First lines and query letters: How soon is too soon?

My friend, the very talented writer, Ruth Horowitz, gave me some good advice about what to blog about next. She said:  It makes sense that as an agent your emphasis is on the product that appears in your inbox — query, first sentence(s). For the writer, these concerns should only arise after a very long process of creating, crafting and revising. Thinking too much about them too soon can be stifling, because it puts you in the role of editor when you need to be a writer. It might be nice for you to blog about how/when aspiring writers should be applying your really excellent advice.

Well, Ruth clearly forgot it’s all about me and my needs. Oh wait! Did that slip out of my mind and onto the screen? It’s not true! It’s not true!

See that? That paragraph just above this one? That is what I mean when I tell writers to stop the throat clearing. When I’m asking to critique first lines I’m not asking for all that nonsense. But guess what? You need to write that nonsense! You need to write it so you can get it out of your head, just like I did. You need to write it because sometimes other things come out of it. Or it provides back story that you need to think about. Or like I did above, just to warm up before getting to the heart of the matter. Just don’t send that to me…

A Twitter follower  (hi @LauraRenegar!) said: I’d love to read about how to beef up a manuscript when the story is in place, but the wordcount is low. I’m good at tightening but sometimes it’s hard to know what to add when you’ve finished a draft.

I told her: You can’t add words to increase the wordcount. You add words to tell more story, expand on ideas, draw a more detailed picture. Filling out a story when you just have bones is when you spin the tale, embellish, explain, trim the tree, decorate the house! (Metaphorically. Trim the metaphoric tree.)

I think there is something wild and primitive and elemental to the act of writing. I think if we think too much about it it doesn’t come out true. I think our characters really do have lives of their own and if we just listen closely enough we’ll be able to hear them tell their stories. To me there’s something Jungian about writing fiction, like we’re just capturing something that’s already out there in the collective unconscious and getting it down on paper. Listen to your characters.

And I beg you, don’t send me a first line for critique until your manuscript is complete. How can you know if you’ve started it off correctly if you don’t actually know where it’s going to go. You can‘t know, until you’ve arrived at the end. Ruth is so right. Allow yourself to craft your piece. Let it grow into something beautiful and authentic and honest. You don’t want to start trimming and clipping, editing and thinking too much, until it’s well formed.

After your story has been told, it’s already down on the paper, you’ve expanded and filled it out and it’s just a big, full-blown mess, that is the time to start revising, editing and thinking about first lines.  And that is when you can enter a first line critique.

Don’t even think about writing or sending a query until you are 100% finished with your whole manuscript. 100% finished means totally, wholly, thoroughly, utterly and absolutely complete.

Any questions?

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “First lines and query letters: How soon is too soon?

  1. Being a very frugal person I kinda giggled that you write because sometimes other things come out of it! Yes, kitty litter and confetti. OK, I guess I’m pulling your leg a little. I do believe that nothing is a total waste of time. Oh yes, maybe Soaps!! I have cooked all my life and done it very well but I also confess that sometimes I create a monstrosity. I do believe that it is a kind of cleansing, “get the garbage out,” and what follows will be better. It takes courage after a disaster to try again and that courage is what good writers are really made of.

  2. Testing for writing doneness is tricky, as with baking–revise until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean?

  3. Bunbury

    How do you feel about word counts? It seems 70k is the minimum in a lot of cases. I know you love simple. I feel nobody has the attention span for some French boy going on about cookies and how his mother didn’t love him or etc. Less is more to me, say 60k words.

    • Well, I don’t necessarily equate simple with short. I personally don’t write for other people’s attention spans. I write what I write. And that’s what I coach my clients to do as well. How do I feel about word counts? I feel you need to tell your story in the best way you can. If it’s not a novel it’s not a novel.

      The inestimable Colleen Lindsay wrote a great blog post last year about word count that I think is on the money.

  4. The yellow brick road, the long and winding road…ARGH! I have to get more comfortable shoes before I can really be off to see the wizard. Thanks for this post!

  5. Sarah

    Yes! What momthewriter suggested. And I’m revising the whole thing…just saying…

  6. momthewriter

    I love this post. It answered so many of my questions. I would love to see a post from you about what happens when you get an agent and get published. How it all works out, what to expect. 🙂

  7. Good blog. I love the photo. Think I’ll copy it and use it as my screen saver to remind me to put on my red shoes when I write and walk in my characters’ footsteps regardless of which choices they make at the forks in the road.

  8. Wow. Lucky you to have such brilliant friends.

  9. Sarah

    What if a writer thought the ms was “utterly and absolutely complete,” but then read a powerful book (Save The Cat) and realized what the first pages lacked? Like the whole ms was really terrific, except for that limp, sucky beginning? Should the writer re-query her favorite agents with a one line explanation attached to the query, or just move on? Waah!

    • It’s difficult to know why agents pass on projects. I get many queries by good writers of well-written manuscripts that just aren’t for me. Perhaps it’s the subject matter, a genre in which I’m not that interested (I whine all the time about that), that I have a similar manuscript I’m already committed to working on… So try to be sure “your favorite agents” are really the right ones to be querying. Make your revisions (and I’d bet you could probably revise that whole manuscript… just saying…) and write a new query letter and send it out. What do you have to lose? You don’t want to sit around wishing/hoping/regretting/wondering, do you?