I've been querying again lately. The whole process makes me nervous. Pitching is always an anxious process, but this project is more important to me than anything I've written so far, so the tension is higher and the rejections have a harsher sting. I'm letting this round wrap up, and if nothing comes of it, it'll be time for the next round of revision.
I've got to where I'm pretty comfortable with my query as it stands. It was the basis of the in-person pitch that got a partial request from an agent at ALAWW, and I've had it critiqued by an Writer's House agent via The Manuscript Academy (this is a great resource for authors, by the way--I really recommend checking them out). From the feedback I've had on it, it's pretty solid. And I'm proud of that. It's not easy to distill 82,000 words of novel into a compelling two-paragraph pitch.
But, of course, a good query is only part of finding representation. What I've really been thinking about recently is first pages.
Most of the agents I've got on my query list ask for sample pages. The number of pages varies. One agent asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. One only asks for 3. Most want the first 10 pages or the first chapter. No matter how you look at it, there's not a lot of time to make an impression.
I've poured over my first chapter dozens of times. I've moved the starting point. I've sheared description and reframed sections from the character's point of view. I've cut words that create space between the reader and the character. I've played around with starting at a different point in the story entirely to change what the reader knows at the beginning. I'm trying to find a balance between compelling reading, connection to character, and a solid establishing of the world. I've had test readers and critique partners give feedback, and I've applied it--or at least tested it to see if it would work.
The first chapter--the first page--of a book has to do so much. I know what potential the entirety of my story has. I love the narrative and the characters--I have followed them through their journeys.
But a reader doesn't. I have to earn their time. If a reader doesn't like the first page, there's no guaranteeing that they'll read the second page--let alone the second chapter.
I've been reading and listening to podcasts and researching, trying to find advice on how to craft the best first page I can. It's overwhelming. But there are a few things that are common threads in all of the information.
A first page has to introduce the main character. That seems obvious, but it can be more complicated than it sounds. You have to give a sense of who the character is and what they want, and you have to do it without relying the cliche: things like waking up in the morning or getting ready for work (there are always exceptions--some authors can make these intros work, but more often they get boring).
The first page should introduce the conflict, or at least give a sense of it. I tell my students that, by the time I read through the introduction of their papers, I should know what to expect from the rest of the work. In some ways, this same principle applies to a first page. You don't have to telegraph the ending, but there should be something of a feeling that "oh, hey, this thing is probably going to be a problem."
On top of this, the first page should give a sense of the world. What is the structure and how does it inform people's actions and reactions? What are the rules? What is the character's place in all of it?
When you consider that a single page in the standard format-- Times New Roman 12 pt., double spaced, one-inch margins--is only about 250-300 words, you get a sense of what a tall order all of this is.
I've been trying to find ways to be more precise with my language. Some of this is dropping crutch words (the word "that" is a big one for me--also "had"). Some of it is finding ways for sentences to do double duty: to reveal something about the character while simultaneously introducing the conflict or building the world. It's improved my writing overall from where it was when I wrote my first book--even from the way I was writing at the beginning of the year. I don't know that I've "cracked the code," but I certainly have more tools in the toolbox than I did before.
There's still a lot of the process that's out of my control. I have no say over what editors are interested in. I can't control agents' personal preferences. Even an excellent first page won't excite someone who's not into the story idea. But I keep working on the things that I can address, and I'll do what I have to to make my work the best I can.