Earlier this week I offered some twitvice to an aspiring author. She said she'd just finished proofreading her manuscript and felt it was ready to submit. She wanted to know what her next steps should be.
Next step is to write the best darn query letter and synopsis you can and make sure your first 10 pages ROCK. Then agent.
Her response (slightly edited):
It's the first 10 pages I dislike the most! The first 10 pages are taken up with detailed descriptions of the characters. I feel like they're too long, but backstory is needed.
Then those aren't your first ten pages. In about 85% of the manuscripts I evaluate, I end up suggesting that the author cut the first ten page they're currently using entirely. Sometimes it's the first 50. Sometimes the first 100. Why? Because those pages are filled with backstory and character description.
But isn't that stuff important? Yes, of course it is. It's vital that YOU know everything about the characters and their histories. But when a reader first picks up your book, that backstory is the last thing they want to know. They don't know your characters yet. They haven't become involved with them - haven't had the chance to connect with them. So why the heck do they care when they went to high school or what their parents did to screw them up? There are ways to work those details into later parts of the book if it's important (sometimes it is; sometimes it's not).
Start with story. Start with plot. Start with things happening. Make your reader WANT to know more about the characters BEFORE you tell them. It's okay to be a tease.
There's another reason those first ten pages MUST be more than description or backstory. Let's ignore the reader altogether for a moment (but just a moment!).
The first people you want to impress? Literary Agents.
To emphasize just how important those first ten pages are, let's take a little trip down my memory lane, to a time when I was the only intern/assistant at a large literary agency.
Every week, hundreds of queries land on my desk. Hundreds and hundreds. Mounds of them. We didn't accept e-mail queries back then.
We did accept the first fifteen pages in query packages, which is still fairly common.
Every-other morning I sat at my little desk in the back hallway (really) reading those queries and pages and pulling out submissions my agents might be interested in reading. Within two months I could correctly gage which ones they wanted to see and which ones they didn't about 95% of the time.
If you wanted to get to them, you had to go through me. And all you had to impress me - and stand out from, again, HUNDREDS - was a query letter (1 page) and the first ten pages of your manuscript. That's it. If you haven't made me sit up straight by the end of those pages - if I'm not thinking "I must read more! This is great! What happens next? Tell me!" then you haven't stood out from the pack, and you become one of the hundreds of authors to receive our form rejection letter every week (I HATED that part of my job - which is part of the reason why I do this).
Okay, so, let's say I loved the pages or the query and thought my agents would too. Generally, that means you're one of about a dozen per week. Now you have my recommendation scrawled across the bottom of your query, and you're on their desk. They have a million things to do every day, and will, most likely, get to your pages sometime that week. What are they going to be judging you on?
The same thing I did. The query. Your first ten pages. And that's it.
If you grabbed the agent with those first ten pages, a request came back to me, and I called you up and requested the rest of the manuscript. And yes, if that wasn't darn-near perfect and publish-ready, you'd end up getting a rejection letter anyway (with a comment or two if we'd requested a full - so at least there was that). But if those first ten pages don't do their job, you never even get to that stage.
So kill your backstory. Kill your character descriptions. Kill anything that's "tell" instead of "show." Or at least work all those things into later portions of the book.
You have ten pages to make me want more. Give me story. Give me action. Give me reaction. Give me flavor. Give me the best writing you've got.
Anything else is NOT your first ten.