The promise of the first 50 pages – and an answer to that pesky poetry question

Hello, readers —

I have a lot to talk about today. First, allow me to respond to a terrific question submitted by sharp-eyed reader, inquiring mind, and poetry aficionado Colleen, who wrote in:

What’s the industry standard format for poetry? I know it’s single-spaced, double-spaced between stanzas, but I’m not sure about the margins. And should it be centered or justified at the left margin? Thanks for all the helpful advice! –Colleen

Well, I did know the answer to this one, but as I have only twice since I graduated from high school written poems that deserved to outlive the day they were written, I thought it would be a good idea to double-check with some of the award-winning poets I know. Perhaps they would have some insight for my readers that I, as a non-poet, would not.

Rising to the challenge was the fabulous Paula Neves, poetess extraordinaire, master of word craft, and web mistress of that wonderful literary site, Itinerant Muse, which features cutting-edge poetry, prose, and news from the world of words. Paula’s rich, lyrical style and delightfully offbeat worldview have led her to one poetry triumph after another, both in print and in performance. Here’s what she had to say to Colleen on the poetry formatting issue:

Mostly everyone that I’m aware of does single-spaced lines, double-spaces between stanzas, left justification, and 1″ margins. When submitting myself, I’ve always just done this or relied on the publication’s particular standards. I’m not aware of a “format guide” for poetry, but I will do a little digging ‘cause I’m curious.

I’m curious, too, Paula, because every published poet I approached with this question appeared puzzled by it. They, too, had merely been adhering to the standards set by the individual publication or contest – but all really liked the idea of a formatting guide for poets. (Several, too, expressed concern that there WERE unspoken standards out there, and that perhaps they had been violating them for years.) So I think it’s high time that some poet just bit the bullet and codified the standards. But that’s a project for another day, and another writer.

Today, I want to talk about an issue dear to the heart of every writer who has honed her skills and burnished her natural talent enough to be receiving “Yes, do send us the first 50 pages/ first three chapters” answers to her queries. For most writers who eventually publish, this is a distinct stage of professional development: first there is the invariable rejection stage (which I hope in your case is/was very short), then the we-might-be-interested-but stage, then the gratifying stage where most of your queries receive some interest. As I have been arguing for months on end now, the difference between stages is very often not the quality of the writing, but its presentation – although most writers do improve their craft as they revise their way through the stages.

The first time a writer receives a request to see part of her manuscript, it is a red-letter day, isn’t it? Finally, after years of struggling, here at last is recognition. And it is indeed recognition: of the fact that the writer has learned the ropes of the industry well enough to write a professional-quality query letter, put together a solid synopsis, and follow the submission directions to a T. This is nothing to sneeze at: the vast majority of submitters have not been able to achieve so much. So be proud of yourself.

So you give one last read-through to those precious pages (and yes, Virginia, if the agent has asked for 50 pages, send ONLY 50 pages, even if that means cutting the reader off in mid-sentence. You want to be asked for more, don’t you?), and send them off with fear and trembling. Or, rather, if you are a regular reader of this column, you will:

*Read the whole thing through IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, to catch any last-minute problems

*Make sure that it is in standard format (if you do not know what this is, go back and read my blog of December 28), with all pages numbered and a standard slug line.

*Print it up on bright white paper of high quality (20 lb. or higher) that is a pleasure to handle and won’t tear in transit.

*Included a professional-but-pleasant cover letter that thanks the agent for her interest.

*Included a SASE, and

*Written “REQUESTED MATERIALS” in gigantic letters on the outside of the package.

Because if you do not, you know, I shall be cross – and, more importantly, so will the agent be. Proper presentation renders a fair reading of your work infinitely more likely.

If the agent loves the work, the writer will receive a letter or (more often) a phone call, asking for the rest. So then you repeat all of the steps above, the agent falls in love with the rest of the book, and you move on to the NEXT next stage of your growth as a professional writer. I sincerely hope that this is the way it works out for you.

Except most of the time, this is not what happens.

All too often, good writers’ books are rejected between the “Yes, we like the first 50 pages – send more immediately!” step and the “Yes, I want to sign you!” step. And this is puzzling, because, frankly, if the writer in question hadn’t cleared up most of the normal formatting problems, written a great query letter, and shown quite a lot of talent in those first 50 to boot, she wouldn’t have gotten this far. Is this, the rejected writer wonders, a sign that I’m just not talented enough? Or is this yet another aspect of the publishing world that lies outside my control?

Actually, it’s neither. It’s a phenomenon known in the industry as the book’s “not living up to the promise of the first 50.” And, as nearly as I can tell, it is a problem created almost entirely by the fact that writers spend years toiling their way through the progression I mentioned above.

Let’s face it, a writer could get away for an awfully long time in the query process – or the contest-entering process, for that matter — without having polished much more than the first 50 pp., couldn’t he? True, the expectation is that you will not query an agent, solicit a small publisher, or enter a contest for a finished book without having in fact completed it (for fiction, at least; for NF, you are expected to have a proposal in hand), but in practice, if you had 50 pages and/or three chapters of beautifully polished prose, you could go a long way with it before anyone in the industry would actually ask to see the rest of your book.

Even if you are not quite so strategic, the mere fact that professionals ask to see the first pages (particularly the first chapter) means that you yourself probably end up reading and revising them more than the rest of the book. We have all been told – and with great justification – that if you want to get your work past the initial screeners at an agency, publishing house, or contest, those first pages need to shine. So admonished, most of us polish those early pages to a high gloss. If you ever enter contests, this is almost certainly the case. Which means that the rest of the book may not be buffed quite so well.

Think about the implications of this from an agent’s or editor’s perspective. You have read a glorious first 50 pages and loved them. Consequently, your expectations about the author of them are very high. Since, due to writers’ tendency to want to play with their work a bit more before it is sent, a few weeks may pass before you see the next installment – and a few more may pass, while you are trying to find time to read it (many agents and most editors do their reading at home, rather than at the office), you may have built the book up even higher in your mind in the interim. So if when you finally tackle the rest, it seems like a rougher draft than the earlier work, you are bound to be disappointed, aren’t you?

Disappointed agents and editors, I am sorry to report, seldom sign authors or acquire books. If this sounds as though writers get punished for doing too good a job of self-editing their first few chapters…well, if I ran the universe, it wouldn’t work that way. But sadly, I do not.

This reminds of when I was a graduate student. In my department, doctoral exams were the subject of much puzzled debate, because the results were often the exact opposite of what the professors expected: time and again, the best students would merely pass, whereas the borderline and downright mediocre students would pass with honors. Many possible reasons were advanced; perhaps the hotshot students were given longer or more difficult reading lists to study, or the poor students studied more, so they felt insecure.
But year after year, professors were disappointed by their best students’ performances and charmed by their worst.

When it came time for me to take my doctoral exams, I was determined to break the trend. I prepared as if my life depended upon the outcome. I was a very good student, and like most of the top students before me, I did exceptionally well on the written part of the exam. By the time I reached the final, oral segment, I was dead tired. I had written 160 pages of difficult theoretical analysis over the course of just under two weeks, and the professors on my committee had been fighting one another the whole time. But still, I did not miss a single question throughout my grueling 3-hour oral exam. I was pretty darned proud of myself.

When my committee brought me back into the room to tell me my grade, however, I was shocked to learn that I had not passed with honors. Merely passed. “But I had the longest reading list anyone in the department has ever had,” I protested. “I answered every question, and you said that my writtens were close to perfect.”

The professors glanced at one another, clearly embarrassed. “Well, you did so well on your written exams,” my chair admitted, after a pause, “we expected something really stellar on your orals. We wanted you to impress us more.”

”Also,” another professor added, “you seemed tired.”

If I had enough strength left to lift my arms, I believe I might have thrown my pen at him, but as it was, all I had energy to do was tell them that I had solved the departmental mystery. The poor students were doing badly on their written exams, I explained, so the professors’ expectations of their performances in their orals were very low. Thus, the better you did on the first part, the less likely you were to impress them on the second; an impressive written performance, then, more or less disqualified you from receiving honors.

They were very impressed by my reasoning. They still didn’t give me honors, but at least they were impressed.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should write poorly for your first 50 pp – absolutely not, because then you will not be asked to send more. But do give some serious thought and revision time to the rest of the book, particularly the SECOND 50 pages. Because the better a writer you are, the harder an act you will have to follow.

And in the eyes of the publishing industry, this does not seem as unreasonable as it does from the point of view of a writer. An agent will not pick you up because you can write a good introductory chapter; she will sign you because she believes that you are so talented that you produce great sentences, wonderful paragraphs, stellar pages all the time — and that you will continue to do so for the rest of your life.

THAT’S how much faith an agent who asks to read the rest of the book has in you.

Flattering, really. But it sets an awfully high bar. Make sure that your book is ready to clear it, when the great day comes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *