Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Literal First Five Pages

Dear Ms. Rejector,

I've seen a lot of agents request the first five pages of a manuscript along with the query letter. This frustrates me a bit, because the prologue to my book is seven pages long, and I think an agent would be more enticed by the whole prologue than just the first five pages. So my options, as I see them, are:

1. Bite the bullet and only send 5 pages
2. Revise my prologue to be 5 pages long
3. Use 11pt font or 1.5 spaced lines to make it 5 pages long and hope the agent doesn't care/notice. Or better yet, if it's an email query, just send the text as part of the email and pretend it's 5 pages.
4. Send all seven pages, but be up front in the query letter ("I've sent you the first seven pages of my novel along with this query..."), and hope I don't get tossed aside for not following the specific instructions

Which of these options seems the most viable? Are any of them
completely idiotic and suicidal?

Actually, you've got a number of options open to you, but please use 12 point font. Our eyes, our eyes!

You can:

(1) Bite the bullet and send the first five pages, because those are also pages the agent will have to eventually like anyway, and if they aren't dramatically different from your general writing style, and your writing is good, that shouldn't be a terrible worry.

(2) Send seven pages. We won't really care if it's actually seven. On the other hand, we might not make it to page 6.

(3) Punch up the first five pages of the prologue.

(4) Send the first five pages of the novel proper, if they're understandable without the prologue. This makes a good deal of sense in many cases, when the prologue is a literary device or an informational device and doesn't actually look a lot like those overworked, perfect pages you mean to be your opening. We won't get mad at you. If you get a request for the actual manuscript afterwards, you might want to say something like, "There is now a prologue" so we don't get all confused. We get a lot of partials, and sometimes we forget who they're from or what they're about during the wait.

Note to all authors: When an agent requests the first five, he/she generally means the first five; this is the only case where he/she doesn't. Don't send the first five of the eighth chapter because you think the writing is the best in the beginning of the eighth chapter. The writing should be great everywhere.


ORION said...

I hear this question over and over- & the resulting trauma..."but my REAL story gets going at page (insert here) 8, 12, 29,-- shouldn't I send THAT?"
As a reader I look at the first PARAGRAPH. That's how long you have to grab me. As a writer I like to have the reader hooked by my first SENTENCE.
If the first page of your prologue does not make a reader CRAZY to read the rest of the book then why is it there?
If it's just for background information then figure out another way IMHO.
I love books that throw me right into the thick of the action and make ME find my way.

Rob said...

This may sound like a dumb question, but when is a prologue needed, appropriate, or suggested?

I don't read prologues (at least not often), and most people I know reading and/or writer wannabes (like myself) frequently don't read them either.

Anonymous said...

That's very true. The reason for requesting the first 5 pages is because the agent wants to see if that sells it, because in reality for an publisher (and ultimately the reader), that is what will really sell the book itself. I know books I read just because the first page is so good- it's the most important part, since attention spans are so short these days (and I'm not one to talk :) )

I do think, though, that these days people should request the first 3 pages, page 100, page 250 and the first page of the last chapter. That way, you can see the structure of the book and if it just sags in the middle (when someone asks me to preview their book, I ask for those first and I can usually fill in the story).

Kim Rossi Stagliano said...

Oh! Hi, Orion!! I laugh at myself on this one. Having read Miss Snark and wanting to follow EVERY rule to the letter I sent a partial request for "X" pages with exactly "X" pages. Even though I had half a sentence at the bottom of the final page. (I know, I know, so dumb!) Another writer clued me in that I was allowed to send an extra page if it meant finishing a thought.

Pat, sounds like something your character Perry L. Crandall fro Lottery might do, doesn't it? "Must follow rules." ;)

Anonymous said...

Orion - As the original asker of this question, allow me to explain myself. It isn't that my story starts at page seven. The first scene ends at page seven, and while I do my best to make all seven pages (particularly the first one) interesting and exciting to read, I still think having a complete scene would be more enticing than having it cut off early.

Allow me to use an example. The movie Kill Bill opens up with the vivid image of a woman in a wedding dress lying bleeding on the floor, with bullet casings all around. She is speaking to an off-screen antagonist, who is obviously responsible for her predicament. The scene ends with her saying, "It's your baby--" and being cut off by him shooting her.

While the scene, as a whole, draws you in and is very powerful, the startling conclusion of it is an even bigger 'hook' to the audience. It wouldn't be as effective as if you cut it off 5-10 seconds early.

In any case, thank you for the response, Ms. Rejector, as well as all the other assistance you give on this site.

Anonymous said...

In this era when many agents request pages, partials, and fulls by Email, why don't they ask for the full ms anyway? If they can't get past the first few pages, it is an easy DELETE, and if they like it, think of the time saved. It is not as if they are accumulating physical clutter in the office.

Zany Mom said...

I think I'm finally at that stage in my writing and critical reading that I'm starting to see what works and what doesn't in those opening paragraphs. What will keep me reading further? What turns me off? Mostly what turns me off is the writing is clunky (says she of the clunky writing! LOL)

But recognizing clunky is the first step to eliminating clunky.

The first five pages is plenty of writing for an agent to know if it works or not. I do agree to finish the sentence (or paragraph) though, and not leave it mid-thought.

I'm also learning that if the story takes off on page 5, then pages 1-4 need to go ::chop, chop::.

Anonymous said...

But there are so many people pounding it into writer's heads that the first page/five pages have to throtle the reader that after awhile it loses its appeal.

For me, unless the book is supposed to be a rip-roaring suspense thriller type of manuscript, I don't think every first page has to start with a body or a killing or a chase scene. I think editors are looking mainly for voice -- you know, if there is one -- and whether or not the voice interests them. It doesn't take very many pages to figure that out. I'd say two tops. Who cares if the first sentence/paragraph grabs you if the execution falls quick and fast after.

Rob said...

I agree that you don't have to start with a body or anything so graphic, but the first pages do need to include a hook.

One of my favorites from a recent book was John Scalzi's "Old Man's War." It started something like this:
"I did two things when I turned seventy-five. I visited my wife's grave and I joined the military."

The line about joining the military at 75 created intrigue on how that worked. No body, but there was one line that helped set the tone and direction.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Your blog is a lot nicer than the Evil Editor. When I saw "the Rejecter", my mind changed it to "the Terminator" and I was almost afraid to read. ;)

I had the same problem when I sent my book off to the Lori Perkins agency. I took the approach of crunching in seven pages and *pretending* it was five. It worked, and I'm in negotiations right now. I'll bet it's a rare agent that actually copies and pastes the "first five pages" into Microsoft Word just to count the pages.

Come to think of it... sounds like something Ms. Snark might have done.

- JustABand

Anonymous said...

"For a long time I used to go to bed early." (First line from "Swann's Way".) Then Proust takes approximately 40 enchanting pages to describe his difficulty getting to sleep as a child. Do you think he would be published today?