, 2013

250 Words That Will Make Or Break You

With Pitch Wars coming up, I'm taking a small break from the "After The Agent" series to talk about first pages!

Every good lesson starts with someone who learned it the hard way:

Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book with a quirky premise. With the help of her superhuman critique partners, she mashed together a query letter that other people could actually understand. And they all agreed over virtual pumpkin lattes that this would be The One That Worked.

So the writer sent a round of queries. The first response, to a query letter with just the query, was a "YES, please send me pages!" And the writer cackled because she was one step closer to world domination getting an agent. She sent off the pages and waited to hear from the other queries.

But the rejections trickled in, one by one. All the other letters she'd sent, you see, had the first five pages included. "Nope," "Sorry," "Not for me," all came back. And eventually the requested partial came back as "No thanks" too. Which meant something in those opening pages wasn't working.

So the writer rewrote her first chapter until her eyes watered and her fingers bled and she'd eaten all the dark chocolate in the land. A month later, she had new stamps of approval from her CPs. She entered the pages into two contests to see if her work had made any difference at all.

It had. She won both contests, eleven requests for pages, and a fantabulous agent.

Said writer had changed no other part of her manuscript between querying and the contests. That's the terrible difference first pages can make. As readers, I think we're willing to give a book a few pages—sometimes a few chapters—to really get started. But agents and contest judges, who consider hundreds of pitches in a single sitting, must make a snap decision if they hope to keep up with their inboxes. That's the harsh reality of traditional publishing. If you want to stand out, you have to start standing from line one.

Now, as a Pitch Wars mentor, I do promise to read past that tricky first page, because that's what I would have desperately wanted as a writer in the query trenches. But I would challenge you to go through this checklist as you're polishing your manuscript, whether it's for a Pitch Wars mentor or an agent. Make sure your first 250 words:

  • Have a delicious first line. Does your opening raise a question that must be answered?
    • "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." (The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean)
    • "The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." (The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness)
    • "Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave." (Vicious, V.E. Schwab)
    • "There is one mirror in my house." (Divergent, Veronica Roth)
  • Don't bait-and-switch. Don't tell us there's a dead body just to hook us, then delve into a scene about the weather. (Unless, of course, it has to do with said body.)
  • It's uniquely yours. Could your chapter be the start of any other book? For example, I've seen a lot of YA/MG in contests (and I'm guilty of this too) that start in a classroom. The scene is doing nothing more than introducing us to the MC, maybe establishing a bully or a best friend, etc. But what makes your book different? Start us in a place where no other book could start.
  • It brings the tension. Your inciting incident doesn't have to happen on page one, but there should be an immediate sense of conflict, even if you're opening with two friends eating ice cream.
  • It gives us context. Let us know where we are and give us a few breather sentences before throwing us into a conversation or an action scene.

Honestly, even if you're nodding along with these checklist items that you've done them, the best advice I can give you is to surround yourself with your favorite books and read the first two pages of every one. What about them draws you in? What keeps you reading? How does yours compare?

You have one chance to impress a potential mentor or agent. The rest of your manuscript could be out-of-this-world-amazing, but if that first 250 isn't your best work, there's no way we can know. Give yourself your best chance and make sure your first page knocks us out!

ALSO, FREE STUFF IS SCRUMTRULESCENT. Think your first page has what it takes? Prove it! I'm giving away three first page critiques this weekend. Leave a comment below saying you'd like a critique and include your Twitter handle (or email address, if you don't tweet, to which I'll only slightly judge you). Sometime Saturday evening (Mountain Standard Time), I'll use a random number generator to pick the winners. Open to all genres and these categories: MG, YA, NA, Adult. CLOSED TO ENTRIES - WINNERS FORTHCOMING!


  1. I would love a critique! Pick me, oh great random number generator! Tweet me: @summywins

  2. Yes yes a thousand times yes! *raises hand almost jumping out of seat* Ooh, ooh, me me me me me!
    Twitter: @CCDowling

  3. Oh, I need this. I need it BAD.
    Twitter: @sistrum42

  4. I could use a first page critique! Thank you so much for offering this opportunity! @jules_writes

  5. Great article! I'd love a crit. @mbelec123


  6. You know I would love one! @RaeAChang

  7. Sounds like a great opportunity! Yes, please! @wendynikel

  8. Because Katrina's phone is being silly, I'm signing her up! @katrinacarrasco

  9. Thanks for the opportunity! @jen_blackwood

  10. So glad I checked Twitter and found this contest tonight! May the universe guide the random generator to pick @cattorresv

  11. Yay, critiques! I could definitely use one @LynnTiffanie

  12. I would love a critique! Thanks so much for the opportunity

  13. I would love to win a critique!

  14. your story sounds achingly least the first part. thanks for sharing and for offering a critique to some lucky randomly generated recipient @frumpnoir

    1. Here's to hoping that means you're closer than you think. Thanks for reading!

  15. OK, entries are closed! Thanks so much, everyone - winners will be posted shortly.

  16. I'm too late for the critique, but thanks for posting this -- what a great a review tool for my opening! :)



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