Saturday, November 04, 2017

Look at me, I'm this...oh wait, no I'm that other thing

Should writers tailor their first page(s) to attract a request, even though the first page(s) may not mirror the rest of the manuscript in either tone or style?

I know attached pages should be stellar, but must the ultimate judgment of plot occur within 250 words?

Do you ever answer your own questions when you write them out?

I'm perplexed about why you'd think it's a good idea to change the tone or style of a book to attract readers only to change tone or style after the first pages.

I think there was a term for this: bait and switch.

You're making some erroneous assumptions here as well: I don't make a judgment about the plot from the query. I decided if I want to read the book (and that is the material I use to decide.)

The purpose of a query is to entice me to read the book. It's not to lay out the plot. It's not to introduce me to the world you've created.

Mismatched tone is one of things that sends me right to the rejection button. I see this when writers use a light breezy tone to talk about scary things (like shark fin soup.)  Or a somber tone when talking about kittens.

As with many writers who are meticulous, you're over-thinking this.
Tell me what the book is about in the plainest, yet most enticing way you can.
It's really simple, but it's sure not easy.

And yes, I often realize the answer to something only after I've written about it.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Today's menu?

Did you know that shark fin soup is illegal in the US (other parts are okay)and that the fin of the shark is rather tasteless and used for texture?
Does this mean our queen is safe but lacks relish and is cuddly?

Um...found my season ticket to Carkoon and am on my way. (Left my fishing gear at home.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

If I can get the agent through my query, they will be hooked. Hooked I tell you. But my gosh I have query block. Which is fine. I have revisions to do. Yeah, I will be querying six months later than I planned. I meant to be querying in August.

This is hard. Why is this so hard? All I want is an agent with super powers and a six figure publishing deal with a reputable publisher and possibly a Hugo? Is that too much to ask?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Mismatched tone is why I put books down, especially after I finish reading a prologue that has me jazzed and then Chapter 1 is flatter than a Loony Tunes character after the steamroller came through.

At the library, we have patrons who will take home any movie. Any movie. It's something to watch, I guess? I don't know. Their lack of discernment weirds me out.

However. I can't think of a single person who will take just any book. Regardless of whether I agree with the way they assess ("Oh that author I like has a new book in the mystery section? Well I don't read that." [which further speaks to shelving an author together, I guess, regardless of where s/he has written to]), they do assess. If they love an author, they want the backlist. If they finish an author, they want a readalike. If an author's new book is coming out, they're there to place the hold.

So, in my way of thinking, that first spark with an author happens in the first pages, and the rest of the book dictates whether that relationship is going to last. If the first 250 words are golden and then the 251st word turns to straw, I'll stick it out a little while longer just to be sure. But not for very long!

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Rats! No fun & games during the dark night of the soul? Actually, I tried that in my first draft. My crit partners called me out. The fun & games decreased the tension and irritated them. What as I thinking?

There's that word again...meticulous. It makes me take a long-time with my writing because I want a stellar story and being meticulous takes sooo much time because I'm still learning the craft. Ah well, at least when I'm in the midst of writing/revising, I'm lost in an enthralling world (to me) far far away. Now if I can just get it all on paper, the way it is in my head.

Happy writing day, Reiders!

Steve Stubbs said...

Look at it this way. You walk into a bookstore and picl upa novel by Wanda B. Auteur. The title is THIS BOOK SUCKS, but you open it anyway. You read the first couple of pages. If the first page contains a warning from the editor, "This this is boring as hell until you get past the first 200 pages," would you buy it?

Probably not.

If the first page says something like, "I didn't want to kill her. But when I walked into my house and found out she wasted my entire extended family and intended to kill me - well, then, I had no choice. My bayonet dripped all over my clean white shirt when I pulled it out of her chest. At that moment I heard the police banging on my front door. I panicked. The cops would blame me for ALL the murders" - would you read that?

I wouldn't. It's not intense enough for me. But a lot of people would. One thing you would know: this book is not boring as hell for the first 200 pages.

The first page is crucial if you want to make a sale. Literary agents do this for fun. They don't care about money. But publishers do care. They are a greedy, venal lot.

They want to make money. I like people like that.

The way I see it:

(1) Write the query first. If you can't write one page, you can't write 400 pages.

(2) Write the opening first. If the book does not open, nobody will read it.

(3) Write a compelling ending next. That will be a compass point for everything that comes after the beginning.

(4) Discount opinions from unskilled nitwits like me.

Jessica said...

Ah, I sympathize with this so much OP! All my queries (all two of them, ha) end up sounding funny. Everyone reads it and say "omg this sounds like so much fun!" or "wow, this character sounds so funny!" But the problem books aren't funny. At least, *I* don't think they're funny. They're kind of dark, kind of depressing, kind of...opposite of funny. But people who read my queries (okay, not agents because of the zombie aspect but what can you do) say they'd read the book 100%. So do I edit to make it sound more serious or if it's not broke, don't fix it?

Matt Adams said...

That's a harder question than it appears. While I don't think you should change the voice of the book in those first pages, i think it's a good idea to accelerate the plot in them. If an agent is only asking for the first five pages, there needs to be something those first five pages to capture their interest, so I do think you need to tailor what you send out to hit plot points. So if you wanted to write a book that built slowly, that's hard to do and capture interest in the first few pages. Or if you wanted to lay a lot of groundwork before the action starts -- that's harder to do and still query successfully.

While I'm at it, I do think a great opening can get a book sold, even if the rest of the book is not as good. Or even crap. I can't tell you the number of books I've read that started really strong and ended terribly -- not sad, but that the plot and the pacing and everything fell apart two thirds of the way through. Station 11 was like that -- I thought Gone Girl died shortly after the reveal. So -- and I'm packing for Carkoon now -- I think Janet's wrong. If you can start them strong -- strong to the point of them thinking "this is amazing" I think that will carry through to positive feelings even if the rest of the book doesn't hold up.

Not that I'm suggesting that as a literary strategy.

Colin Smith said...

Guidelines. Guidelines guidelines guidelines. That's what I keep telling myself. There are no query rules, only guideline. The query has ONE job. Make the agent want to request. I suppose that means the query could simply say, "Read my book and I'll send you a million dollars," but I suppose the agent would only be interested if she knew you were good for the money. Which is kind of like the agent requesting to read the pages based on the promise of the query. If the query sounds fun and exciting, she expects fun and exciting pages.

Like Janet said, simple, but not easy. I'm not looking forward to writing the query for my NaNo project. It'll probably be one of the hardest queries I've written. If I query it. I'm still not sure it's publishable. But then I think that about most things I write, so there you go! :)

All the best, Opie! :D

Susan Bonifant said...

I imagine most of us have wrestled with this without any intention to mislead.

The mechanics of the "perfect" query aside, what you hear over and over is that the query is your one shot, that agents have to be drawn in, hooked, riveted, compelled by your descriptive, yet economical language.

I'm exaggerating, but some books roll out like a tide more than flash flood. I get that a writer would worry about aligning the parameters above with a more gentle manuscript.

I'm glad s/he asked this question.

But that said, we've all read stories of successful, compelling queries that represented books with quieter personalities. To me, as complicated as we make it, it comes down to exactly what gracious agents tell us when they have to pass: "I know you'll find a home for this."

You have to find the right eyes.

Amy Schaefer said...

If you think a different tone or voice is going to work better to draw agents (and, presumably, other readers) in, then perhaps the whole book should be written in that tone/voice.

Amy Johnson said...
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John Davis Frain said...

I wrote a vomment pushing 200 words and realized I was being the opposite of concise. It means one thing: time to jump into Nano with both feet flying. I'm in love with the early pages, which scares the bejeebers outta me. (Good riddance, who needs extra bejeebers haunting them?)

This was a thoughtful question, Opie. Glad you asked . Wish I had a precise answer. But why worry about my answer when the Queen already provided.

Amy Johnson said...

Yes to what first Amy said (same names think alike?). Hope all goes well, Opie.

I wanted to mention I reviewed the past three days' posts before beginning today's writing (even though I'm not doing NaNo). Very helpful. I'm thinking I'll make a point of reviewing them from time to time. Thanks, Janet.

Barbara Etlin said...

I've been thinking about why I'm so upset about the plot twist at the end of a novel I read recently. Now I have the answer. It's not a plot twist. It's a bait-and-switch. Made me wish for a time machine so I could un-buy the book.

Karen McCoy said...

So much this. The query's job is to entice the reader to look at pages--but the pages need to sing too. This is what I will be working on during NaNo.

Ardenwolfe said...
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Ardenwolfe said...

Please keep in mind that readers, the ones you want to buy your book, decide after skimming the back cover and reading the first few sentences. Yes, 'ultimate' judgment happens in the first 250 words for most readers.

Hell . . . the first hurdle is often less than five words: The title. If that doesn't entice, readers move to the next offering on the shelf.

That's just reality.

Timothy Lowe said...

I've been there too, OP. You get a few rejections from a query-plus-pages and you begin to really analyze both. I've rewritten openings dozens of times.

But it all needs to sing, not just the opening. Cause this is a long game. Not just a "hey, request my manuscript" game. There are a lot more steps, and if the ultimate goal is world domination (insert diabolical laughter), then the book not only has to pass the publication test, it needs to get people to mention it to other people in an OMG-read-this-book-now kind of way.

It's as high a hurdle as breaking into the music industry or selling your paintings. And that precisely is why we all do it.

In other words, we're nuts.

OT - I eschewed NaNo this year but listening to the Twittering of those participating is very inspiring. Keep up the good fight, people!

Craig F said...

The only things that come close to how badly I write queries are my beginnings and endings.

Beginnings are tough because you have to find the right place to cut into the pie of life. There is always more backstory.

Ending are tough because there are always survivors and finding an up beat point is also tough.

I am getting better at all three. It takes practice. With enough practice you develop confidence. When you have confidence you can see the world more clearly. I almost feel confident enough to send my Queen a query for a thriller

The big thing on the beginning is to ground your readers in the world you have imagined. A big action scene is not as important as getting your readers comfortably settled and enticed into turning the page.

BJ Muntain said...

I can't see why anyone would want their first pages to have a different tone or style than the rest, for any reason. Yes, your first pages have to reel people in, but the rest have to keep them there. Yes, your first pages have to be as good as you can make them - but so does the rest of the novel. OP is putting too much emphasis on getting agents to request - that is NOT the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to sell the ENTIRE novel to the agent, the publisher, and the reader.

Agents reject on fulls all the time. (Of course, in Janet's case, with all the fulls she's collected, I'm sure she probably wants to have more of these, simply because it means she can quickly reject them and get on to the good fulls.)

(Sorry for the long post. I won't do this often.)

AJ Blythe said...

Number one rule of publishing: write the best book you can. It doesn't matter about anything else because if it's the best you can do than the rest is down to luck...your book needs to land onto the right desk at the right time, and you have no control over that.

How do you twist the first pages to get an agents attention when every agent is different? If there was a trick to it we'd all be doing it.

Sadly there's no magic formula. Hard work and determination (and a little insanity) will get you published.

Good luck, OP.

Kregger said...

Hi Reiders,

Opie here.

I posed this question to our beloved QOTKU right after I attended a seminar from a freelance editor who previously blogged for Writer's Digest. The class was very interesting and reiterated practically everything Ms. Reid has written since I have been reading her blog since 2009. His rants weren't quite as "epic" but were pretty cool.

I have to take continuing education every year for my job. I consider myself fortunate to get one nugget of information in eight hours of class time. This class was a gold mine.

What caused my last neuron to fire was this editor's statement after reading the first page of my MS(anonymously), besides pointing out a few bonehead errors, was he would have liked to have read the query ahead of time. Well, that put my hamster wheel into hyperdrive.

I, of course, forgot to slow down before emailing Ms. Reid.

The best advice is to write the best novel possible, not what I think an agent wants to read. *head slap* and repeat.

Here's the golden nugget: For those writers willing to self-publish. If you write a trilogy, sales can be flat for novels 1 & 2, but then take off for all three books once #3 is released. The explanation is the "binging" nature of today's society.

Who'd a thunk it?

Back to watching football and the grandkids.


Anonymous said...

Kregger, that's interesting. Hearing that might have fired up my hamster wheel as well. But maybe it's the equivalent of wanting to read the back cover copy before reading a novel, just so you know what kind of story it is. I don't think that's a bad thing at all-- sounds to me like interest, actually. No one goes into a bookstore or library and randomly grabs a book to take home without knowing what it's about. So he wanted to know more!

Glad to hear the class was a good one.

Julie Weathers said...


"Endings are tough because there are always survivors and finding an up beat point is also tough."

Agreed, what I had settled on for my new ending, the first Bettle of Manassas had some favorite characters dying, some new characters readers are going to attach to dying, and the MC feeling pretty broken after witnessing the destruction. It's a powerful bit, but it's depressing. A best selling author I did a blue pencil with a Surrey read part of it and told me later he thought about the _____ all night. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but the scene stays.

I decided I needed to end on something less depressing and switched two earlier chapters to the end. It isn't necessarily a happy ending, but it's a hopeful ending.

It's tough walking just the right line.

Cyn said...

I had an example of a bait and switch this weekend. I started watching a film on Netflix that was intriguing for the first hour and a half. I stayed up till past 1 A.M. watching. Got too tired, and finished it the next day. The plot took a 180, and not in a good way. Such a disappointment.

Also, lately every book I pick up to try reading has disappointed me half way through. I get bored. And these are highly recommended books.

Maybe these books are baiting an switching too.

Or maybe it's me. Patricia Highsmith's The Blunderer is holding my attention, though.