Monday, February 1, 2010

1st Pages with Agents Kristin Nelson & Kate Schafer-Testerman

Super-agents Kristin Nelson and Kate Schafer-Testerman were gracious enough to spend several hours dissecting the first pages of aspiring writers' manuscripts. As they've read thousands of first pages between them, I couldn't wait to hear their thoughts on what made for a strong (or weak) beginning. I figured most of those in attendance would be newbies like me, but my colleague pointed out multiple published authors in the crowd which surprised me. Since the event, Kristin has blogged about her experience from an agent's perspective so I'm here to give a writer's opinion of the process. On her blog, Kristin also includes examples of her own clients' first pages which offer amazing insight into what makes a great opening.

This SCBWI event involved the first two pages of a manuscript being read aloud by a volunteer. To demonstrate how Kate and Kristin read through their 'slush pile,' they would stop the reader when they had heard enough to make their decision -- then they'd give feedback about why they stopped. From a writer's perspective, it was an intense experience. They gave the option for people to back out if they didn't feel comfortable having their work read aloud but nobody declined. Kristin also stopped several times throughout the event to ask how the attendees were feeling which I found thoughtful. I'd guess there were about 50-60 people in attendance and I believe a total of 18-20 first pages were read aloud. As there were no queries or synopses attached, they based their opinions totally on the first 2 pages of the manuscript. Many times, it took them only a paragraph. For confidentiality purposes, I'm not giving specifics on the manuscripts -- just the feedback.

Trends in Feedback aka Things Kate and Kristin Didn't Like
* Characters waking up or beginning the story with a dream (the dream creates a faux conflict that doesn't really apply to the story)
* Abundance of alliteration :)
* Use of exclamation points at beginning of story before you've set up any real suspense
* Not connecting with the characters
* Tense switching, grammatical errors
* Humanizing animals -- they both really liked one that included this element and really didn't like all the other ones that did. I was surprised at how many stories involved animals. NOTE: If your story involves talking animals, it better be flippin' amazing.
* Story started in the wrong place -- this was a common one. They'd notice something interesting on page two of the story but felt page one was lacking.
* Flat narrative -- this one seemed harder for them to articulate being that there wasn't a specific stopping point, but more of a "I'm really not into this" feeling. I suspect this is one they catch in a minute when reading on their own and don't need to explain it -- they just know it's not working for them.
* Stories that have an 'education for children' vibe -- this was a huge turnoff for both agents. Tell a good story and leave the lecturing to parents/teachers (okay, this was my interpretation but you get the idea.)
* Stories sounding like an adult writing for MG. Yes, everyone attending was an adult, but the point was not to 'write down' to your audience. It's condescending and kids know the difference.
* Too quirky or confusing. As Kristin pointed out, you want the agent to keep reading because they have to know what happens, not because they're confused and have no idea what's happening. You can give teasers but don't deliberately withhold important information.

Personal Feedback Trends
Both agents said that they wouldn't represent something that was too similar to something they already represent or have already sold. For instance, one agent didn't want another superhero story and one didn't need another environmental issues book. These are things you might not know ahead of time unless you do a lot of research on each agent. NOTE: See my prior post on researching agents.

One page they both really liked (involving the aforementioned humanized animal) had a distinctive voice that was very humorous. I laughed out loud several times while it was being read, as did others around me. Kate and Kristin also interspersed their feedback with reading successful first pages of their clients which was extremely helpful. Overall, I can't state enough how invaluable the experience was for me. I learned a ton and greatly appreciate the time they took to do this event.

In Conclusion:
For me, the voice was what stood out most in the examples of successful pages. So if you go through the DON'T list above and feel good about it, check the voice of your story. Read your 1st 2 pages aloud or, better yet, have someone else do it so you can hear it from another perspective. I'm in the process of reading my entire ms aloud which has greatly helped the revision process.

Whatever you do, don't write a story about Sid the Superhero Squirrel who struggles with narcolepsy while trying to educate dumb children about recycling. I'm pretty sure Kate and Kristin don't want it.


  1. Ooooh lucky you! I love first page sessions, and having two such awesome agents there to run it must have been really insightful! Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Great post! This is another example of WHY CRITIQUE GROUPS ROCK! I've heard 'no waking from a dream" on twitter (valuable tool for writers, for those of you who still don't tweet *cough*Kristi*cough*). Thanks for sharing, Kristi. Can't wait to see what you think of my MS :)

  3. Lacey - ha ha. I actually read an entire Twitter transcript last week. It was a baby step for me! :)

  4. How awesome that you got to be there! I love those type of sessions.

    Can I ask which agent didn't want superhero stories? I need to cross them off my future query list :)

  5. @MeganRebekah - Thanks for reading -- it was Kate who mentioned that.

  6. Oh, great post! I read a little bit about this on KN's blog, but it's cool to see the other side!

  7. I just happened on this article and appreciate the first pages tips. Since writing isn't like math, with a a distinctly right or wrong answer or an exact formula we can follow, suggestions like these give concrete check lists to follow. I can only hope I'm savvy and honest enough to identify the areas in my first pages that need attention and apply them correctly to my genre specific work.


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