“It only takes a sip,” Ms. Resciniti told us. One needn’t drink an entire carton to realize the milk has soured, and readers treat books the same way. It doesn’t matter if the second page, or the second chapter, or the second novel, is magnificent; agents and editors won’t wait around to see, and neither will readers. This is why first impressions are so vital. They make the difference between ‘slush’ and ‘sold’.
Nicole Resciniti is a literary agent with the Seymour Agency. Like all agents, Ms. Resciniti sees a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff come through her inbox every day. Literary agents are so busy, and have so much material to get through, that a first impression is usually the only impression a query will get to give. Ms. Resciniti highlighted three parts of a submission packet as being key to a good first impression: a high concept hook, back cover copy, and first pages.
A high concept hook is only one or two lines, but carries a punch. Also known as a one-liner or a log line, your hook is what first grabs the reader’s attention. (High concept, a term which I have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to define via Google searches, is what Ms. Resciniti calls “the familiar idea with a twist” and “a concept easily visualized.”) The hook usually goes something like this: “[Character + descriptor] wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] and [possible consequences].” Pretty catchy, huh? It sounds better when you fill in the blanks. Try it out with your own story!
The back cover copy is two to three paragraphs that encapsulate the heart of the story. The goal, motivation, and conflict create the vehicle for the characters that propels them through the story, and should be front and center in your back cover copy. (Side note: Ms. Resciniti recommends that you have each of these three things for your main character, second main, and antagonist. All of them might not show up directly in the back cover copy, but they should in the story overall. Know what your characters want, dangle it in front of them, and then rip it away.)
Ms. Resciniti recommends a six-pronged attack in hooking readers within those first few pages.
Begin with a bang. Open with action, with characters in motion. Be visual. Avoid clichés, info dumps, background, coincidence, set up, and an excess of characters.
Establish the mood. Convey an immediate tone. Keep in mind your audience and the expectations of your genre, and respect- or subvert- the conventions.
Evoke instant emotion. Immediately establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the character. Make your character inspire emotions in your reader- admiration, pity, envy, kinship, sympathy. It’s not enough to have a passive character that we follow through the story. The characters should be active, making choices, growing and changing, and it should all happen in a way that the reader can feel.
Convey conflict. Conflict is the core of emotion. Present problems on the page quickly, and structure characters so that they are at odds with one another. Create problems that are based on the characters and their weaknesses. And for every problem that is solved, create two more.
Create visceral reactions in the reader. Incorporate humor/danger/tension to make your readers laugh, cry, and tremble right along with your characters. Never state an emotion or action- show it, and make the reader feel it too.
Make a “what happens next” moment. Don’t immediately tie problems up neatly for the characters. Evoke curiosity. This goes hand in hand with conveying constant conflict.
A book on a shelf has about thirty seconds to sell itself: cover, title, back cover copy, and pages. Agents and editors are themselves readers, just of earlier forms of the book. You don’t need to impress them with a gorgeous cover, but you do need to grab their attention with your submission materials, and never let go.
Ms. Resciniti’s final advice? “Do not be discouraged. Do not.” Editing is hard, and submitting is hard, and selling is hard. Every step of the process is hard in its own way. But don’t give up because of the difficulty. The difficulty is the very thing that will transform your book from an awful first draft into a beautiful final product in the hands of people who love it. So do not get discouraged in the in-between. You can do this.
Tune in next week for the cliff notes version of Jane Friedman’s three hour intensive, How to Get Your Book Published. We’ll be talking about traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing, and the most important steps to take down each route.
Until then, happy writing!