Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Pages of Terror (Strong starts to a story)

My literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, offers a workshop on refining the first two pages of a story to make them compelling. Here is the link:

Why take this workshop? It’s “only” two pages. How could this possibly help my story?

Consider my personal experience. I sent my manuscript to Marisa thinking it was ready for big time publishers. Beta readers raved about the story, and Marisa agreed with my beta readers that the story is compelling. She accepted me as a client. “Whew,” I thought. “I finally made it.”

Not long thereafter, I experienced Marisa’s mastery of literature in a surprising email. She said my writing reminded her of Dan Brown’s storytelling. Then, she mentioned that he uses shorter chapters to enhance tension, but that my book carried its conflict in 22 longer chapters. Would I consider revising?

That one simple question impacted not just this story, but everything I’ve written since. My beta readers include a highly educated English teacher, two other authors, several genre-specific fans of thrillers and a molecular biologist consultant. To a person, they felt the story was excellent. Nevertheless, Marisa’s question forced me to open my eyes to a possible improvement.

I searched my chapters for logical cliffhangers and quickly expanded the book to 78 chapters without changing ANY of the story, itself. I merely fed readers the same action in smaller, faster-evolving chunks.

My beta readers were astonished at the change. The story “moved” better, tension grew--well, it became more intense. Reader’s experienced a new level of immersion into the tale. I was amazed at the improvement. The story did not change a bit; just the framework from which it is told.

Back to this workshop by my talented and perceptive agent, Marisa Corvisiero. How can a workshop about the first two pages of a story make much difference?

Maybe I should rephrase the question. How can a strong first impression impact an agent or editor’s acquisition decision?

Ah ha! That makes things more clear, but the answer--first impressions--is not as obvious as it might seem. You see, first impressions MUST be followed by quality writing. Excellent writing skills generate those two critical early pages. But, what if a great start leads to a weak story? Readers feel betrayed.

Fortunately, the same skills learned to build a strong beginning can be applied throughout the entire manuscript. After all, every story is nothing more than a series of little stories running together. Marisa can teach those valuable skills. It might be the best $80 you ever spend as an aspiring author.


  1. I gained similar knowledge with an Editor for Tor Books through a private pitch session/consultation at a writer's conference years ago. The experience propelled my ability to relay stories in a compelling manner light years ahead of where it was.

    1. I am amazed by some aspiring authors who refuse to invest in their writing. If they wanted to be a long-haul truck driver, they would not hesitate to pay big bucks for a driving training course. Same for any other skill/craft from welding to nursing. Yet, many aspiring writers choose to "wing it" instead of investing a small amount of money to excel. Whoops, I'd better shut up before the competition pays attention and becomes a threat. lol.

      Thanks for your wisdom, Terry.

  2. This is the first time ever that I've heard the "first two pages" tip. I've heard "first chapter", "first three chapters", and "first fifty pages". This is getting as scary as it is odd. I applied the other rules to recent best-sellers and wondered how any agent ever picked them up. Now we add "first two". Cutting to the chase: I can't sweat how someone decided on those other books; I have to apply those rules to my very own manuscript. Unfortunately, the more these "secret rules" are revealed to me, the less confidence I have in my already-submitted manuscript... but so much more in how to attack fresh and new query submissions.

    1. According to Marisa, the vast majority of rejections happen on the query letter, synopsis or first couple pages of the manuscript. If you make it that far, chances are they will finish reading the short submission (usually first ten pages to three chapters.) The real trick, though, is to get past those first two pages. Plus, the skills learned to write a compelling opening apply to the entire manuscript.

      Good luck with your submissions. Of course, you can improve your "luck" by taking Marisa's workshop.

      Thanks for your comments...Dean


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