Happy first day of February, everyone! Can you believe that we're already in the second month of 2017? Today is the fourth and final part of my series on querying, and I'll be talking about sample pages. Okay, okay… try to contain your excitement :) I know that sample pages are not the most interesting thing to talk about, but I am telling you, writer to writer – do not ignore this! You will regret not taking the time with your sample pages. Why? Because even if you have the most awesome killer query letter an agent has ever seen, it really comes down to the writing. The query letter is to pull them in. The book itself is the substance. The focus. And if our sample pages fall flat, that agent/reader/publisher will think your entire manuscript does to. So, let’s talk sample pages, shall we?
Some agents don’t request sample pages up front, while others ask that you send five pages or the first three chapters with your query. Everyone is different. But even if they don’t require them up front, if they want to move forward with your manuscript, you will eventually be sending a sample. The sample is doubly important not only because it’s what an agent sees and judges, but because it’s what a reader will see. With so many books out there, readers will often not stick with a book which bores them. If it’s the first few pages, okay. But the first few chapters? They can put that book back on the shelf and pick up the next one. Harsh, but realistic.
So now enough with all the gloom :). Let me tell you how to pull the agent/reader in and hold their interest:
1. Start in the action – No, this doesn’t mean a car needs to blow up in the first scene. Action just means something is happening. That could be something as small as walking down the street or as big as, yes, a car exploding. There is a problem with going for the latter approach, though, and I’ll discuss that next. Ask yourself where you would consider the action as actually starting? Does your novel open up with a long chunk of internalization explaining background info, the world around the MC, or events that are happening passively? You’ve started too early. Does it open in the middle of a confusing explosion of action which doesn’t ground the reader into the world? You’ve started too late. Why is this opening scene important to the protagonist? Does it illustrate a part of their character or an important fact about the world? Is something actually happening? If nothing happens – if your protagonist isn’t acting in some way – you’ve started in the wrong place. Fast-forward to when something actually starts taking place. And don't worry about "well my reader doesn't know what the world looks likes". Add bits of world-building as the action takes place. This will ensure that the reader knows what they need to know to understand the present scene.
2. Don’t start with an explosion – This might sound completely contradictory to #1, but hear me out. I don’t just mean an actual explosion. It also refers to some chaotic scene where the reader has no idea what’s at stake or who the main character is, and therefore doesn’t really care what’s happening to them. Readers want to care about the MC from the first sentence. Empathy, relatability, and sorrow are all emotions which help bond a reader to a character. Does the book open with a loved one dying? The MC’s life being turned upside down? Something risky or dangerous which has high stakes for the protagonist? What makes the reader care? Why should they stick around? Convince them. Even scenes which might seem “slow” can have action, as long as there is conflict. Here is a great post about the difference between action and conflict.
3. Find something that will relate to the overarching purpose/theme of the novel – I think examples are better suited to illustrating this concept. In The Hunger Games, Katniss wakes up to find her sister missing, and discovers her in bed with their mother. Seems slow, right? Well even though this is a quiet opening, it foreshadows everything to come – Prim is in her mother’s bed because she’s dreading the upcoming Reaping, and the consequences of possibly getting chosen. Mary E. Pearson’s YA novel Kiss of Deception also begins with what could be called a quiet start – the MC is having her wedding kavah carved into her back. Importance? This act will still define her royalty, even after she runs away – the twist which takes place in the following few chapters. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium begins with internalization, which is often said to be a big no-no, but which instantly grabs the reader with the hook – in the MC’s world, love is a disease. In Janice Hardy’s novel, The Shifter, the opening finds the protagonist Nya stealing eggs. Why is this important? She’s a thief, and that colors everything about her world and choices. These examples all have on common thread – they suck the reader into the world immediately, and relate to the overarching theme of the book.
In my latest completed manuscript WHAT LIES ABOVE, the first draft was rough. Even after all the edits, I began querying with sample pages that were mainly comprised of the world’s largest info-dump. I spent the first several pages describing my MC’s city – information which is reiterated throughout the novel anyway. One of the comments that was mentioned in an R&R request from an agent was, among other things, the slow opening. Finding a new starting place was hard, because I felt like no scene fit. Eventually, though, I asked myself what would show the world through action instead of words, and decided on a new opening scene. Was it enough? I don’t know. But I’m grateful for the change anyway, because I think it strengthens the manuscript substantially.The reason I share my own experience is because it illustrates what might happen – that agent really liked the idea for my novel, and may have loved my query even, but sample pages can either strengthen or drag down a great pitch. And in the end, the novel is what readers will see, not the query. The writing itself must hold up, and that requires grabbing the reader and pulling them into your world. Does your novel start too early? Too late? Do your sample pages leave an agent wanting more, or feeling disappointed in a great query but flat opening? Share your experience in the comments! Find this post and more on Facebook at www.facebook.com/authorcaitlinlambert