Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sitting in An Agent's Chair

Lady With a White Collar,
John Lyman,
oil on canvas, 1936.
National Gallery of Canada.

Agent Nathan Bransford is marathon running his Stupendous First Page Contest on his blog.

The contest closes at 5:00 PM, Pacific Time today.

When I looked this morning 435 first pages had been posted on his blog. No doubt more have arrived on his My Space page.

I read over 200 before my scrolling finger began to ache.

The vast majority of the entries are very, very GOOD.

So good, it's depressing.

Were I an agent, I'd find myself knee-deep in partials.

And many of those that are not top tier, that make me itch for a red pen, have a solid, interesting story and need only firm tweaking to shine. (Which is why they make me itch for a red pen, I suppose.)

Those are not quite there yet -- but they will be.

Hardly a dud in the lot.

Nathan's contest gave me the best view and understanding to date of what comes across an agent's desk, of the competition from that top 5 - 15 percent that rises above the slush, and allowed me to see, briefly and dimly, submissions from agent's eyes.

Demonstrated, by example, why all the various advice about hooks, voice, and other technical stuff is correct, and especially why an agent might toss a perfectly saleable MS because they'd just read 15 queries about a spunky, mouthy YA protagonist.

Why one is always advised to query widely.

I recommend you read the entries with an agent's eyes in mind.

No dismissal of other posters here who may have entered their first page -- I habitually ignored the names of the posters, didn't even see them, so I have no idea if more of you have entered or not -- but one made me scroll back to see who had connived, for me, a particularly intriguing beginning.

Dave F, I thought your first page was excellent.


writtenwyrdd said...

I'm afraid to read them, frankly. Volume mostly, but your sentiments, too.

Vesper said...

Interesting. Thank you for the link. I'll take a look but, like you, I find that the good quality of the "competition"'s work is quite depressing...
Oh, well, back to my ivory tower... :-)

SzélsőFa said...

Last time it was 'first paragraph' and I entered with two pieces as an exercise, but was truly amazed by the amount of really, really good first paragraphs.
This time it is a page...I wonder how will he able to distinguish?
I think I will not be able to read all the entries, but will definitely look for Dave's, upon your suggestion.

Bernita said...

One doesn't have to read them all, Written!

The mental comparison can be useful, Vesper.Why some grab one's interest, while other, equally competent one's don't.

I think Dave's was fairly early in the mob, Szelsofa.

James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

I read over 200 before my scrolling finger began to ache.

I didn't make it nearly as far as you. I can curl up on the couch and read for hours on end, but if I'm staring at a computer, my eyes begin to cross after a hundred pages or so. :D

Bernita said...

James, with me with this set it was not so much my eyes but the mental switch from style to style, genre to genre, etc.

Jaye Wells said...

I wonder if an agent's eyes catch things mere mortals can not. Kind of like watching figure skating on TV. I always think they're perfect, but then the commentators say "Oh, a bit wobbly on the landing, that'll be a quarter of a point deduction."

Bernita said...

I think that's why they have several judges for skating, Jaye.
Each may have eagle eyes for specific manouvers.

Robyn said...

Query widely- good advice. agent might toss a perfectly saleable MS because they'd just read 15 queries about a spunky, mouthy YA protagonist.

I think I forget that; a rejection automatically means the book is BAD. It may not. Of course if anything specific is mentioned, it should be considered, but maybe you should widen the net as well.

The Anti-Wife said...

You made it much farther than I did. The quality really is amazing. It's quite humbling.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The vast majority of the entries are very, very GOOD.
So good, it's depressing.

and from the comments: I wonder if an agent's eyes catch things mere mortals can not.

...Sex reaches for her editorial hat and clears her throat, trying to sound important and failing...

By far I view the writing as competent, not overwhelmingly awesome. I've seen some good bits; I've also found plenty of problems...

Even with many of them being very good, though, I don't view it as a bad thing. Anything that furthers our industry is a good thing. I am also a reader, as well as an editor. I'd rather have more quality to pick from for our magazine and better stories to give to our readers, as well as for myself!

Generally, people who are putting themselves out there: on the market, in contests, and for critique, can write competently.

At the magazine, I rarely turn down stories because of poor writing.

Some I turn down because they're not right for my magazine. I'm just not excited about it, or it doesn't speak to what we are trying to say with our zine. (Agents are exactly the same way. Nathan's rejection to me for HINTERLAND read something along the lines of: Great writing, solid story, but I'm just not excited about it. I'm not the agent to rep this book.) (Jeez! You can't hate the guy even if you try.)

Two, getting more to Bernita's point, the primary reason I reject stories is though the first page is brilliant, the writer can't carry it through. I've learned from writing novels and especially from editing the magazine that the biggest leap to make as a writer is from page 1 to The End. Carrying on quality is tough. Really tough!

So take heart, and write on!

raine said...

I'm with Vesper.
It's all very depressing. :-/

Bernita said...

Robyn, my eyes began to glaze when I saw too many of a certain set-up, a certain trope, yet they were by and large well done.

AW, I plan to go back. One doesn't have to read them all at once.

Thank you, SS. Your EE hat is always welcome.
Yes, a great first page(s) only gets a toe in the door with a partial perhaps, nothing more.
I did find myself wondering/doubting in a number of cases if the the elements - the charm - could be maintained to the end.

One problem leaped at me - and it was a logic problem, not a technical one,( such as passivity, etc.)
Newborn babies have umbilical cords. Even in fantasy.

Raine,I felt better, from a personal perspective, when I classified and mentally eliminated those of different genre.

BernardL said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the contest, Bernita. I've read some, and they are very good.

Dave F. said...

Thanks so very much, Bernita. I did EE's query exercise and like the idea. Maybe in about a year, the story will be ready for (who knows? Freddy the undertaker ? )...

It is well worth reading through the entries. I started and every now and then go back and read some more.

Lots of hard work by sincere people. Good writing. Nice ideas. Wonderful execution.

I found that after ten, or twenty, or thirty, or however many it took, when I read something that had a punctuation problem, or an awkwardness, or poor phrasing, I skipped immediately to the next. I could feel my unconscious brain saying bye, bye, bye.

Then I thought about having these in a stack on the desk in front of me with a red pen.
And ya'll know what I'm going to say next.
Anything touched by the red pen would go into the round file and anything left would go to a second screening. An even harsher screening. Or maybe the word is ruthless.

I used to do work like this: Applications for funding, completed audit questionnaires, proposals for research, scientific crap like that.
First screening - proper form
Second screening - completeness
Third screening - the substance

How else would one handle 450 to 500 items in less than days and days and days?

Bernita said...

Many definitely made me want to read more, Bernard.

Hope you contine with the story, Dave.
I always go for story first.
I doubt agents can handle doing more than 30 or 40 at a time.

Steve Malley said...

Nathan's got a neat blog, but I couldn't find the 1st pages...

Research-impaired today, I guess!

Bernita said...

Steve look in the comments for Monday's post "The Surprising Essential Frst page challenge."

Dave F. said...

I think I'd be a babbling fool after 30 or 40 queries. And to do that two days in a row... just rent me a padded room and a waterproof mattress.
I NEVER did that many Requests for Proposal or bid packages in one day.

Chumplet said...

Going through every one is like flipping channels through the whole digital cable gamut. You pause at the ones that catch your eye.

Ello said...

Can't believe you read so many! I couldn't - just got such a headache! But you are so right, I know and really sympathize with agents. Which doesn't mean I like rejection any better, but I can understand it better.

Scott from Oregon said...

I was late to this party.

I submitted after the deadline.

I hope tomorrow I can take some time and read what I missed...

Bernita said...

Dave, seeing them en masse gives one an entirely new perspective.

Makes it much easier to understand why agents emphasize an interesting first page or first paragraph, Sandra.
It's not only for the potential reader in a bookstore!

And why query reading is a low priority to, Elleo.
I wish the contest entries had been broken into 100 entry lots though. Takes forever to load and scroll.

I hope he let yours in just the same, Scott.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, the volume itself is a lesson. And a bit depressing.

ChristineEldin said...

I didn't enter this one. I thought that might happen, and to be honest, I liked Miss Snark's better. She gave some commentary on each and every one, not just the 'winning' ones.

Best of luck to all who entered!!!

Billy said...

Query widely--how very true, especially in light of what you said on another blog. With all the sub-genres, how does one know who to query anymore? ... Interesting opening pages on that site. Thanks for the tip.

Bernita said...

An astonish number of brave souls, Charles.

I didn't either, Chris.
Remember though, not long after the last one, Miss Snark gave up blogging.

Billy, it may take as long to research the right agents as it takes to write the book.