My last post was a link to an agent's post about their crazy life and job, and I mentioned how that just illustrates how critical the query package really is. A big part of the query package is obviously the query letter itself, since that is what agents (or their assistants) will invariably read first. But the next big thing, probably the biggest thing, are those sample pages. And I don't care if the agent requests the first three chapters, the first fifty pages, or the first five--you only have a page or two at most to make a good impression and build interest.
Writing is cumulative, in many senses, and if an agent doesn't like your opening, that will at best color their perception of the rest of your sample. At worst, it will make them reach for the form letter without reading any more at all. Our job is to have exceptionally clean prose and get to the point as quickly as possible during those first pages. We need to give the reader reasons to keep reading, while at the same time giving them NO reasons to stop reading. With stacks of queries as bad as what Rachel Vater discusses being pretty common, I've read statements from agents who say that they are actively looking for a reason to put down those sample pages; they already have a fairly full client list, and they only want new unsolicited work that is absolutely immaculate.
I've gone through a number of drafts of my opening with the help of a number of really talented editors (my wife, and author Beverly Swerling being at the top of that list). I felt like the version that I first posted on this blog earlier this month was about as strong as I could get it. Overall, I think that perception may have been close to accurrate, but there was one thing that I was being too subtle about. That has been corrected now, and I think it makes my opening a lot stronger.
The issue is that my prologue includes an exciting event--a death--and then chapter 1 has Sean Sunderland--the main character--waking up. A lot of agents don't like wake-up starts to novels, but mine is handled differently enough that I think it is okay. The problem, however, is that even though we've just seen this death in the prologue, it isn't obvious from the start that the issues in chapter 1 are anything but normal work stuff for Sean. When the start of a novel seems too ordinary, with no concrete promises that anything different or life-changing is coming, readers start to wonder why the story is starting where it does. This problem resolves itself by the end of my first chapter, but in order to really pique the interest of agents and readers I realized I had to resolve that issue much sooner. As Miss Snark likes to say, we need that "flaming corpse."
Thus, my opening line has been changed to now immediately indicate that something significant is about to happen: "On the night the demons came for me, I awoke in a cold sweat, sitting straight up in bed." The highlighted section is what is new, and I think that this really helps to change the tone of the entire opening scene. Something unexpected is happening at work--okay, if I don't know anything beyond that, it sounds really prosaic. But if you first tell me that demons are coming for you that night, then the unexplained event at work suddenly seems sinister and dangerous--which it is. It just wasn't coming across before.
I had already set up a number of phrases and small events in the first chapter that served to create tension, and now they all feed into this one statement of "on the night the demons came for me," and serve to strengthen that tension: the way Sean finds his coworker Derrick comatose, the way Thomas appears behind Sean in the courtyard, the way Sean stays behind while the others leave. . . all of this takes on new meaning with just a small addition.
I made this first edit a couple of days ago, but didn't mention it then on the blog. Today, I've made a second small edit: at the start of the second scene of chapter one, when Sean has just arrived at the office, the line previously read: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; I found the nighttime silence uncomfortable." It now reads: "I walked quickly as I crossed the parking lot to the back entrance; the deep silence seemed unnatural." I had originally intended for this statement to be mildly creepy, but I was just being far too subtle about it for that to work. The new wording reinforces the fear that a demon could potentially be jumping out to kill Sean at any moment. The fact that the situation doesn't quite resolve itself in the way one might expect is irrelevant; I think that it is actually stronger that the demons "come for him" in a way that is unexpected.
Anyway, these are two extremely small edits to the first chapter, but I think that they help bring to the surface the tensions that I had already set up. Hopefully they will both go a long way towards convincing agents (and later editors, and then readers...) that they want to read more of my book.