Agents must read through mountains - this is no hyperbole - of manuscripts, and learn to skim first pages with an eagle eye for any warning sign that says they need bother proceeding no further. At the Grub Street Writers' Conference, where I recently presented thanks to the kind offices of my agent, Sorche Fairbank, one session was called "Literary Idol," a hilarious, brutal, and very useful exercise. Writers submit first pages of manuscripts, which a professional actor reads for a panel of three agents. As agents hear a line at which they would stop reading, they raise their hands. When two hands go up, the reading stops and the agents explain their reactions. I don't know how many pages were started, but it was quite a few, and only two pages made it all the way to the end. Here are some things I learned.
Six Ways to Kill a Story on the Opening Page
1. Cliches. Not too many of these showed up, but agents get more tired of these then the rest of us, being subjected as they are, to more frequent doses. The problem is, readers are more apt to know when they're reading a cliche than a writer is when he's writing one. Someone ought to invent something akin to a grammar checker that would also check for cliches.
2. Starting stories with someone waking up. The alarm clock ringing is a logical way to start the morning, but not such a hot way to start a story.
3. Over-the-top emotional reactions. If you've got a scene fraught with emotional intensity - Joe says he wants a divorce, Barb says she needs an operation - that's all fine, but the reaction to it has to be measured and believable. One agent referred to it as "amping up." Don't amp up the scene with corny histrionics like screaming, throat clutching, tears rolling down cheeks, etc.
4. Lenghty description. More than once, the panel of agents called a halt to a piece which was actually quite nicely written but devoted a paragraph to the wind outside, or the color of the leaves, or some such. In general I find you want description folded into the action any way.
5. Paying attention to the wrong stuff. If there's a lengthy expostion about the family cat, for example, and the agent senses the story isn't about the cat, the agent's going to figure you don't know what the story is about. One agent advised knowing in advance what you want each scene to accomplish and sticking to that.
6. Purple writing that misses the mark. Heavy alliteration and mangled metaphors tell an agent you're trying hard but not successfully. Tell a good story and tell it clearly is usually the best thing.