A Great Start: Or How to Keep an Agent Reading

You’ve queried or pitched and an agent (or several) has requested to see some or all of your manuscript. Whether they’ve asked for the first three chapters, 50 pages, or the entire thing, your goal is the same: Keep them reading.

But how do you do that? What keeps an agent reading, and what — perhaps more importantly — makes them stop?

The thing to remember is that we are book lovers, too, but we are very tired, overworked, and jaded book lovers. If vampires are the hot thing, we have them crawling out of our in-boxes day and night, sunshine be damned. If everyone has suddenly discovered dystopian young adult novels, three guesses what the first five partials in my submissions queue are. I have read more opening paragraphs where the heroine is awakened by a noise in her supposedly empty apartment than you will ever see in your lifetime.

That does not mean there’s no hope. Agents seek new material every day. We want to be excited about your book. We want it to pull us in. Your job is to figure out how to do that. Because if you can intrigue my worn out, exhausted, cynical inner reader, there’s a good chance that you can intrigue many other readers as well.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Start as late into your story as possible. Most writers go on for quite a few pages before getting to the real beginning of their novel. Don’t bore your reader with endless information leading up to the action. Can you chop off your first paragraph? Your first page? Be honest.
  • That said, don’t just throw us into the middle of the action without a life preserver. A big battle? An epic argument? Someone’s death? Okay, but who are these people? Who is your protagonist? Am I meant to pick a side? It’s all well and good to put your reader in the thick of it, but remember to give them some perspective as well.
  • Start with a strong first line. Plenty of people throw this piece of advice around, and that’s because it’s excellent advice. But keep in mind that you don’t have to write that fabulous opening line first thing. You might actually write the whole book and go back and rework the opening after the fact. Later material can inspire the opening. Also, if the very first line is more generic in nature, you can still pump up sentence number two or three and draw your reader in that way.
  • Keep the story moving. Don’t give the reader a bang-up start and then wander off into back story for thirty pages. Each scene needs to move your story forward, drawing your reader further into the depths of your novel. Back story is fine and can be important, but keep it to small doses, blend it in with the rest of your action, and keep on marching.
  • If you are opening your novel with a prologue, think again. Approximately 95% of all prologues I see are useless and simply keep the reader from getting to the actual story. Occasionally they do work. More often they can get cut and that information (often back story) can be shoehorned into the book somewhere else.
  • Keep it short. When in doubt, less is more. Include just what needs to be there. J.K. Rowling rewrote the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone endless times, because each version gave away too much of the story up front. Less. Is. More.

Much of this advice works for the rest of your book as well. Keep things moving, keep it interesting, make each scene pull its weight, avoid overused actions or plot twists, and keep character motivation in mind as you go.

Again, this is old advice, but there’s a reason it gets repeated: Pull a bunch of your favorite novels off the shelf and read the opening chapters. What’s working? What keeps you engaged? How is the protagonist introduced? Or antagonist, if the writer has started there? How is setting handled? Action? Dialogue? What do you love? And what could be done better? Try the same thing with a handful of books that disappointed you, especially if you could not get into them to start. What kept you from getting pulled into the story? Can you think of anything you might have altered that would have allowed you to keep reading?

I keep reading if I’m interested. I keep reading if I’m excited or touched or enchanted by what I encounter on the page. I stop if the writing is bad or cliched or sloppy, if I’m bored, if things feel unbelievable, or if the pace has crawled to a virtual standstill. Probably the same reasons you do. It’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, but that’s the challenge of the craft. Happy writing.


Happy Book Day!

Happy book release day to Nalini Singh, whose next installment in the New York Times-bestselling Psy/Changeling series, TANGLE OF NEED, hits stores today. Drop by your favorite bookstore and check it out. Congratulations, Nalini!

Adria, wolf changeling and resilient soldier, has made a break with the past–one as unpredictable in love as it was in war. Now comes a new territory, and a devastating new complication: Riaz, a SnowDancer lieutenant already sworn to a desperate woman who belongs to another.

For Riaz, the primal attraction he feels for Adria is a staggering betrayal. For Adria, his dangerous lone-wolf appeal is beyond sexual. It consumes her. It terrifies her. It threatens to undermine everything she has built of her new life. But fighting their wild compulsion toward one another proves a losing battle.

Their coming together is an inferno…and a melding of two wounded souls who promise each other no commitment, no ties, no bonds. Only pleasure. Too late, they realize that they have more to lose than they ever imagined. Drawn into a cataclysmic Psy war that may alter the fate of the world itself, they must make a decision that might just break them both.


Links for a Long Weekend

TGIF, plus Happy Memorial Day weekend to those of you in the U.S. I’m looking forward to a few days of, well, reading, quite honestly. But I plan to read outdoors. Does that count as a proper long-weekend activity?

Here are some fun and interesting links to entertain you in those few hours before you head for the pool or fire up the barbecue. Wishing you a lovely weekend, and if you manage to squeeze in a bit of writing, I’ll be so proud… Enjoy!

Contracts – In this case, between the writer and the reader.

Free the Apostrophe – Because proper punctuation is your friend.

What it Takes to Get Writers WritingLA Times links to the two-part Tin House series on what rituals writers have before sitting down to write.

10 Questions on Jane Austen – For my fellow Austen fans.

Why I Write Strong Female Characters – There’s a lot of buzz on the internet about Joss Whedon writing strong women, but he’s not the only one. A great piece by comic book author/novelist Greg Rucka.

Friday Links

I am not quite sure how it got to be Friday already. Where did this week go? It seemed to have been in a big hurry. I hope you all had a good one.

As always, I have some fun links to share with you, whether you’re looking for a way to entertain yourself on this final day of the work week or you’d like a little break before heading off for the weekend. Enjoy!

100 Most Creative People in Business – Not writing-related per se, but still an interesting line up, courtesy of Fast Company.

12 Deadly Grammatical Errors – They’ve got specific readers in mind for this list, but anyone can make these mistakes and I see them frequently in submissions.

How a Book Is Born – Great graphics here.

Thrum Me, Baby, One More Time – TKA’s own Deidre Knight blogged this week about word patterns and repetition in writing. Great reminder.


Keeping Your Novel on Track

No matter how busy your life, there always seem to be weeks or months where things decide to take themselves to the next level of crazy. In my case, several clients will send me manuscripts to read at the same time, contracts will hit my desk, I’ll have dove-tailing commitments to blog and judge contests and attend conferences, and some aspect of my personal life will rear its head demanding attention — baby shower, leaky sink, impending nervous breakdown… You get the idea. Generally the result is that something gets off track, small stuff falls through the cracks, and I wake up one morning unable to remember the last time I vacuumed my apartment.

Lulls seem to be a thing of the past these days, but the extreme craziness does eventually taper off, and then it’s time to regroup. I pull out old to-do lists to see what got pushed to the back burner, read through old emails to make sure nothing went unanswered, and set up a schedule that will let me keep track of new tasks while catching up with whatever else still lingers undone. It’s a great time to reassess, to see where I am, and to determine what I need to do in order to move forward.

The same goes for writing. It’s a rare project that lets you plow from first sentence to last with no distractions, no false starts, no wrong turns along the way, and if life happens to get a bit busy in the meantime, it’s quite easy to find your story veering off the rails. When writers complain they’ve gone off on a tangent or written themselves into a corner, there can be many reasons behind their issues, but such problems can be prevented or at least diverted before they get too serious if you make it a habit to stop every once in a while to take a look at your overall progress. If things have been a bit busy and you’ve missed a day or two of writing, if real life is making it difficult to focus, take a few minutes to scan your story and see if you’re headed in the right direction.

A few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is every scene necessary? Do they bring my protagonist closer to his/her goal or set up a new obstacle to be conquered?
  • Have I introduced any new characters? Were they planned? Are they serving a real purpose to the story?
  • Can I see my way from here to the next major event in the story? Can I see a way from here to the end of the story (generally if you’re in the second half of your WIP)?

Whether you are a meticulous plotter or someone who takes the story as it comes, it is important to have at least some idea where you want to go. The occasional check in, especially when life is impeding on your creative time, can help keep things on track and your novel flowing in the right direction. It doesn’t guarantee that you will never go off on a tangent — and sometimes tangents can be wonderfully inspiring things — but it can help keep you from drifting by too many thousands of words.

Friday-Link Riches

I seem to have more tabs open than usual, all saved with the intention of sharing their literary goodness with you this week. I hope they will entertain and inspire you.

If you happen to be in the LA-area, you might want to stop by Pasadena tomorrow for the first Pasadena Lit Fest. This was originally scheduled some months ago but was postponed by a genuinely windy, wet storm, complete with rumbling thunder and such. I’m happy to say our forecast for this weekend is lovely.

So, without further ado, I offer up my collection of links. Happy weekend to all of you, and happy writing!

The Trouble with Prince Charming or He Who Trespassed Against Us – A fabulous, intelligent look at the 50 Shades trilogy and their accompanying popularity.

14 Literary Settings Inspired by Real Places – Just what it sounds like.

Colin Firth Lends Voice to Classic Novel Reading – Firth joins a group of well-known actors in reading the classics for Audible Books.

A Beginner’s Guide to Crime Fiction – A nice list of must-read titles.

Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are – Bill Moyers interviews Sendak for PBS.

How to Write a Novel – YA author Laini Taylor offers up a great list of steps on her blog.

The ‘Cider House’ Writing Rules – Some tips from author John Irving.