How To Escape The Slush Pile In Ten pages Or Less

msHey everyone! I want to chat today about something we don’t discuss much, but is super important for those looking to get published. It’s also the number one thing mistake I see self published authors make. I’m talking about the first ten pages.

We spend a lot of time talking about crafting a query, but I (in my work as an acquisitions editor) I have never once requested a full manuscript, let alone based an offer, on the query alone (though I have rejected based on a query alone!). We request the first fifteen pages, though to be honest I usually know in the first 5-10 if I’m going to ask to see more. Which for writers, is a sobering thought. You have a tiny window of time to wow an editor or agent with your work, so those first pages have to shine.

Let’s talk specifics. What I’m looking for (and avoiding!) in those all important first ten pages.

  1. Action. Now this doesn’t mean you have to start every book with a shoot-out, but I want to see at least a hint of the plot to come almost immediately. I want to be dropped into the ‘change’ point, the part of the story where the status quo gets tosses out the window. So if you spend the first chapter showing me the normal hum drum of life, I’m already bored and don’t care to see the rest. Give your opening scene importance. This is the hook of the book, it’s what makes a reader go, ooh, what’s going to happen next? If your book begins with your MC waking up or having a boring breakfast, I’m snoring. (see: nightmares are terrible book openings and are done to death. A scary dream does not action make) Now, many authors who have a slow opening chapter will try to fix this by adding a prologue. I’ve been doing this for years and I can honestly say, only once have I read a prologue that was both intriguing and relevant. Most of the time, they only distract from the story. If you’re trying to lay out a world history or character backstory, there are better ways to get that information across, AFTER we know and care about your MC.
  2. Character. I should know who your character is and their ‘voice’ right away. If you begin with something like, 400 years ago the world was full of blue things, then the color was gone…blah blah blah for five paragraphs before your MC even speaks (or thinks) this is a huge problem. Here’s why: A great character can make even a weak plot work, but a strong plot can not save a weak character. A great book has both great character and great plot, but the character has to come first. And many authors will roll their eyes when I say ‘voice’, so let me explain what I mean. The first time your MC takes the stage in your book, what they say or how they behave needs to set the tone of who they are. I’m talking personality. If they are witty, sarcastic, meek, loud, rude, whatever, you should make that clear right away. I want to know basically what kind of character I’m dealing with. DIALOGUE is super important in the opening pages for exactly this reason.
  3. World building. And this goes for contemporary as well as genres like fantasy. I want to be immersed in the world from the first page. Set the tone. It was a dark and stormy night is great, but show me depth. This is your chance to dazzle me with your attention to detail or your beautiful prose or even your strength with similes. The best way to do this is using the five senses, what did the cabin smell like, or how did the blood feel on her hands? Also, on this note, don’t hand over 10 pages of contemporary and then try to convince me later in the book that there’s a magical or paranormal element. SHOW your genre in the opening pages, or at least hint at it.
  4. Show me the twist. Your book isn’t like any other book out there. Show me why or what makes this story unique, right away. *Notice I said SHOW me and not TELL me.
  5. Stakes. Give me a sense of what’s going to happen if the MC fails. Like, what’s the worst that can happen? This is that edge of your seat, can’t put down feeling that great authors can invoke. Again, you don’t have to drop all the details right away, but there should be a reason things are changing for your MC, and at least a hint of the consequences it could cause. There’s a saying in script writing, there’s nothing as boring as consummation. It means that the struggle is what’s interesting, the strife, the constant do or die in trying to accomplish your goal. When everything is good and everyone is happy, the story is over.

There are probably a dozen more tips I could add, But this is a pretty good list.  And if you look at any of these things and think, this doesn’t apply to my super special snowflake of a book, think again. The slush pile is full of books that don’t adhere to the items above. Don’t be one of them!

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Have a great story you’re looking to get published? Clean Teen (YA) and Crimson Tree (NA and Adult) Publishing are accepting submissions. Check out their guidelines at www.cleanteenpublishing.com 

Have a submission you think I’d love? Send it (following the CTP guidelines) to submissions@cleanteenpublishing.com and put Attn: Sherry in the subject. I’d love to take a look!


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