No, not literally. But those two words are something of a mantra for agents and editors. They want our queries and pages to grab them. Not so hard, right? Wrong. At least for me. Because what the fine print says, and it’s very fine print, is that we have to grab them in 5 pages if it’s a novel or only a couple of paragraphs if it’s a short story. So, no dilly-dallying around. No immediate launch into the detailed backstory of Grandma Sofie who died three years before the main character was born and for whom she’s named. Instead, it’s time to get right to hooking the reader either with characterization, action or both.
Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, has written a couple of blogs on this topic, as well as on the importance of reading — and following — submission guidelines.
It might not actually feel like five pages are enough to make an assessment. But isn’t that the same thing that happens with readers/consumers? They walk into the bookstore, pick up the book and read the back-cover which has a pitch (like a query has) and then flip it open and read the first couple pages to decide if they want to take it home. (May 22, 2009)
What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages? To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.). They don’t need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional. These pages don’t need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful — watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: “Start the story as late as you can.” Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That’s not why I’m reading them. I’m looking for a sense of things. The writer’s style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more. All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn’t any more. (May 29, 2009)
Agent Kristen Nelson blogged about a workshop she conducted a workshop called “2 minutes, 2 pages”. According to her, “[t]he purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why.” What she discovered is that the “openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented.” This doesn’t mean the scene had to meet the Die Hard test of bombs and bullets in the opening scene. All it means is that there must be something at stake for the character. That something can be a treasured keepsake that your character can’t find, waiting for a phone call that she knows will change her life, or an explosion. But it has to be something to draw the reader in and keep her turning the page and wanting more.
So, what keeps you reading past that first page? What do you put in those first five pages to keep the reader wanting more?