Last year in August, I started the first semester of my Masters of Fine Arts at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Moving all the way to the Eastern US was a pretty big deal for me and I was anxious to make the most of my time there. I left with big plans to finish writing a children’s book I’d started, one about goblins and faeries and other delightful staples of high fantasy.
Only I got there and at the first class, my new thesis advisor informed me that the five pages due the next week had to be, no ifs ands or buts about it, from a new project. Mildly frustrated, I spat out a piece that was a jumbled mess of characters. I’d had these people in my head for some time, but no firm structure to build them into. So, since I was homesick, I had them find something strange on a Pacific North-west inspired beach and then called it a day.
But when I took it to class, something strange happened. Our class was on beginnings and as my advisor explained what made a good beginning, I got really excited. Because I knew my sample pages began horribly. They started exactly in the wrong place, had too many characters and didn’t get to the meat of the scene fast enough. I’d never been so thrilled to be mediocre.
So I revised the pages and brought them in and they were... better. Good enough that I felt inspired and I just kept plugging away. In the end, I never returned to that first children’s story, though I hope to some day. By the end of the following summer, I’d finished a draft of RIFT RUNNERS and started querying my spankin’ new YA novel in the fall.
Which brings me back to the beginning pages. Querying really is the art of making a good first impression. There’s the letter itself, of course, but there’s also those key first five pages. Many literary agents request that they be included with the query, while others who later request pages may stop reading early if the first few aren’t up to snuff.
Needless to say, I’ve had “first page” anxiety for a long time. I have a higher request rate from agents on queries that DON'T offer any pages to look at and both the partials I've sent out I got rejections on. It might be too soon to say if the opening pages suck, but it has got me wondering. I’ve rewritten the first chapter of my novel more than any other part of the book. Much to my surprise, it isn’t endings that turned out to be hard for me, but getting the opening to click with the rest of the story.
Which brings me to the Blind Speed Dating contest, hosted at Cupid's Literary Connection. This is effectively a query letter contest, the first of its kind I’d ever stumbled across and the idea got me excited. It turns out there are lots of contests like this hosted by bloggers, most of whom communicate through Twitter. They seem to be a pretty tight knit, supportive community.
In this case, a pack of 40-45 entries would be chosen from the submissions and those would go into a round where agents would bid on the chance to see pages. But not only would your query be judged, so would your first 250 words. In other words, if I applied to this competition, I might get some idea of how my query and first page stack up next to the other YA entries, publically. So entered I did.
I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t make it past the bouncer round and into the pot the agents look at, I would be tearing up the first five pages AGAIN and truth be told, I may still do that. But it’s happily in the category of *may* still because I DID get in!
This isn’t to say my first page is perfect, but if I do rewrite it, it will structurally be a very different opener. And I frankly don’t know if it will be any better. In editing, we all hit points where it gets hard to see the forest for the trees. Changing the beginning may be better for the story. It may not. So here’s to one more exciting week of testing out Rift Runners! Hopefully, an agent or two might pierce it with their cupid’s arrow. J