Read Like an Agent

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

Ever wonder what literary agents look for when they read your first pages? While at the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar I had the opportunity to sit in on some small group workshops and observe how agents responded to the opening pages from different writers. By listening to agents give feedback, I got an inside look at how they read and what they look for in submissions.

A lot is riding on your first few pages.

One of the main lessons I learned from watching agents give feedback is that they can make decisions on a piece very fast. I saw this same pattern when I interned at a literary agency some years ago, and it makes sense. Agents get mountains of submissions so they have to learn to sort through it all quickly or they’d never do anything but read slush.

Clearly those opening pages matter but it’s not just about impressing agents. After all, agents are just the first step in the process. Your opening pages must also grab an editor’s attention, woo an entire publishing team who will help get your book on the shelves, and ultimately entice readers to buy it. Aside from cover design and flap copy, those opening pages are where readers turn to decide if they want to read the book. Those pages can be the difference between whether someone decides to read more, or puts down your book and picks up another. This is why those first few pages are so important.

Your job as writer is to make your book un-put-downable.Tweet this.

3 Techniques to Make Your Opening Pages Un-put-downable.

With such diverse writers at the Agent-Author Seminar, I expected that the feedback from the agents would be equally diverse. Imagine my surprise when I saw the same feedback and comments come up again and again in the sessions. It turns out that a handful of simple techniques can turn those opening pages (regardless of genre or subject) into the beginning of an un-put-downable story.

1) Narrow the focus.

Writers often try to do too much in those first two pages but here’s a reality check: two double-spaced manuscript pages gives you just 500 words to grab an agent’s attention. You can’t afford to waste a single word on something that doesn’t pull your reader into the story. This means that even if you’re writing a grand epic story, you have to narrow your focus in those first pages

As one agent told a writer: “give us less, but at the same time give us more.” In other words go deep, don’t go wide. Don’t give readers broad, sweeping brushstrokes of the story. Instead, dig into one scene and make that moment come to life for the reader. Don’t bombard readers with information about your setting, just give them one key detail that can give that world depth.

Put world-building and backstory on the back-burner and focus on things that matter: character, voice and action. Of course, world-building is important, but the problem is that writers often get so preoccupied about creating that world that they get sidetracked from what readers really care about. Readers don’t want world, they want a character to root for.

Example: The Hunger Games opens with protagonist, Katniss, hunting and spending time with her best friend Gale before the reaping. There’s a lot going on in the world of this book, but the author holds back from giving too much information up front. Instead, we see the protagonist experience the setting for herself. We get small but meaningful details that help us piece that setting together. Once we get to the reaping scene when the history of that world is revealed, we’re already hooked on the story, not because of the world but because we care about the character.

 2) Dive into action.

While 500 words might not be enough to set up an intricate plot, but it’s plenty space to give some juicy action. Make something happen in those first two pages, don’t just leave your character alone in a room contemplating the meaning of life. One of the best ways to grab a reader’s attention is to dive into a scene and put the character in the middle of a situation.

Action doesn’t necessarily mean the scene has to be active. But what if your story isn’t full of gunfights and car chases? Even in a quiet, subtle novel you can still dive into action right away.

Example: Think of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which takes place in a parlor with seven (seven!) members of the Bennett family discussing  the arrival of a new neighbor. Not only does the author juggle seven characters in a dialogue-filled scene–a feat of mastery in itself–but there’s an urgency to the moment that draws us in. Obtaining a formal introduction with the handsome Mr. Bingly may not be a life-or-death situation, but to these characters (or at least to Mrs. Bennett and a few of the daughters) it might as well be the end of the world. Right away we know that something important is at stake for these characters.

The other important part of diving into action is to knowing when to start your story. One of the most frequent comments I heard agents say in the workshops was to start later in the story. Sometimes “later” means scrapping those first few paragraphs, sometimes it means tossing out those opening pages altogether. The key is starting your story when something important happens.

3) Give us a character to root for.

If we care about the character, we’ll follow him or her anywhere. Does that mean the character has to be likeable? Of course not. The character can be evil or cruel or just plain annoying, but as long as there’s something that makes us root for him or her, we’re hooked.

Voice and point of view play a huge part in helping us connect with the main character. A character with a voice a la Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye can captivate the reader even if that character is seriously flawed.  There’s no easy way to explain how to do voice well, but if your character is compelling, chances are that voice will come through. Focus on character and voice will follow.

As for point of view, it’s important to choose the right lens through which you capture your story. If the point of view is too “bird’s eye view” it can distance the reader from the story and the characters. On the other hand, if we’re in first person or a close third person, we can go on that journey with the main character and discover the backstory and world with him or her.

Take-Home Message:

You’ve only got 500 words to work with in those opening pages, so make sure they pack a punch. Narrow your focus, make something happen and give us a character to root for. Remember, you want your book to be un-put-downable, so make those opening pages sing.

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