6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

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.

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5 Things To Do If An Agent Has Your Manuscript For Months

Writers always ask: What does it mean if an agent has my manuscript for awhile?

Answer: Nothing.

It means nothing if we’ve had it for a long time.

It doesn’t mean we aren’t interested.

It doesn’t mean we’ve read it and are failing to get back to you.

It means that we likely haven’t even got to it yet. So you can presume absolutely nothing.

So, what do you do when an agent has had your manuscript for months?

1. Write more. The answer to everything is keep writing. Don’t let the waiting game slow you down. When an agent is interested they’ll want to see what else you’re working on too. So keep writing.

2. Check their guidelines. Most agents say they’ll get back to writers of requested material in 6 weeks to 3 months. But some say 6 months. And some say they’ll only reply if interested. Base your expectations on their actual guidelines.

3. Only follow up once their guidelines timeline is up. Or, if you have an offer or other news to update them with (important blurb, award you’ve won etc).

4. Keep querying. One nibble doesn’t mean you’ve caught a fish. The more lines you cast the better chance you have!

5. Avoid playing games. You’ll waste a lot of unnecessary energy playing games like reading too much into an agent’s social media feed, emailing them to ask about the status of their slush pile, or other things like that. It’s not worth the stress. Remember: no answer means nothing.

Don’t forget: You can always listen to sad music and write angsty poetry or start a funny parody Twitter account. You know, if you’re still feeling melancholy.

Why Agents Pass On Material They Say They Are Looking For

stressMany writers on Twitter know how great #MSWL is. It’s a hashtag where agents and editors can list what they’re looking for. (P.S. For those of you not on Twitter there are two blogs that post them: Agent And Editor WishlistMS Wishlist.)

Many agents also list on their websites what they’re actively looking for, too.

It’s exciting when writers see their manuscript align with an agent’s interest so they send off a query and…then nothing. Either no request. Or a request but no offer of representation.

What happens when agents pass on material they say they’re looking for?

  • We’re still looking for the ‘magic.’ So many things have to be perfect for us to sign up new projects. Even if the plot matches with what we’re looking for there are other parts to the equation.
  • The voice wasn’t right for us. This is the other part of the equation.
  • Writers try to put a square peg in a round hole. If we say we’re looking for contemporary settings with suspense, don’t send us suspense set in space.
  • We have something too similar on our list. You missed the gap! We already got our ‘wishlist’ project.

If you want to know what I’m looking for here it is! My manuscript wishlist.

Q: What do you wonder about agents & their wishlists? I’ll answer all questions!

“Is it my query or my sample pages?” Why you are not getting full manuscript requests

dialogueOne of the most common, and most subjective, questions I get asked at writer’s workshops is: “How do I know when it’s my query or whether it’s my sample pages that are stopping me from getting full manuscript requests or offers?”

Ultimately, every circumstance is different, but in my experience the situations look like this:

When you are not getting requests because of your query…

…it’s because you aren’t targeting agents who are actively building a list. Established agents have great and enviable client lists, but they usually aren’t signing many debuts.

…it’s because your query is a synopsis and not a pitch. Know the difference and don’t make that mistake.

…it’s because you don’t know what your book is about. Don’t write a rambling paragraph about themes, we want the drama.

….it’s because your query doesn’t explain the external conflict, character motivation, and stakes. If you have a great book but can’t tell us about it, how will we know?

When you are not getting requests or offers because of your sample pages… Continue reading “Is it my query or my sample pages?” Why you are not getting full manuscript requests