I attended a virtual writing workshop last weekend in which there was a panel of agents providing feedback on a random selection of first pages anonymously submitted by attendees. It provided a fascinating (yet also terrifying) vision of how agents review material sent to them by authors and how quick they are to stop reading (as the moderator read out the first pages the agents raised their hands at the moment they would have stopped reading and when 3 out of 4 agents had their hands raised, the reading stopped and the critique began). Given our own first page critiques here at TKZ I was interested to see whether agents had any different takes/perspectives when reading those critical first pages provided them on submission. Not surprisingly this panel revealed just how critical the first page is – and how quick agents will stop reading! Of the twenty or so first pages read out, only one survived being read out in its entirety. For many pages, agents didn’t even get past the first paragraph…yikes, right?!
Now, none of the agents on this panel were cruel or unusually critical, but it was depressing to witness how many basic issues doomed these first pages. By the end of the panel, it was also clear that these agents (which came from a variety of backgrounds and interests when it came to representation) were pretty consistent (often unanimous) on the particular issues that made them stop reading. As a result, I thought it might be helpful for our brave first-page submitters as well as other TKZers to summarize these issues. So here we go with a list of the ‘top 5 issues that will make an agent stop reading your first page’…
- Beginning with the weather…we had a remarkable number of entries that had detailed descriptions of the weather in the first paragraph and the agents were like ‘ugh’ unless it served a very unique or useful purpose. Bottom line – don’t.
- Beginning with only exposition…again a large number of first pages had no real action, dialogue, or even character interaction in the first page. Many entries had only exposition and backstory. Bottom line…agents didn’t care enough about the character to read this – so save the exposition for later!
- Having a character alone…this was an interesting take from a couple of the agents who really didn’t like first pages where the character is all on their own. The principal reason for this was that doing this limited the author’s ability to show character and increased the potential for exposition and introspection rather than action and dramatic tension. Bottom line – better to show character through action and interaction/dialogue on a first page than resort to telling/exposition.
- Unnecessary verbiage or description…One of the main reasons agents stopped reading was the overuse of adverbs, adjectives, or descriptions which slowed down the pace of the action. On one first page, there was a three-paragraph description of the main character waking wondering if he was dead. The agents were like, establish this in one line and move on! Likewise, they did not like flowery, overly descriptive prose. Bottom line…word choice matters. Say it in one word, not three:)
- Being cliched! It was clear that this panel of agents had seen it all so they nixed any opening that felt worn and cliched. The list of cliched openings in these first pages included characters waking up and not knowing where they were/who they were or if they were alive; running for a flight in an airport; meeting someone in a bar; planning a heist…you get the picture. They also stopped reading as soon as characters turned into stock standard cliches – like the brilliant but eccentric misfit, the bitter divorcee or the alcoholic former cop…again, you get the picture. Bottom line…Be fresh!
Although this agent panel was pretty depressing to watch (as I said, only one of the entries passed muster!), it was clear that all these agents wanted to love these first pages. They wanted to be inspired to read on! And all of the issues that stopped them reading are same issues that present themselves time and time again when we read and critique first pages at The Kill Zone (so there’s no particular mystery or magic as to what agents are after!). Bottom line – any writer who is able to cast the same critical eye over his/her own work is ready to make the changes necessary to craft an amazing first page.