Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why I Reject a Novel Based on Your First Page

Someone asked me the other day if I nix a manuscript based on the first page. Truthfully, I do.

The first page indicates your voice and the quality of your writing. As an agent with a pretty full list of clients, I am looking only for writers who are as good or better than the writers I already represent. Why? Because my reputation as an agent is based on my ability to spot talent. I owe it to my clients to uphold the reputation they have helped me build, to the editors I work with and hope to work with so I do not waste their time, and to myself.

Here are a few examples of what I consider fantastic first pages that represent each author's voice and talent. As I typed them out I realized that one thing that stands out to me in all these examples is the specifics the authors use.....

From A MATTER OF SOULS by Denise Lewis Patrick, edited by Andrew Karre (Carolrhoda LAB)

The Colored Waiting Room

Elsie Timmons had gone through the wrong door. Maybe it was a mistake. All she knew was that her mama, Luther Mae, was hollering at the top of her lungs for her to "Bring her womanish behind back, right now!"

In fact, there didn't seem to be any other sounds at all on that late summer day in front of Dr. Baker's neat brick office building. Just the strange, trumpeting tone of Luther Mae Timmon's words.

"Girl, I said come back here!" Elsie had to turn around. Her mama's voice sounded shaky, that way it always did when Pap bought her a tiny sack of peppermints along with his paycheck, or when that big black phone would ring and she'd sit down hard, because somebody-some cousin or aunt, or uncle's first wife-had died.

Elsie had to shade her eyes; fall hadn't set in deep enough yet to dull the brightness of the Southern sun. As the automatic glass door began to shut, Elise could see her mother out there, slapping her thigh in, it was fear! The navy pleats fanned in and out each strike, and Elsie imagined the nasty red welts that must be rising on her mother's Carnation-milk skin. Elsie put her brown hand on the door handle. She was torn, and just a little bit worried.

But before she eased her mother's mind, before she let herself go back to being the "sweet, levelheaded child" that everybody at Galilee Baptist said she was, she had to see.

From SUPER SCHNOZ AND THE GATES OF SMELL by Gary Urey, edited by Kristin Ostby and Kelly Barrales-Saylor (Albert Whitman)

My name is Andy Whiffler and I was born with a humongous honker.

I'm talking a nose so big it should have come with a warning label, a schnoz so enormous little people could use it as a sledding hill, a pie sniffer so massive that if someone was walking beside me and I turned my head suddenly to the left, I'd knock them out cold.

You get the idea.

The weird thing is that everyone else in my family has adorable little button noses. Noses so perfect they'd make a supermodel jealous.

There's a reason why I have a huge beak. When mom was pregnant with me, the pharmacist mixed up her pre-natal vitamins with a steroid for nasal congestion. The effect was disastrous. The steroid overstimulated a gland in my brain that made my nose grow and keep on growing. And I can never have a nose job because there's a major artery that connects from my nasal septum to my brain.

If I snip off my snout, I'm a goner.

Besides the lawsuit money, there's only one good thing that came from the ordeal-I have an amazing sense of smell. I'm talking super-power worthy. I was around the age of two when I first became aware of this talent. My earliest memory is sitting in the living room when a luscious aroma wafted into my nostrils.

Chocolate-chop cookies.

My nose told me the smell wasn't coming from our kitchen. I toddled out the door in my diaper and walked into the street. Since Mom was asleep on the couch and Dad was at work, no one saw me leave.

The sweet scent let me across a main highway, through an auto salvage yard, across a set of busy railroad tracks, and finally to the little white house with yellow curtains. The two-mile journey took me four hours to complete.

From DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE by Julie Williams, edited by Nancy Mercado (Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan)

The theater is lit up like an opening-night gala celebrating the first show of the season. It's graduation night, the second Thursday in June, and this gala is all about me.

JESSIE JASPER name on the marquee in lights.

well, the marquee actually reads THE JUMBLE PLAYERS. But a dozen Japanese maples dotting the patio are sparkling with lights. All the windows in the old mansion part of the theater are twinkling, too.

And there IS a huge banner strung across the stage door that reads WAY TO GO, JESSIE!

My dad hops out of the front passenger seat and runs around to open the limo door for me.

My best friend Bits leans over me, letting out a huge sigh. "Oooooh! I never see it like this. I'm always inside by now."

"I know! It's gorgeous, isn't it?"

"Like Broadway!" From Bits that's the highest praise. "And tonight it's all for you!"

She gives me a shove.

I tumble out into the driveway. For such a tiny person-not even five feet tall-Bits sure is strong.

She slides out after me. "Let's go see what David's got to eat..." She's also skinny as a rail and always hungry. I'm always hungry, too. But when your five foot eight at fifteen that's a given.

Mom had gracefully alighted from the massive Hummer limo. I envy that grace. She and Bits are the same hight and so much alike you'd think Bits was her kid, not her niece. (My aunt Loretta looks like a linebacker.) Like Bits and unlike me, Mom has full control of all her limbs.

She grabs my dad's hand, and they lead the way towards the stage door.

Let me just say, that though we live a dramatic life, we are not accustomed to this extravagant mode of transportation. Okay, the truth is I've never ridden in any kind of limo before. And Hummers are-well, kind of disgusting. Plus, we live only two houses down from the theatre (572 steps to be exact), and my main transportation for going anywhere else has always been the city bus system. If it weren't for our tech director's other life running a limo service, we'd be in the theater van.

From BLIND SPOT by Laura Ellen, edited by Karen Grove (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Winter stopped hiding Tricia Farni on Good Friday.

A truck driver, anxious to shave forty minutes off his commute, ventured across the shallow section of the Birch River used as an ice bridge all winter. His truck plunged into the frigid water, and as rescuers worked to save him and his semi, Tricia’s body floated to the surface.

She’d been missing since the incident in the loft six months ago. But honestly, she didn’t come to mind when I heard that a girl’s body had been found. I was that sure she was alive somewhere, making someone else’s life miserable. Maybe she was shacking up with some drug dealer, or hooking her way across the state, whatever. But she was definitely alive.

Easter morning that changed.

“The body of seventeen-year-old Tricia Farni was pulled from the Birch River Friday night. A junior at Chance High School, Tricia disappeared October 6 after leaving a Homecoming party at Birch Hill. Police believe her body has been in the water since the night she disappeared.”

I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Tricia was a lot of things, a drug addict, a bitch, a freak, but dead? No. She was a survivor. Something—the only thing—I admired about her. I stared at my clock radio, disbelieving the news reporter. Ninety percent talk, AM 760 was supposed to provide solace from my own wrecked life that weekend. I thought all those old songs with their sha-la-la-las and da-doo-run-runs couldn’t possibly trigger any painful memories. I guess when a dead girl is found in Birch, Alaska, and you were the last to see her alive, even AM 760 can’t save you from bad memories.

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  1. I love all your first pages. I do choose my books based on the first page. I love blogging about first lines/paragraphs. Currently I'm doing all the Crystal Kite finalists.
    Susan at Pen and Ink

  2. Thanks, Jill! The examples are great--not only are you telling us to be specific, you are showing us, which I appreciate. Great to study. One of my other favorites is the start of Something Wicked This Way Comes (not the prologue, but Chapter One). Makes me marvel anew at Ray Bradbury every time.

  3. All those first pages grabbe me - it's the voice and it's immediate. Great

  4. I loved all the first pages, they grabbed me instantly. Now I know why agents reject on the basis of the first page.


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