If you’ve decided to write a science fiction or fantasy novel, then I can really only offer you two words: good luck. The publishing landscape is not for the faint of heart, especially to new writers seeking to break into the industry. If you want to publish a book one day, you have to prepare yourself for rejection. Not everyone is going to fall in love with your story on the first draft–some may not get it on the final draft.
Don’t believe me? Check out this excerpt from an Amazon review: “Everything from its banal and totally meaningless plot to its incredibly idiotic and unimaginative characters miserably fail in masking one of the worst books of all time.”
The book in question was The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
More than 60 years of genre-defining acclaim and a billion-dollar, Oscar-winning film franchise couldn’t convince one reader that Tolkien knew what he was doing.
How, then, are you supposed to prove your literary worth with just five pages? Because that’s all you get when pitching your book to agents: a five-page writing sample and an introductory query letter.
These agents and their assistants are often flooded with submissions to the point that they can’t respond with individual feedback to each prospective author. Some don’t respond at all, choosing to let their silence speak volumes. Nearly all of them call their ever-growing stack of unsolicited writing samples the “slush pile.” That is, a loose group of pages with questionable quality, to be sifted through at your own peril. Agents are too busy and too distrusting to give an author the benefit of the doubt.
Impossible as it might seem, nailing these first five pages is essential to securing an agent, who can then represent your work to the major publishing houses. These tips and tricks can help you improve your first five pages and, with luck, attract an agent’s attention.
1. Aim for precision, not scale.
Anyone who’s seen Star Wars can imagine a galactic battlefield featuring aliens and spaceships. Anyone who’s read A Song of Ice and Fire can write about dragons burning down civilizations.
You cannot differentiate yourself through mere ambition: In fact, positioning yourself as “the next Tolkien” or your book as “the next Dune” in your query letter is the surest way to make agents roll their eyes and discard your pitch.
One of my favorite openings comes from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It begins like this:
“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
“They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic — or done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by any magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.”
Clarke’s work is chock-full of magical lore and mythical figures like John Uskglass, yet it begins with the scholarly exploits of magicians incapable of magic. No spells have been cast, either for good or evil. Clarke might as well be describing a book club, and the society magicians’ conversations are dull by the narrator’s own admission.
Within the first few sentences, however, it becomes clear that the storyteller — if not the story itself just yet — is remarkable. Clarke employs a pastiche that evokes the work of Jane Austen and immediately sets the reader in 19th-century York, England. Her phrasing feels authentic to the period without becoming cumbersome to the reader.
More than anything, it shows an intentionality and a level of thoughtfulness uncommon among works of epic fantasy. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell checks in at just over 1,000 pages. It’s hard enough to write any book that long, let alone a story that melds the beauty of 19th century prose with 21st century storytelling.
Even if you don’t like the book, you can’t help but admire the guts it takes to pull off that strategy. And if you’re an agent, the precision and style tell you straight away that this author has no interest in wasting your time.
On a similar note, this should go without saying but make sure that your opening pages are typo-free and formatted according to an agent’s desired specifications. In your query letter, position your work correctly with good book comparisons that highlight what makes your book marketable without going overboard. Be precise with every aspect of your submission, not just your writing style.
2. Try humor and insightfulness over action and drama.
It’s important to be concise, even in a science fiction or fantasy book. You want to make sure that you never feel rushed, and that the plot feels lively.
Who has mastered short-form storytelling better than the classic sitcom? In particular, a comedy’s cold open replicates what an author’s first five pages should do: It draws in the audience and gives the audience a sense of what’s to come.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s cold open about the Backstreet Boys is a particularly notable example:
Even if you’ve never seen the show, what’s the part that jumps out? Is it the woman saying, “Number 5 killed my brother” or is it the detective being so wrapped up in the song that he forgot why he started it in the first place?
Obviously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going for the laugh here, but let’s be honest: The audience doesn’t really care about the grieving sister. They don’t know her, or her relationship with her brother, or anything like that. They can’t feel what that character feels.
It might seem callous, but typically your readers won’t be as invested in your characters as you are — not to start, anyway. They won’t understand the stakes of your action scene until later.
We can see this in practice in more somber stories, too, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Even from prison, the story quite literally begins with gallows humor and some wordplay about Greek philosophers. The opening reads, “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-f***-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.”
Gaiman doesn’t take himself too seriously here. He doesn’t start with the genre-shifting lore that follows or a dramatic prison break — it’s just a man cracking jokes with his cellmate and waiting for his sentence to end.
If you’re stuck, you could do worse than the question every Jerry Seinfeld impression starts with: “What’s the deal with (fill in the blank)?” Literally, what’s your character’s deal? What is odd, notable, and funny about them or their position? Give agents something to think about or reconsider – your insight might just compel them to ask for more pages.
3. Don’t start with the word “Prologue.”
Agents don’t like it. They think that a prologue is not a good representation of the bulk of the novel and the author’s voice. You might disagree (I tend to), but there’s no point in fighting against reality. If you really love your prologue and think it makes for a perfect writing sample that does showcase your work, just change it to read “Chapter 1” before you submit.
Compared to the tips above, this one is downright simple, but it can make a big difference.
There's no such thing as a perfect first five pages.
Even with these strategies, there’s no guarantee of success, of course. It took me dozens of submissions to get any interest at all in my novel, and I got precisely zero offers of representation on my first book. People are going to tell you “no” — they certainly told me “no” — and that’s okay. Rejections don’t make your work unworthy of publication, and they don’t mean that you should give up.
Fall in love with the process of writing, editing, and improving. Embrace feedback, and try to get a little bit better every day. If you love your book and you love to tell stories, you just have to keep going … even if others don’t yet see what you see.
Featured photo: Kiwihug / Unsplash