When I work with authors, one of their greatest frustrations is that potential agents and publishers, and even some contests, only want to read the first 5-15 pages. Authors ask, “How am I supposed to establish my big plot in 15 pages? How are I supposed to introduce all my appealing characters? Maybe I can cram the first 100 pages down into those 15 pages to maximize their value…”
But of course that’s the last thing the gatekeepers want. If they care about your plot, they’ll additionally ask you for a one-page summary of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, they’d prefer the plot kick off strongly in those first 15 pages, and maybe get to plot point #2 as a cliffhanger on page 15, but the last thing they want to do is have to digest 6 plot points crammed in to those 15 pages. And they’ll be glad to discover later that you’ve got lots of appealing characters, but they don’t want to meet a lot of them in those 15 pages.
No, the real thing they’re looking for is the hardest part of writing: voice. If you’re writing in third person, they’ll give you a few pages to establish this, because voice is more subtle in third person, but if it’s first person, forget it: they might just read your first page before they give up.
Tweedy English BBC director James Grant (soon to adopt the pen name Lee Child) got fired at age 39 and sat down at a computer to see if he could write a book. He claims that he didn’t outline or revise. Supposedly, he just started typing and composed a first paragraph:
- I WAS ARRESTED IN ENO’S DINER. AT TWELVE O’CLOCK. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
That’s exactly what they’re looking for before they request your full manuscript. A distinctive, intriguing voice. Distinctive syntax. A rhythm and pace. Of course, it helps that (as with Beloved’s first page) we get more right away: a situation, threat, and setting. We know where we are and what we’re reading about. All in three lines.
Further down the page, we get something even better:
- The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. These were fit lean boys. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake.
The hero not only has a unique voice, he’s got unique eyes. He’s got a distinctive way of looking at the world. He sees things we wouldn’t see, and we feel privileged to have an opportunity to look through his eyes. He’s also got idiosyncratic opinions: He wants the guys arresting him to do a good job. That’s manly and appealing.
We don’t know anything about his backstory yet, and we won’t find out more in the first 15 pages, but, more importantly, we can tell that he does have a backstory, and we’re intrigued by it. We want to know more about this guy, but we don’t want him to spill it all right away. We’re content to be intrigued. It’s fun to be intrigued.
I suspect that it only took Child one paragraph to sell this book, or one page at the most.
This is one reason why writers should be writing all the time, even if they’re working on a crappy plot that’s crashing and burning. Novelists are not really in the plot-writing business, they’re in the sentence writing business. Readers want good sentences, so agents and publishers want good sentences. Readers would rather read a lame plot made up of good sentences than a great plot made up of lame sentences. No matter what you’re writing (even blog posts), you’re writing sentences. You’re choosing words. You’re playing around with rhythm and voice.
Your voice is your brand. That’s all they’re judging in those 15 pages.