Tricia Levenseller: How to Write Good Sample Pages

TriciaI’m super excited to have Tricia Levenseller guest blogging today. Tricia graduated with a degree in English Language and a minor in editing from BYU. While in school, she interned with me at the literary agency. She also interned for Shadow Mountain Publishing. She currently works as a freelancer for multiple publishing companies, reviewing and editing manuscripts. Tricia also edits books for authors looking to self publish or find agents.

Hobbies for Tricia include watching TV shows (some of her favorites are Firefly, The VampireDiaries, Vikings, Sherlock, and Orphan Black), working on long projects (like putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, crocheting blankets, and writing books), and playing volleyball.

You can follow Tricia on twitter @TriciaLevensell, where she regularly posts writing and editing advice, or at her writing group’s blog: theplotless.wordpress.com, where they talk about writing and the entertainment industry each week.


Thanks for having me, Kyra! I’m excited to be on Thoughts from the Agent Desk. You do a wonderful job discussing query letters, and all your followers are lucky to have your great insight every week.

Since you’ve got query letters covered, I thought I would talk to viewers today about sample pages—those pages that agents often request be sent along with a query when writers first submit to them. I’ve seen agents request anywhere from three to fifty pages, and regardless of the length, my goal is to help writers understand how to make those beginning pages the best they can be.

The short answer is to be INTERESTING and ORIGINAL. This is how you will stand out. But since it is difficult to know if you’re being interesting, we’ll go into this in more detail. First, let’s talk briefly about first lines. Believe it or not, as writers, you can draw in readers with your very first line. The trick is to make readers ask a question that forces them to read the second line. For example, look at Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil: “Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.” Upon reading that, you immediately ask yourself Why had she waited to be kidnapped? This is interesting, yes? Original? Absolutely. Does it encourage you to read the next line of the book?

Now I want to point out right away that you don’t have to be writing a fantasy book to have an interesting first line. Consider Elizabeth Scott’s Something, Maybe, a YA contemporary romance: “Everyone’s seen my mother naked.” Does it make you ask a question? Is it still interesting and original?

There are easy things that you can do to help out that first line. I tell everyone that starting out with setting is a sure way to send people into snoozeville. Don’t start out by saying it was a dark and stormy night. Or that the leaves floated toward the ground like butterflies. Draw people in to the story before you describe the scene. If you have only five pages to draw in an agent, don’t waste too many words describing the setting. TELL THE STORY. But, as with most things, there are exceptions to everything. Look at Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn “Ash fell from the sky.” Is that a common setting description? Does ash normally fall from the sky? No. It’s still interesting and original, and it makes you ask a question.

Personally, I adore opening books with a one-sentence paragraph that’s fun and jarring, but not everyone has to do this to be interesting. In fact, one of my most favorite book openings, from Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, does not start out with a one-sentence paragraph:

After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.

Still interesting and original even though it uses four sentences instead of one? Still make you ask questions to encourage you to keep reading? The other trick that Maas uses here is helping us quickly get invested in her main character. Getting readers attached to your characters is a great way to be interesting, and there are three simple ways to do this. You can make your characters good at something. You can make readers sympathize with them. And you can put something new and unexpected in their lives. I quickly learned that the reason why I love the opening paragraph to Throne of Glass is because Maas uses each of these three things right from the start. Celaena is the best assassin. She’s lived as a slave for a year. And now there is a hooded man at her side. Talent. Sympathy. Newness. BAM.

So once you have your beginning paragraph, then what? Answer: keep up the pacing. Continue to draw in readers. There are simple rules to follow in order to do this as well.

1. Don’t info dump. Nothing will slow down the pacing more than you talking about the history of your world or explaining your magic system or giving your character’s entire backstory or pausing to talk about another character, etc. Your writing is a river. The added information are all the big boulders in the stream. Each time you hit one, the water has to veer around it before continuing downstream. A little information is good. It adds character. A lot is bad. It slows everything down. Give a little information here and there. Don’t dump it all in at once.

2. No flashbacks. At the beginning of your story, you should not be using ANY flashbacks. If information dumping consists of all the boulders in the water, then flashbacks are the dams that the little beavers are building. Doing a flashback brings the story to an abrupt halt. Then you have to get the reader’s interest AGAIN once you’re done, assuming you didn’t lose them once the flashback started. If you feel that your flashback is absolutely essential to know at the beginning of the story, then you started your book in the wrong place. Yeah, start earlier, BUT…

3. NO PROLOGUES. In keeping with my river analogy, using a prologue is like starting your book in a jungle and expecting readers to find the river. If you’re starting your book with a prologue that nobody but you can understand, TAKE IT OUT. There is absolutely no point to a prologue if it isn’t directly relevant to the story. And if it is directly relevant to your story, make it your first chapter. It’s as easy as that. There are so many agents that detest prologues. Usually because they’re not necessary. And you should always start your story with relevant information. But as I mentioned before, there are exceptions. If you’re writing epic fantasy for adults, a prologue is often expected—but for the love of writing, make sure it is relevant. If you’re thinking right now, Crap, I have a prologue. What do I do now? Look at Sara B. Larson’s Defy. She starts out her book with a “Before” heading. Then below chapter one, the heading says “After.” I’m not trying to say that calling the prologue something different will make it okay. I’m trying to say that Larson’s “Before” is directly relevant to the story, and it’s only three pages long. It’s short, to the point, and it doesn’t interrupt the pacing. In fact, it helps it. But the takeaway is to just start with chapter one. If your scene is relevant to the story, there’s no reason not to just start the book there.

4. Don’t introduce too many new/made up terms at once. These are your “muggles” and “hobbits” and other words you make up in your story. Readers can accept and remember a couple, but if they have to remember too many things at once, it’s going to distract from the story and encourage them to stop reading. How many is too many? How fast is too fast to introduce new terms? There is no definite answer. Have a friend read the beginning of your book and tell you what they could and couldn’t keep up with.

5. Show don’t tell. Everyone hears this, but it’s so true. Telling instead of showing is just as bad as info dumping. At some point in the future I will be doing a post on how to do this on my blog. For now though, just know that you should show your beginning as much as possible. Tell rarely.

6. Avoid clichés. Don’t start your book with a dream. In fact, avoid any dream scenes in your book if you can. Don’t have your main character look in a mirror and describe themselves to the reader. We don’t need to know what your character looks like right away. This can be an info dump if you’re not careful.

7. Always blend the familiar with the new. For example, if you’re writing a YA contemporary, don’t write the familiar school scene. We all know what a biology classroom looks like. We know what it’s like to be in P.E. We know what lockers look like and how that popular girl acts and what those jocks smell like. Do not describe things that people are familiar with. Describe what’s interesting and unique about that familiar scene. If there’s nothing interesting and original about that scene, you should not be writing it. If you want to read an interesting and original beginning school scene, take a look at Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush.

Okay, I think that covers the main points, and if you only take away one thing from this post, I hope it’s that you should be interesting and original in your beginning pages (and the rest of your book for that matter). If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to answer questions posted in the comments. Also, I will be giving a five-page critique to one lucky reader of this post.

Thanks again for having me, Kyra!


And here’s the link to the giveaway!

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19 thoughts on “Tricia Levenseller: How to Write Good Sample Pages

  1. Great post. Very insightful, when reading, the opening paragraph is a make or break for me. If I’m not drawn in immediately, then I switch books. I know it sounds bad, luckily, not many books have that problem. Thank you publishing industry.
    And thanks for doing this guest post.

  2. Pingback: Shameless Self-Promotion | The Plotless

  3. Lots and lots of good info here! Thank you, Tricia, for helping struggling writers. In my adult spec fic ms, the MC is a child in the first four chapters. That’s when the inciting event happens that shapes the story. The rest of the ms has the MC as an adult. I hope I’m not starting in the wrong place. Would the chapters involving the MC’s early life be considered back story? Thanks again. 🙂

    • Yes, this would be considered back story, but if you’re showing it (using actual scenes) instead of telling it (using a paragraph to describe your character’s history without showing it), then it wouldn’t necessarily be info dumping. However, you might be giving the reader unnecessary information.

      You should should ask yourself if you really need four chapters to show the inciting incident. This does seem a little long to me. I would try to condense it. One chapter is preferable. Two is okay. Three should really be the limit.

      Take a look at those four chapters and ask if you need to show as many characters as you do. Are they all relevant to this beginning part of the story? Are they all part of the inciting incident? Do you need to give as much description as you do? Do you need to show how the world works–the customs, religions, laws, government, etc.–as much as you do? Usually, I don’t recommend cutting out dialogue because that tends to draw readers in quickly, but if you are using four chapters, then maybe you do have some unnecessary conversations in there. Only you can tell though.

      I caution against doing this only because it often feels like starting a book twice. First you have to get your readers invested in your MC when he/she is young and then again when he/she is older. You have get them interested in your story twice, which means you’re going to need an exciting and engaging beginning twice. If you do this, then you have nothing to worry about. But you should definitely make that beginning as concise and relevant as possible (not to mention interesting and original!).

      Another thing I would recommend doing is giving some sort of indicator at the beginning of your “before” scenes to show that your MC isn’t going to remain a child for the entire story. I once read a ms that claimed it was YA. When I started the ms, the MC was seven. I read about six chapters before I realized that the author wasn’t going to make the MC any older. They thought that they could write a YA with a seven-year-old MC. Now the beginning was interesting, so I kept reading, but once I realized that the author wasn’t writing in the right genre, I stopped. So starting your first chapter with a heading that says “10 years earlier” or something similar would be a good way to show that this is the beginning of your story. There’s relevant information contained there. But your main character is going to get older really soon.

      • Also, I just thought of an example for you. Take a look at GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers. She actually has five chapters to start the story before skipping ahead three years. She can get away with it because the jump in time isn’t so huge. But I would recommend taking a look at how she keeps up the pacing and how the jump feels so natural that it seems as though it doesn’t even happen.

      • Thank you for your reply! I’m so grateful for your advice, and it’s been very helpful. Thankfully, I’m showing, not teling, but I’ll try to find a way to shrink these chapters. Thank you, also, for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out. 🙂

  4. Thank you Tricia for your insight. Do you have any suggestions as alternate to flashbacks? Should MC reflect on whatever information makes the flashback seem vital? Thanks!

    • This is tricky. First, does the information seem vital, or IS it vital? If it’s vital, but you feel that you don’t need to start your book by showing the scene that you used as a flashback, then there is an alternative.

      This is one of the rare cases where you would tell instead of show. Tell the reader the information they need to know. Do it quickly and concisely–1-2 sentences if you can manage it. Don’t have your character dwell on it too long because you want to keep up the pacing and move along with the actual story.

      Also, be sure to transition to the telling. Make sure the story leads right into it–instead of just presenting the information randomly because the reader needs to know it. The trick is to do it in such a way that it doesn’t interrupt the actual story; it merely extends it.

    • It is possible to be too “out there” with your opening line. But if the line matches your character’s voice then it shouldn’t be a problem. It’ll feel natural, yet still engaging to the reader.

  5. My opening line seems to get a love it/hate it response. I had one agent tell me it was the best opening line ever. Another said it was trying too hard. I’d love your opinion: “The day started like most Sundays. Except for the electric chair.” (The MC is lured into a homemade electric chair by his older brothers.)

    • Getting mixed responses is just part of publishing. If you get a positive response from an agent, then don’t take the others to heart. Unless of course, a bunch of people start telling you the exact same thing. That’s when you need to listen. But everything is so subjective. You just have to wait for someone who loves everything about your novel. Personally, I think your beginning is great!

  6. This is really helpful advice. My bad habit is the quick flashback — I’ve been rapped across the knuckles for it recently and this is a timely reinforcement that it has to go. Thanks Tricia.

  7. I just discovered (and devoured) this blog today! I love Kyra’s Query Critiques and I have found them really helpful when I view my own efforts. Thanks, Tricia, for your awesome post as well. THIS one has been bookmarked and shared. It’s so nice to have these major issues that can crop up in your first pages in one list.

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