Knowing how to categorize your work is one of the most important skills a writer needs to know–especially while querying. Here’s an infographic to help. It’s not perfect and there are many places that writers won’t fit into and that doesn’t mean it’s not a marketable book. However, learning how to market yourself starts with knowing where your book stands and where it will sit on bookshelves.
I’ve read thousands of “page ones.” Very often I don’t read page two.
Sometimes all I read is that first page and I make judgements based on what I see there. As an agent and a reader my practice is that if I’m not connecting with the material I move on–and quickly.
I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.
So how are you supposed to get us past one page?
6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One
1. Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us. I can sense a writer who is trying to show off very quickly. It really only takes one paragraph to see that. A command of language is knowing how to write for your audience, not showing off how you can set a scene with a vocabulary that your reader can’t connect with. Showing off isn’t going to win readers over. It’s going to make the decision to walk away very easy. All the reader needs to know is who has a secret (see more at point 3). This tip is all about going back and editing your first page over and over again. Polished, but not so shiny that we think we’re reading a magazine ad.
2. Learn what “start with action” really means. We’re not asking every writer to start their book with a car crash. In fact, most shouldn’t! What we’re asking is to make sure that your book starts in a place where plot is happening, not merely an introduction to the scene or characters. The longer you take to drop some hints the more confused we are and that encourages people to put down the book. Action means movement of some kind: start of a conflict, effects of a previous conflict, or dialogue about new/existing conflict.
3. Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious. Every character must have a secret. It is linked to their stakes and why they must achieve their goal. Don’t underestimate the power of a secret. It could be something as small as what they were embarrassed by last week or something as big as a major mistake at work. And read this PubCrawlBlog post to learn more. Remember that characters need to feel like they had a life before we entered their world via the book, and that they’ll have an interesting life afterwards too.
4. Be wary of information dumps. The number one killer of a page one: more didactic text and backstory then we could possibly need. Instead of information dumping on us (remember we’re joining you at this exact moment–so what do we need to know to enjoy this moment as it stands?) try things like dialogue instead. Dialogue is a great way to get plot moving while introducing us to your world. If you’re tempted to give us more backstory or facts than we need (I don’t need to know where your character is from, their hair colour, or their sibling order) remember that there is a reason you started your book in this place and it should relate to the fact that their life changes in this instant. No facts are needed if you start in the right place.
5. Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis. There’s nothing more confusing than reading more than 3 or 4 names on page 1. Not only is it hard to keep straight the names themselves, I’m also thoroughly confused about which name matches which voice especially in dialogue. Be careful to only mention characters we need to know at that time. That will prevent the reader from putting down your book before we’ve even begun because they feel they can’t keep up.
6. Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book. Free time is a luxury these days. When a reader picks up a book that’s a huge statement about how they spend their free time. Dedicating 8-10 hours to your writing should never be assumed. So if you keep that in mind as you write and edit you’ll be in great shape to keep the pace moving and stakes high.
Are agents not being forthcoming with advice?
Getting ready to submit in the new year?
The definitive guide to what’s wrong with most manuscripts:
1. All internal conflict, no external conflict. Does more happen in the character’s head than in the plot? This is going to be a problem whether it’s literary or commercial fiction. Make sure enough things happen.
2. Pace. The most important thing to get an agent’s attention is to keep us turning the pages and stop us from doing other things. The moment things lag, you’ve lost us.
3. Voice. This one’s more subjective, but the way to check if your book has voice is whether we can tell the difference between whose head we’re in or who is speaking at any given time. Everything about your writing style needs personality. What makes your book special? Your voice. It’s how we separate all the books out there.
4. Dialogue. This goes with my point above. I should be able to tell who is speaking–a character, not you the author. For me, this separates the beginners from the advanced writers.
5. Length. Does your book follow word count guidelines? If not, it’s an easy pass.
6. Structure. Getting experimental? Are chapters vastly different lengths? Jumping drastically from POV? If we can’t follow your structure, you’ve lost us.
7. Characters. Some people feel differently about the ‘likeability’ aspect of characters. Personally, I enjoy ‘liking’ characters, but more importantly: Do they grow? Do they evolve? Do we care about their stakes and what happens to them? If not, I’m not on board.
This comes from reading many, many slush pile manuscripts that I often like but don’t love.
Use this as a checklist.
With all the submissions I get I use my intuition and my checklist to see how they fare. While it is mostly gut reaction I need the checklist to balance out my feelings so I can best evaluate the content and quality of the material I’m looking at.
I’ve received some great queries lately so if you want to know how to get from the query stage to me interested in taking your work further I share my checklist showing what I look for when I read your work:
- Does the beginning work? Does the ending work?
- Does the plot have good pace, does it make sense, and is it a natural outcome for the premise?
- Do I care about the outcome of the characters?
- Do the characters stick to their traits?
- How many subplots are there? Do they have appropriate attention with what you’ve set out to do in the novel?
- Is the writing of high, lasting quality?
- Is it special? Will it stand out on an editor’s desk and in a bookshop? Continue reading My Manuscript Evaluation Checklist