Agent Perspectives on First Pages

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’…

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. Unnecessary verbiage or description…One of the main reason agents stopped reading was the overuse of adverbs, adjectives or descriptions which slowed down the pace of the action. In 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:)
  5. 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 TKZ (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.

So TKZers, what’s your take on these agents’ feedback?

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25 thoughts on “Agent Perspectives on First Pages

  1. Thanks for the rundown, Clare. Maybe these agents are avid readers of TKZ! We’ve covered all of these issues in our own first-page critiques. Not much to add, except to say that if you’re trying to land an agent, don’t give them an easy opportunity to say no. Once you land the agent and a book deal, you can put your weather opening back in. Ha!

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  2. Can’t disagree with anything the agents brought up, Clare. And your point about agents WANTING to love something is well-taken. In my decades of writing and going to conferences, I’ve never met an intentionally cruel agent. (The bad ones never last long). They go into the biz because they love good stories and want to make money for their clients (and themselves, of course) selling good stories to readers who love good stories.

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  3. Sounds like a better panel than the one I participated in (as a budding author, not an agent). They were very quick to reject pages, and were doing it for an “entertaining” panel–or so the agent who’d rejected my submission said afterward. Mine had made it almost through the page, but when it was mentioned the character was in Panama on a mission, it was an immediate no-go. “Only US set stories will sell.” Since they had no cover letters to go by, only pages, they had no way of knowing 99% of the book takes place in Montana. So, there are other rejection triggers beyond the ones you’ve listed here.

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    • Terry
      Sorry to hear about your experience. These agents definitely weren’t trying to ‘entertain’ in that way and they never suggested issues outside the first page (like a non-US setting) as a reason for stopping reading.

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      • I think (based on an aging memory) that they were doing their version of one of those talent shows I never watched, and one of the agents took it upon herself to be “Simon.”

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    • I’ve heard this before. If only US based stories are the only ones that sell – how is Dan Brown so popular with all his international settings?

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      • If this was a conference I attended, it’s quite likely it was a romance based one, and they make their own rules about what their readers want. And it was a long, long time ago. I did sell that book with the opening gambit in Panama, btw.

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  4. Thanks for sharing these tips, Clare.

    Our Flathead River Writers Conference has done first page panels for about 5 years that also include editors, authors who are presenters, marketing experts.

    Your results are totally in line with the stall points mentioned by all our panelists.

    Bottom line, writers need to separate themselves from their work and judge it as a dispassionate outsider would. Easier said than done but necessary.

    Agents don’t delight in rejections. They really are excited to find fresh new voices.

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    • Debbie
      These agents were looking to find a fresh new voice and honestly the one page that did ‘pass muster’ wasn’t anything startling or brilliant, just well-written, simple and interesting enough to draw you in.

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  5. Sorry to say, I agree with the agents. These soft openings would stop me from reading, too. We see all of these mistakes time and time again in our 1st Page Critiques. I understand why you felt sad, Clare. The writers could have a wonderful story to tell, but they didn’t take the time to study the craft. TKZ’s filled with posts on these subjects.

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    • Too true! I have to admit I was taken aback by some of the pages as the majority were easy fixes and you could easily see there was a decent first page in there if only the writers had taken a step back and considered the issues we raise in many first page critiques!

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  6. I know this comment will get deleted, but at the end of the article’s first paragraph, it should be “get past,” not “get passed.” Can someone contact Clare to correct that?

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    • I was thinking about spelling and grammar. 🙂 These first pages were being judged out loud. I am guessing “inventive” spelling, poor word choices, and confusing grammar kill you first page pretty quick.

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  7. Thanks, Clare, for this succinct list! Very helpful…put it in my file.

    In a couple of weeks I’ll be sending one WIP to an agent who actually read the first 3 chapters; and another WIP will be shopped out-and you can bet I’ll take another look at that first page!

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  8. Very interesting post, Clare. So much so that I immediately checked my current WIP’s opening. And didn’t see any of the roadblocks listed. Whew!

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  9. Clare, Thanks for this post. I like the idea of a panel of agents each of whom raises his/her hand when they get to a point where they would stop reading. Very instructive.

    Also, thanks for the concise list of the “top 5 issues that will make an agent stop reading your first page.” Definitely worth saving and using.

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  10. Thanks Clare for sharing your experience at the agents’ conference, very informative (pardon the adverb.)

    While I have zero experience with literary agents, I have decades of experience with many other agents of all stripes and colors. So my comments are regarding agents in general. By training I first define terms, to wit, an agent provides a service of arranging transactions between two other parties.

    Personnel offices, now calling themselves human resources departments, is a prime example of agents in this context. They will profess most loudly they are attempting to find the absolute best candidate for a vacancy, but in truth, they are not.

    Let’s examine: Suppose they have 100 resumes for a single position and, at the same time, an afternoon golf session which will allow them to rub elbows with those of influence. Show of hands please if you believe the agent will blow off the golf date to carefully review all 100 resumes. My experience says they will toss 90 in the shredder and quickly review the remaining 10 to find a satisfactory (not extraordinary) candidate and make the golf date. Probability has it, the bundle thrown in the trash has a 90% chance of having the best candidate.

    Reviewers of research grant proposals are another breed of agents. Like some on this site have noted, major publishing houses have significantly trimmed their editing budget, relegating the task to interns who are just learning their craft. So it is with research grant reviewers. I was at a party before COVID, where a young fellow remarked his younger sister had just graduated from college and got a great job with the government reviewing grant proposals. I was appalled at this since I had seen the quality of such reviews by people with zero real world experience. A spin of the roulette wheel has as good a chance of predicting approval or rejection.

    Literary tastes have certainly become more jaded since War & Peace could spend the first 5 chapters exploring the rather mundane political posturing of the upper crust during a cocktail party in a rich lady’s parlor while she sniffles with the flu and spreads it to all the guests. But has the needle moved completely to the other extreme where every novel must be another episode of Mission Impossible adrenaline fueled action from the get go?

    I am not suggesting a book manuscript should advance with a poorly written opening. I personally make such judgements when perusing the piles of book offerings at B&N or Amazon’s book peek features. If I judge a book to be like a walnut, lots of hammering to get at what I hope will be the tasty stuff, I move on. But I do take issue with agents rejection point 3, “opening with exposition” being a fatal flaw and justifying quick rejection. I believe this is a matter of personal taste, like the agent/reviewer really, really likes pistachio ice cream and believes all other flavors should be tossed in the rubbish bin.

    There are many examples of successful novels opening with exposition to create a sense of history and place, character’s personality, conflict, death stakes, crucial events that launch the story into motion. But like everything else, it must be done well.

    J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter first novel was rejected 12 times by those who pretended to know what a significant audience of readers wanted. Some of her rejections were withering; she was even advised to take a writing course. Of course we all know her works went on to sell more than 400,000,000 copies. Clare’s post suggests I should follow the indie path.

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