Querying can be a lonely, scary business. You send out these pages you've been laboring over for months, years, and sometimes it feels like it's been dropped into a black hole. It feels like it's out of your control, and in many ways it is. However, there are some things you can do to give your submissions the chance they deserve.
THE FIRST PAGE OF YOUR BOOK.
Why is your first page all-important? Because it's all about grabbing the reader's attention. Think about what you do when you're browsing for a book in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore or online. First, it's the title and cover art that attract you. Then, you read the cover blurb. If it's catchy and appealing enough, you'll open the book to read the first page. If the first page doesn't grab you, you might not be patient enough to read the second page. Then you're on to the next book.
Multiply your short attention span by at least a factor of 10, and you can imagine how little time an agent or an agent's assistant has to read through dozens of queries in a single day. If the first part of the query, which should read pretty much like jacket copy, doesn't grab them, they may not even read the first line of your first page, let alone your entire first page. And if that first page isn't gripping, then it's on to the next query.
So how do you make that page compelling?
Basically, you want to immerse your reader in the world of your story in the very first paragraph, the very first line of your book. On that first page, something compelling should be happening. If it's not a dramatic event, then your writing needs a full-on sensory/emotional deep-dive into your world. Best case scenario: Both.
Write in scene rather than in narrative summary. (Scenes unfold in real time, and narrative summary is just what it sounds like: a summary of events.) Of course, you'll want to start your book with a scene-worthy event. Summaries are pretty much what we use as a bridge to get us to the scene-worthy stuff. Summaries can and should also be written in a compelling manner, of course, but for full-on immersion purposes, start with a scene. You want to drop your reader into the world of your story, into the heart of something that is happening right now, unfolding before their eyes.
To really give the reader an immersive experience, use sprinklings of sensory description to make the extraordinary tangible and the ordinary extraordinary. Enable the reader to see, hear, touch, smell, taste the world of your hero. Not all those senses at once, but a judicious seasoning of one or two would be perfect.
Bring the hero's emotional world to life. Choose a point of view that enables your readers to be inside your hero's mind and senses. I could go on for pages and pages about how to do this. But then this wouldn't be a blog post, it would be a book. Or a chapter in a book.
Speaking of books on technique, I absolutely love Stein on Writing by the late Sol Stein, a brilliant author, publisher, and editor.
For more details on first-page magic, I also highly recommend this wonderful piece "What Our Editors Look For on an Opening Page" on the Penguin Random House blog.
THE FORM OF YOUR SUBMISSION.
If your writing sings, you could have an excellent chance. But if you don't send that brilliant writing in the right form, it is possible that they may not read what you've sent. Which means they won't get to see how amazing your writing is. What??? I know; it sounds insane. Unfair. Maybe it's both of those things. But the bottom line is that you want your work seen. And submission guidelines are all about making your work easy to read and comment on.
Every agency is going to have its own particular set of submission guidelines that you need to follow.
Unless the agency indicates otherwise, here are basics of formatting:
- Query letter: single-spaced. (Your query will probably be the body of an email, so it will be single-spaced by default.)
- Manuscript pages: If you are sending your pages as a file attachment, they should be double-spaced and page-numbered. Left-indent the first line of each paragraph rather than skip a line between paragraphs.
- If the agent you're querying wants to see your sample pages in the body of your email, then they will be single-spaced by default unless otherwise indicated.
- Font for manuscript pages submitted as file attachments: industry-standard, aka Times New Roman.
- Margins for manuscript pages submitted as file attachments: 1" all around.
- Software for manuscript pages submitted as file attachments: Microsoft Word.
Perhaps you think that double-spaced pages don't make sense. After all, why should you submit your manuscript double-spaced when a printed book is, after all, single-spaced? Because double-spaced manuscripts are easier on the eyes, especially if you're an agent or a publisher with your eyes glued to a screen all day. Plus double-spaced pages are much easier for said agent or publisher to mark up with margin comments that they'd like to discuss with their new author; i.e. you.
Let's talk about font. An industry-standard font basically means Times New Roman or Arial, 12-point. Yes, it can feel boring to use a conventional font. But there is actually a reason that's not about conformity for conformity's sake. I realized this when I received a manuscript in an exotic font that I could not read, not even zoomed in at 200%. Imagine if that came across a busy agent's desk. It would be a missed opportunity for that author.
Let's talk about those submission guidelines! One of the reasons that querying is such a laborious process is that every agent has their own set of very specific submission guidelines. If only we could send out all of our submissions the same way to each agent, we'd save a ton of time. But we can't. Each agent has developed guidelines that they are comfortable with for their own reasons. For your own sake, for the sake of your precious work, you need to follow those guidelines precisely.
For example, if an agent's submission guidelines ask for a query letter and your first page, don't send them your first 10 pages. If they ask for a query and the first 10 pages of your book, don't send them 10 pages from your fifth chapter.
Wishing you tremendous good fortune, success, and happiness with your submissions!