In part one of this series, we discussed how to write a query letter that won’t make an agent say, “ick!” Today we will be discussing sample pages, a crucial piece to many a query. Sample pages can make or break a project. In my case, I had a well-working query, but poor sample pages. Don’t get me wrong my writing wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t ready yet either. It was something that I had seen as needing to be fixed, but it was Ms. Kristin Nelson who pushed me over to finally changing it.
Along the writer’s path, hopefully, you do many edits. I took out ten thousand words here and added ten thousand elsewhere, only to repeat again. By the time I queried Ms. Nelson, I thought my work was about as perfect as it could get. However, in the back of my head, I knew the beginning was not strong enough.
Cue Ms. Nelson:
To read about how I received this feedback and the see Ms. Nelson’s notes click here.
If your sample needs work:
- What are the stakes? Why would a reader care? Why is the story being told? In the first ten pages, better yet five pages, jump right into the action. Thrust your protagonist into danger. Change their world. Set off the catalyst. Start at the point of normal life and then bam the story begins. Basically, classic storytelling 101. Just one of many links on the topic.
- What is the character’s purpose for being where they are in the opening? Did you waste time explaining every little detail in the scene? Were you so enraptured by your own beautiful writing you didn’t jump right into the story? Again, always jump into the action.
- Multiple Points of view? In my work, I have two protagonists who tell the story from their points of view throughout the story. However, in those first ten pages or even first chapter, it is best to still with one POV. It doesn’t confuse the agent or the reader. It’s more succinct and gives your POV character a clearer purpose.
- Voice and Mastery of Craft. This one is a little bit more tricky. As a young writer, I still have so much to learn when it comes to the coveted voice and mastery of the absurd English language. Sometimes I think I m better at Spanish. This is where a professional editor and critique partners come in if they haven’t already. However, on occasion, you may just need a little more time with your work to perfect it. NEVER EVER RUSH AN EDIT. The publishing world is incredibly slow. You have all the time in the world. Which do you prefer countless rejections or a little extra time editing?
- Focus on sensory detail. In the first chapter or so it’s best to focus on sensory detail rather than point-blank descriptions. Of course, you want to set the scene, but be wary of overdoing it and outshining your characters.
- Dialogue. Make sure your dialogue is realistic. Read it out loud. Practice a conversation using your dialogue. If you’re writing historical fiction make sure the language is correct. I have an opinion about contractions in historical fiction, but we’ll get to that later.
- Characters. Unless you’re Harper Lee don’t introduce every character in your book in the first ten pages. I remember reading the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school and being bored out of my mind by how many characters were introduced. The second half of the book was splendid. Introduce the characters who are important and leave everyone else until later. Please do not write a Mary Sue character, more on that here.
- Description. This might be my own pet peeve, but I hate when a protagonist describes how they look through a mirror. That just seems lazy. Describe what you need to, to get the story going, but leave the rest for later.
- Did you start your story with a prologue? Often times if you do this, it’s because the prologue is where the action truly starts or because you’re avoiding the action for backstory. Many agents hate prologues so it’s best to avoid them. DELETE, DELETE, DELETE, until you find the proper beginning. A lot of backstory is only useful to the writer and you can often take it out as you gain a better understanding of your story.
- Sometimes it’s all subjective. Remember one agent’s opinion isn’t agent’s opinion. First and foremost, they’re readers and like all readers, they have subjective tastes. There are many books within my own genre I dislike and many books in genres I normally dislike that I like. Don’t let rejections get you down, but also remember sometimes it’s you, not them.
How I fixed my first 10 pages:
My work started at 105,000 words, with Ms. Nelson’s advice I dropped down to 96,000. I deleted the first 30 pages of my manuscript and found the perfect place to start. Yes, it hurts sometimes to delete those precious words, but it helped me gain a partial manuscript and full manuscript request. More on that later.
I am FINALLY at the place where I feel my first ten pages are actually great. It took at least four editors to get to this point and several years. Be patient. You got this.