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.