The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count

Readers of Ask the Agent know  I’m suspicious of the seemingly endless stream of  publishing tips that you read in writers publications, blogs, and workshops. Given my skepticism about this kind of shorthand advice, my tips tend to be framed with a lot of ironic and self-deprecating humor.  And I also try to be realistic to the point of blunt. This blog is not for the faint of heart. Those seeking flittery feel-good inspiration will likely be uncomfortable here.

But there is one tip that is as indisputable and immutable as  a law of physics. That is: first impressions count. And your first paragraph will be the agent’s first (and possibly) last impression of your work. So it better be better than good.

When I  started working with fiction, I found that I usually could decide by the end of the first paragraph if a writer had talent. I was a little ashamed of this, so I asked around with other agents and editors. They agreed. This is not to say that I can tell by the end of the first paragraph whether a book is publishable. If the first paragraph makes me fall in love, I’ll keep reading until that first blush of romance disappears. It usually does at some point. Sometimes in the second paragraph. Sometimes on page 100.  Only rarely do I find myself reading the last line at 3 in the morning crying like a baby. But when that happens, it makes everything all worthwhile.

First impressions with an agent are no different than anything else in life. If you were going for an interview at Knopf, you probably wouldn’t show up wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and a John Deere hat. (Unless, you were looking for a job as an editor of a new imprint on ironic detachment.) If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression. And chances are editors and agents aren’t going to afford you that much more time.

This may seem harsh and unforgiving, but here’s my advice. Make that first paragraph sparkling and brilliant. And after that, make the second paragraph sparkling and brilliant.

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7 Responses to “The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count”

  1. Claire Fogel Says:

    Excellent advice. The first advice I had read (elsewhere) stressed the first 50 pages. But I guess if the first sentence doesn’t grab the reader, he or she will never get to the second. Okay, back to the drawing board. Thanks, Andy.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks Claire. Agents aren’t likely to read 50 pages if they are turned off by the first page. Some publishers might. But remember that all of the submissions publishers get have been agented and heavily vetted. By the time they get to the publisher, the quality is very high.

  2. Margie Brimer Says:

    Love this! I’m featuring this link on my blog this week. Thanks for the info. My favorite bit: “If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative, or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression.”

  3. MOVE ME NOW OR I’M MOVING ON | The Write Niche Says:

    […] was reading at  AndyRossAgency.wordpress.com  and here is what he had to say about making your first paragraph […]

  4. Jack Siler Says:

    A little late, but normally I don’t read these blogs. I used to have a film distribution company in Paris. We specialized in art feature films. In screening I gave every film 30 minutes minimum. Sometimes a work gets off to a slow start then gets dazzling, though if it’s truly awful at the beginning it’s probably that way throughout. And sometimes it’s the viewer/reader. I started The Pearl Bead Game twice and couldn’t pass p. 50. The 3rd time it became one of the important influences of my intellectual life.

    The problem is that today the bar is set at Awful and the flood of junk has eaten your life’s time as an agent. All you have to do is look at Galley Cat or the mass of “writer” seminars/MFA/etc. in the current Poets & Writers. So the handful of serious American fiction writers who are really good are almost accidental products accidentally found.

    Your advice is sound, but the schools teach technique and it’s not technique that gives a writer brilliance nor anything to say.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Jack, I sort of agree with you. You can teach technique. But at a certain point, if you are going to be good, if you are going to the next level, there is something beyond technique. It’s usually ineffable, but I usually know it when I see it. No one can teach it. I try not to be too mystical about these things, but it seems to be a kind of gift. And by the way, it’s not just there in literary fiction. The same is true of commercial fiction as well.

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