Earlier this month at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference in metro Seattle, I went to a workshop on first page critique. The plan as proposed by the panelists, was to have writers bring just their first page of text from their works-in-progress, pass them to the moderator, and listen as the two agents and one editor gave feedback. It sounded to some of us writers like a free craft workshop, which to some degree, it was. But the real gem of helpfulness from this exercise was, in my opinion, the glimpse into how brutal a process of reading unsolicited work can be, and how quickly a publishing professional makes a decision (mostly to reject) a candidate piece of prose.
And wow, it was painful to hear.
Here are what appeared to me to be the top reasons the agents begged the moderator to stop reading:
- Way too narrow an opening lens—From the gurgling of blood in the protagonist’s veins to a list of items the main character is buying at Whole Foods, some writers are so afraid of passive voice that they write in the hyper-active. There’s too much detail, which may sound impossible but is plainly achievable (a mango, a pork chop, some garlic). I’d go so far as to say that too much detail in the opening scene is bordering on being its own cliche. Readers need to be able to envision not just the protagonist, but the conflict, the stakes, the voice, and the general context, because that’s how writers hook them. Telling us about the heart rate of some character we haven’t actually seen yet does not get us to interested.
- Repetitive language—It is often said that book openings are the most workshopped part of a manuscript, and given the importance of the aforementioned hook, one can see why. But returning again and again to the first few pages can result in a dampening down of the author’s voice, as they’ve listened to too much advice, and at some point, repetitious words creep in. It’s not surprising; honing in on a narrow band of the writing can mean that the writer isn’t actually reading their work anymore, they’re skimming. There were a few submissions that day at PNWA where strange words that would have been fine in one instance had grown like June dandelions. And trust me, there are only so many times an author can get away with using something like “proximate,” “handle,” or “mention.” They’re not even good words, and they certainly don’t merit three or four occurrences in two paragraphs.
- Indiscernible premise—Maybe genre writers have it tougher than mainstream, in that they’ve got some degree of world building to do while they’re hooking readers. But no matter to what bucket a particular piece of writing is assigned, we need to see enough about the story that we can visualize all of the gaps, and on page one, there will be plenty of negative space that readers have to create. If the first paragraph is describing a character floating in mid-air, for example, it’s probably helpful to explain if they’re having an out of body experience, just died, unaffected by gravity, or dreaming, or whatever else is pertinent. After all, every detail presented to the reader needs to be there for the purpose of the story, so every detail begs the question: why. Don’t leave readers hanging for too long on our levitating friend, or the interest and the believability will break. And agents go packing, looking for the next slush entry.
This experience was also a great example of what happens when a good story finds the very wrong agent. These were women who liked dark stories, sometimes paranormal, sometimes not. They had few reference points for critiquing the merits of, say, a Christian mystery’s opening, so this is one of the problems of hitting the wrong agent with a WIP; they’re not up to speed on what’s happening in other genres, what’s trite versus interesting, or what appeals to readers. They also tend to make condescending remarks about other genres—it’s not because they’re mean people, it’s more about the vast quantity of truly bad writing they have to pore over to find strong words, and how many people are nipping at their heels for attention. I’ve been a literary judge for a few different contests over the years and I admit that I get pretty snarky myself. It’s a good thing that most querying happens outside of our earshot.
What writers can take away from a workshop like this is that every single word on the first page counts, and that agents go through a finely honed decision tree, word-by-word, to keep reading or not keep reading. We want them to keep reading so much that they beg for a longer partial or full manuscript. So do your research, find the agent who has represented books like yours, read voraciously in your genre (and audience age range), and polish the opening before sending it out with queries.
And be grateful we don’t see the agents reading our submissions.