Welcome to guest blogger Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency based in New York. Molly, who lives in London and works with authors in the UK and America, is on the look out for YA and middle grade fiction. The agency asks to see the first ten pages of manuscripts so I asked Molly for the ten most common mistakes she finds in those ten pages - so you can avoid them.
I get about a hundred queries a week. Most of them, I’m glad to say, are in English, are for children’s/young adult projects, and do not salute me as ‘Sir,’ though there are occasional exceptions.
Our agency’s submission guidelines ask that authors include the first ten pages of their manuscripts in the body of their query emails. Do the maths: that’s about a thousand pages a week arriving in my inbox, full of hope and ambition.
But I don’t read them all.
I feel a bit guilty admitting that. Only a bit. I’ll read the first page, sure. And often more than that. After all, I’m looking for a book that I sell, an author I can build a relationship with. I don’t get any satisfaction out of working my way through a pile of queries and rejecting every single one of them; my goal is to say yes, not no. But obviously I say no a lot more than I say yes, so let me tell you ten reasons I might not want more than those initial ten pages.
- I can’t read this. If you don’t include those first ten pages in the body of your email, in a basic universal font, without any complicated formatting that get turned to gibberish in transit, I can’t read them. And I don’t have much time for back-and-forth emails trying to get someone to just send the darn thing in plain text and not as an attachment. Some agents are happy to make a decision based on the query letter alone, but I’m not one of them, so I need those ten pages in readable condition. If you’re not sure how your query will look to an agent, send it to a couple of friends first and ask them to tell you if it turns up clear and legible.
- The first page reveals only a shaky grip on grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. I know that not everyone with a great children’s book concept is also a spelling bee champion. But if the sample pages are riddled with technical mistakes, I have to move on. I don’t have time to puzzle through word soup. If idiosyncratic grammar and spelling are part of the character’s voice, then that needs to be very clear from the outset (not to mention entirely necessary and fresh).
- I’ve seen this before. Maybe not from the same author, but it’s familiar nonetheless: Girl meets vampire; post-apocalyptic survival story; girl meets werewolf; hero discovers s/he’s destined to be the saviour of a magical world; boy meets vampire; four characters representing the four elements band together to defeat an evil something…I don’t need to go on, do I? While it’s true that sometimes a project is appealing because it’s capitalising on a trend, it’s important to remember that by the time you’re seeing that trend borne out in a bookshop or even in industry deal reports, it’s not new anymore to publishers. And today more than ever, publishers want projects that feel fresh.
- The project doesn’t fit the intended age group. This is a tricky one, because young readers won’t give you a lot of leeway, and yet it’s hard to set down hard-and-fast rules for getting it right. I see a lot of projects that feature, say, a sixteen-year-old narrator who acts and sounds more like a thirteen-year-old. (Anyone who thinks that’s ‘close enough’ should ask herself how many thirteen-year-olds they know with sixteen-year-old best friends.) If the voice feels too young for YA, I can’t sustain interest in the manuscript. There are factors other than voice that also come into play here – plot, genre, and word count spring to mind – but regardless, the best way to avoid this trap is to read, read, read books published for the age group you’re writing for and understand your market.
- Our hero(ine) awakes! Bonus points if the next thing s/he does is look in the mirror. I’d say nearly a quarter of the submissions I get start this way. It doesn’t really matter what happens next, because I can’t get past a clichéd opening.
- All exposition, no action. Too many manuscripts start by telling me everything I need to know to understand the main character and her world. This is roughly the equivalent of meeting someone at a party who hands you his CV instead of talking to you. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a person who makes me interested in getting to know him.
- Ho-hum. So many manuscripts fall over themselves to show me how normal their main characters are. Jane is your average, everyday fifteen-year-old! Jane is just like all the other girls she knows! Jane leads an unremarkable existence in a town just like yours! This onslaught of normalcy often carries on for all of the first ten pages. I don’t want to read about normal people. If I’m a young reader, I want to read about someone unlike anyone I’ve ever met before – or about someone just like me, and deep down, no matter what I might say out loud, I don’t think I’m average.
- Voice, voice, voice. Agents and editors and authors talk about ‘voice’ all the time – whether it’s fresh, whether it’s unique, whether it’s strong or sophisticated or accessible or funny or heartbreaking. I’d never prescribe the kind of voice I’m looking for; I’ll just say that it’s got to reflect how kids really sound, not how we adults think they do or should sound. When I’m reading a submission, if the voice doesn’t make me want to keep reading, then we’re at an impasse. That’s what we call “connecting” with a book: when it’s compelling enough to make you forget everything else you have to and keep reading.
- Did I miss something? Because if these are the opening pages, I have no idea what’s going on. Our submission guidelines ask for the first ten pages because we want to see how you start a story, and whether you can make those crucial first moments grab the reader by the hand and drag him along for the ride. Picking what you think are your best ten pages doesn’t show me what I need to see.
- I don’t feel like reading this right now. This is the hardest thing for authors to hear, I think: how entirely subjective this process can be. For example, some of my all-time favourite books, the books that I’m most passionate about and reread over and over, are fantasy. But lately, queries for fantasy projects aren’t getting me excited. A lot of them are treading old ground; some of them are so dense with world-building that I’m tired by the end of the first page. And yet I can think of a dozen books fitting those descriptions that I truly love. I’m just fatigued – it’s a cyclical thing, and at some point I’ll crave fantasy again. But how will authors know when? They won’t. Both market trends and tiny, unpredictable personal trends influence agents’ (and editors’) decisions, and it takes hard work AND luck to hit those moving targets.
Believe me when I say I know how hard it is to write the perfect first ten pages; if it were easy, I’d have an inbox full of them. I so appreciate the effort that so many authors put into their work, because those moments when I do come across arresting, original opening pages are like magic, and I never get tired of hoping for them.
Thanks, Molly, not only great tips on what should be avoided but an interesting view of what it's like being an agent facing the online slushpile each day.
You can find out more about Molly here The Bent Agency and the submission guidelines are here submit!