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Opening Pages Week 6: Delivering on your query letter from paragraph one
The five things you must do before sending pages to a VIP
Let me share something with you that happens in my life as a writing coach on the regular. I read a solid query letter promising something I’m super excited about (a downtrodden woman who dumps her bitch-ass boyfriend to realize her dreams on her own terms; a thriller that takes place in a claustrophobic setting like a writer’s retreat or a Disney cruise) and when I get to the opening pages of the manuscript the query letter represents, I find another story entirely. Literally, pages and pages from the POV of a character who wasn’t mentioned in the query, or we are starting in the 2000s even though the book is supposed to be in 1860, or there’s a prologue where there should be a first chapter…the list of frustrations goes on.
If you have an agent or editor asking you for pages, you are ahead of the game, you are getting close to goal. So please, for the love of all things publishing, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by sending in an opening that doesn’t deliver on your query letter. That’s the equivalent of ordering a juicy hamburger and being served a plate of crudités. Check please!
In this, the final essay in our Opening Pages intensive, we are going to run through a checklist of things your opening pages should be doing before you send them to a VIP who could impact your life’s happiness.
Before we do that though, let’s revisit everything we’ve accomplished in our six-week intensive.
In the intro to the Opening Pages Intensive, I outlined everything we’d be covering.
Week 1, we worked on Establishing Setting in literary fiction/nonfiction from your very first page.
Week 2, we looked at World-Building in Genre Fiction.
That same week, I shared my first round of feedback on subscribers’ opening pages (in literary fiction and nonfiction).
Week 3, we learned the preoccupation/occupation checkpoint.
Week 4, we looked at voice.
Week 5, we looked at subscriber opening pages with a focus on not missing opportunities for character/setting development and revealing information in the right order.
Perfecto. Let’s get to the marrow of Week 6.
Here are the five principal things you need to watch out for before you share your opening pages with a VIP:
Represent your genre (a.k.a vibe check):
If your query promised a mystery, the opening should feel mysterious. If you promised a rom-com, your opening pages should be funny. If you queried a hybrid experimental memoir, those pages should read as 1) experimental and quite literary and 2) indicate what the hybrid element of your book is going to be.
Start with a character we met in your query:
It’s a risky move to open a manuscript with a minor character who isn’t mentioned in the query, and yet, it happens all the time! I can’t tell you how often I read queries that have me so excited to meet main character X and villain Y, but for some reason, the first two chapters are from the perspective of character ZBCD1FG who appears to have come out of nowhere to deliver a soliloquy that only kinda sorta has to do with the plot and premise of the book? When I ask authors who the hell this person is and what are they doing on page one, the answer is usually that they have information “we need” to appreciate the rest of the story or because the author is going for something “stylistically.” These kinds of openings rarely take place in scene, they are usually written in some celestial third person omniscient POV that is stylistically out of sync with the rest of the book’s tone, and the only thing they are going to accomplish is getting you an email from an agent or gatekeeper that said, “sorry, we have to pass.”
There is a time for stylistic experimentation and for long runways filled with linguistic acrobatics and syntactical shenanigans, but—unless you are doing something experimental throughout your book and with good reason (see A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimar McBride, where the broken syntax mirrors the abused narrator’s broken mind)—the time for this kind of writing is not while you are querying.
This is such a competitive market right now, it’s such a bonkers time in publishing. You must assume that every gatekeeper who is opening your manuscript is overworked, jittery, emotional about the state of the country slash world, and super pressed for time. Accordingly: please get to the damn point with your opening! If you have to reveal something about your character or feel we need information ahead of time to appreciate the manuscript, pick a moody epigraph and find a way to share said information in scene, but please don’t query about a character or characters that we don’t meet until chapter 5.
Be brutally honest with yourself: is your prologue necessary?
I’ve previously written here about my strong feelings against prologues. Please re-read that post to understand why I am rabidly waiting for the end of the prologue trend. In my opinion, prologues work best in mystery and thriller where we are witness to a crime or a murder, and then we spend the rest of our reading journey either waiting for the other people in the book to figure out who did it or to figure out who did it for ourselves.
Unfortunately though, I’d say 9 out of 10 prologues I read exist for these (nonessential) reasons:
Atmospheric establishment: You want to set a vibe, I get it. But why not do that with your writing from the get go? Think of(Mary Gaitskill's) work, the way you feel from page one when you are reading her. Home girl doesn’t need a prologue, she scares the shit into you from line one.
Throat clearing: You don't really know what your book is about, so you use your prologue to peacock a bunch of beautiful language and ideas and POV shifts around to hopefully hypnotize your reader into ignoring the fact that you aren’t getting to the point. Wishful thinking, peacock!
Is the voice representative of character?
We went over this tip two weeks ago in a post on using voice effectively, but if your novel is about a fifth grader, the voice in your opening better sound like a ten year-old kid.
Can you answer this one question that my agent always bugs me with?
Without fail, whenever I hand new pages over to my agent, instead of saying “the writing’s not there yet,” she says, “why am I turning the pages?” Oh, how this question drives me nuts! It drives me nuts because it means my writing isn’t there yet, and who wants to hear that?
In the beginning of my career, I would answer her with:
You want to turn the page because my writing is witty and sparkling with insights about social norms!
You want to turn the page because I’ve built an interesting world!
But these answers reflect my ego, and the reader doesn’t give a shit about my ego. As I say over and over, writing that gets published gets published because it has something of value to the reader. There’s something in it for them. Now, after decades in this industry (rejection, failed manuscripts, some success, more failures) I understand that I need to be able to answer my agent this way:
You want to turn the page to find out what exactly my main character’s father did to him as a young child to turn him into the sarcastic dirt bag that he is.
You want to turn the page because the suspense that I am building is going to explode in something bad happening to someone good and you must read on to watch it happen because us bookworms are perverse!
Anything I’ve missed that you can think of? Elements you love to find in opening pages when you are reading work yourself? Share thoughts in the comments! And thank you so much for coming on this Opening Pages intensive with me!
There are 6 weeks left to apply to my new writing retreat, Turning Points designed for people ready to take their writing, creativity and publishing know-how to a whole new level. Applications close June 15th for our October 22nd program in New Mexico. Learn all about it here!
I have a few “Query Doula” spots open this May. Just yesterday, I handed in what I hope is a new novel to my agent: may the force be with me. Rather than totter about my house in fear and loathing while I wait to hear what my agent thinks of it, I’d like to use good energy trying to help you. If you’ve got a query letter that isn’t performing well on submission or you’re not sure if your query letter is ready to go, I’ve got you. If you’ve got a publishing conundrum or just need someone to listen and help you find some answers and gain faith back in your writing, let me hold your hand. The list of services I offer and instructions on getting in touch are here. I’ve got openings for 3-4 people. (Please note: I’m not offering developmental editing at the moment.)
Sign-ups are still open for the Westport Pitch + Publish conference I’m keynoting at this month. This is shaping up to be a killer conference featuring lots of great panels with agents and industry professionals galore. Plus Westport is pretty, it’s on the water, and they have great pizza! Learn more here.
That’s all for now! Next week I’ll have more feedback on paid subscriber pages. Have a swell weekend until then!
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