How to Lose an Agent in One Page
Let’s preface with a disclaimer: writing craft is HARD.
Every author has been through the inevitable rollercoaster of finding and losing a muse. Motivation to write can be especially difficult to maintain when a writer isn’t sure of what exactly agents are looking for. Every agent wish list contains very individual requirements, so I think it’s safe to say that author research of agents should be considered PARAMOUNT to the querying process.
However, after you’ve done your research and you’re ready to query, how do you know if your work will make a splash? Are you absolutely sure that your submission materials are cream of the crop? Will you ever hit that “submit” button with full confidence that your query and opening pages are as perfectly polished as possible?
Imposter syndrome never goes away. BUT, at the recent 2021 Pittsburgh Writing Workshop, I had the opportunity to attend a class where agents critique a collection of first pages. I’m by no means an expert on writing or the publishing industry, but I would love to share the advice I received during that session. Agents sift through mounds of queries on a monthly basis, so it’s important to know what first page pitfalls will majorly turn them off. Without further ado, let’s begin.
How to Lose an Agent in One Page…
1. Your story opens with a predictable cliche.
Whether your character wakes up in the morning, navigates through a dream, looks in a mirror/reflective surface to describe their appearance, or starts a journey via car or plane, unfortunately agents will not consider your first page as an exception to this criticism. While each of these ideas seem like a rational place to start a story, agents immediately lose interest if any of these beginnings show up on your first page. Though the realization wounds my pride, I’m quite guilty of this offense. My debut originally had my character waking up and traveling by car in the first chapter. GAH.
2. You focus more on description than plot or character.
Agents love beautiful descriptions. That much was communicated in the critique session. However, they do not enjoy paragraphs of lengthy, repetitive description. My best recommendation would be to condense anything overly descriptive into a few brief sentences. Imagine that each of your flowery paragraph-long descriptions creates a rift between the reader and the momentum of the plot. If you describe for lines on end, the reader will eventually stop caring. This rule is another difficult pill for me to swallow. I LOVE descriptive prose, but I’m grateful to have some clarity so I can work on balancing my story. Silver linings. Lol
3. You focus more on plot than character.
Apparently, there is such a thing as jumping too quickly into adventure. Time and time again, the agents at my conference stressed that immediate action (BANG) doesn’t equate to reader interest. Sure, action can grab a reader, but character development and empathy keeps the reader invested. Give your character chances to shine in the action so they are an active participant of their own story.
4. Four word nightmare: automatic info dump disqualification.
If you try to fit oodles of backstory on your first page, the agent will stop reading. In fact, I’m of the opinion that this issue was the most prevalent at the conference. All of the agents motioned to move on to another first page when the prose took an info dump swerve. Layer your backstory information throughout the entire story and try to make the reveals as natural as possible (through character action).
5. Your pacing is inconsistent.
There were a few instances where an author would BANG jump right into the action for the first paragraph and then completely switch gears for the second, beelining either to info dumping or a lengthy character memory. The agents stood firm on balance throughout the story so that your voice comes across as consistent. They felt these quick switches forcibly pulled the reader out of the story world. Basically, don’t switch from POV to info dump. A big recommendation was to read your first page aloud to highlight the quality of flow and pacing (especially if you read it to someone who has no idea what your story is about).
6. Your text focuses more on a secondary character than your main character.
There was a tendency in a few of the stories to overly describe an alternate character in the book on the first page. Obviously, the secondary characters were very important to the overall plot, but the intense focus made the agents question who the story was really about. Make your main character front and center, especially on your first page.
7. Talking down to the audience.
Suspense = good, but withholding trivial information = bad. There was a general consensus that the author should pick and choose what information is absolutely essential to keep secret so that readers won’t feel the author is holding anything over their head. This tip was more abstract than some of the others, so I would recommend doing a little research on it if you’d like more clarity. (I’m a little clueless as to all the implications.)
8. Your narrator is unreliable.
One of the agents was a particular stickler for unreliable narrators. She insisted that reader trust means everything to story devotion. To have the narrator engage in questionable activities or act dishonestly on the first page can automatically turn off your audience. Once again, there is a time and place for every element of a story.
9. All of your sentences are structured the same.
One resounding similarity among all the agents at my conference was that they valued variety/diversity in writing. If your sentence rhythm and flow is too repetitive, readers will get bored. Challenge yourself to shape a first page that includes lots of punchy moments mixed in with longer inklings. Again, balance is the name of the game.
10. Your prose doesn’t engage the five senses.
Agents want you to immerse your reader in the story’s world. That means you need to include as many relatable “anchors” as possible without overwhelming the reader. Incorporate smells and sounds and tastes to hook the reader and sell your narrative. If you resort to strictly telling, you’re less likely to whisk the audience away into a gripping novel experience. (See what I did there? :P)
Tidbits I forgot about until after the fact:
Make sure POV stays authentic (keep observations within your character’s frame of reference).
Agents want to read the first page and KNOW your genre by the tone. Make sure your writing stays true to the genre.
*****MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY: Make us care about your character. (Not through backstory or info dumps, but rather by making your character an active participant in the story.) Teach us about who they are through their actions.*****
I want to end on a positive note, so take a deep breath and try not to get too anxious about all these agent requirements. Across the board, the agents spoke most frequently on the importance of an author’s passion for their story. Infuse your story with bits of your own experience and emotion, and you will have the groundwork for something AMAZING. Passion is your secret weapon. Coupled with author learning and growth, you will be completely unstoppable.
I highly recommend attending a writing conference if you’ve never tried one before. This was my first time and I learned SO MUCH about the publishing industry. Plus, you can sign up for the opportunity to pitch to agents, which is a more affirming endeavor than cold querying. Pittsburgh Writing Workshop was put on by Writing Day Workshops. I’ll add their link here in case you’re interested in a conference! Thanks for reading and I hope that all this agent advice will help you fend off imposter syndrome when querying in the future!