Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse breaks down what she looks for in the first ten pages of a manuscript.
Helllooo! In my last installment on the Conspiracy of Ravens blog, I talked about query letters. I likened them to that first impression handshake (or fist bump or awkward Zoom wave) at the beginning of a job interview. And then I promised a follow-up blog on what agents are looking to see in the first ten pages of a manuscript. That was a while ago, but I am keeping my promise and here is the post.
And it is interesting that I start off talking about a promise. Because, from my point of view, that is exactly what the first ten pages is. It is a promise between you, the author, and the reader who picks up your book. At the very least, you’re promising to tell a story that will be worth their time. But the best of promises are clear in their terms, and the best ten pages must also be clear in what the author plans to deliver. So what are those terms that an agent is looking for in the first ten pages?
1. Your promise
Within the first ten pages, the reader should be able to tell what genre your book is and be able to answer the question: “What is the book you’re reading about?” These expectations should not be left to jacket blurbs or cover art. They need to be set, authoritatively, in the first few pages.
A little story to demonstrate what I mean: Several years ago, a dear friend whose taste in books is impeccable recommended to me M. R. Carey’s book, The Girl With All The Gifts. I’d heard this title floating about, but I knew nothing about it. Trusting my friend, I bought it. I didn’t read a review or a jacket synopsis, but I did look at the cover, an orange-y yellow with the silhouette of a young girl holding out her arms to meet the world. Inspiring! And the front cover blurbs: “Completely compelling!” “Heartfelt and painfully human!” “Thrilling!”
Well, it looked uplifting. It had such a hopeful title. And it just so happened that I was due to recommend a book for my neighborhood book club, a group that consisted of sweet, mostly older, women who loved historicals, or romances, or inspiring non-fiction that sparked good conversation. So, I suggested this book, it was accepted, and I started reading that night.
Within ten pages I knew I had made a grave mistake!
This was no light romance beach read. This was no entertaining mystery. This was no heartfelt family drama. Within ten pages, I knew I was in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where children were held captive and experimented upon and…were possibly zombies?
I WAS THRILLED.
Also, I emailed the book club and immediately changed the selection to something else, which I read and promptly forgot. Thankfully, Mike Carey knows how to write, and his first ten pages let me know he was writing a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, and he kept his promise. The Girl With All The Gifts remains one of my top ten favorite books, gripping, gorgeous writing, amazing characters, great themes, and an ending that will blow your mind. But it wasn’t right for my book club.
So, make sure you don’t promise your reader a romantic beach read but then really give them a zombie thriller. A reader should know in the first few pages what kind of book you’re writing and what it’s going to be about.
If you can’t grab a reader’s attention and hook them in the first ten pages, then your book is not going to sell. So, revise those ten pages over and over and make sure you’ve made a clear promise to your reader.
2. The story world
This encompasses more than just the setting. It is a snapshot of the character’s life before the inciting incident. We must see the protagonist before they’re faced with a change in order to truly understand the gravity of what the inciting incident means to them.
This is just a glimpse, but the reader does need to feel grounded so that the importance of the choice the protagonist makes at the Inciting Incident makes sense. This sets the stage so that the central conflict, which should also be hinted at in these pages through character desire, is understood.
3. Character desire — internal and external
Within the first ten pages, we should meet your character and be able to identify what they want, both internally (emotionally) and externally (concretely).
Back to The Girl With All The Gifts. It was clear in the first ten pages that the protagonist was Melanie, a brilliant child kept in chains because she is feared, but who loves her teacher, Helen, devotedly and desires to please those in authority. She wants love and acceptance (internal/emotional desire). She thinks she can earn it by being good and pleasing others (goal and controlling belief). The promise of the book is that her desire (acceptance) is at odds with how others view her (fear) and that this will cause a problem throughout. It does.
4. The stakes
Character desire naturally leads to stakes, and stakes are what make a story. Readers will only know what is at stake when they know what the character wants. And they will only invest in the story when they know what is at stake. The reader should have some sense of stakes at the end of the first ten pages.
In The Girl With All The Gifts, we don’t have a true sense of what is at stake at the big-picture level at the end of the first ten pages, but we do sense the stakes for Melanie. She is kept chained and isolated and is feared by adults. It’s clear that if she doesn’t get love and acceptance she desires, she could be in great danger. The reader understands her personal stakes, even if only slightly, and that creates reader investment that keeps the pages turning.
This is of course, much harder to define. However, I still contend that the unique voice of a book needs to be evident from the first sentence of the first page of the book, and it needs to stay consistent until the last page. This consistency creates reader trust in the narrator — and the writer. The voice is what promises that the author has what it takes to deliver on the promise that they making and makes the books stand out in the crowded market.
So what are the most common mistakes I see in first pages?
- Opening with the wrong kind of action. The common wisdom is to start your book “in media res,” or in the middle of things. The idea is that you should start the book in the middle of an action that will immediately hook the reader. And this is true! But not all action is created equal.
The scene in which you begin your book needs to be one where the action has a purpose and reveals the character’s desires. I would argue that it is seeing those desires played out, not the action itself, that is what hooks the reader. I see a lot of first pages where the action is exciting and interesting, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the character or the world.
- Opening too far into the story. Sometimes pages open with exciting action and a character who is interesting, but the groundwork hasn’t been set yet for the scene. The stakes are presented (the what), but the character’s desire is not (the why) — the result is that I ask, “so what?” It is important to give the reader a snapshot of what the world is like before the story truly starts so that when the character is thrust into action/conflict, the reader understands what they want and why.
- No sense of what the character wants and no stakes. It’s hard to connect with the character if we can’t see what they want, and it’s hard to invest in a story if the stakes are unclear.
- The voice is not unique. If this book reads like something that 9/10 people could write or something that’s been written before, then it will be a pass. The market is too competitive.
In sum, the first ten pages of a book carry a lot of weight! But one reason they carry so much weight with agents and editors is that they carry a lot of weight with readers. In this day and age, there is a lot to compete for our time. If you can’t grab a reader’s attention and hook them in the first ten pages, then your book is not going to sell. So, revise those ten pages over and over and make sure you’ve made a clear promise to your reader. If you can do that, all you have to do is keep them engaged through the next 180 pages. Easy, right?