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.


Links for Everyone

Busy week, so I’m dropping in with links so I can finally close out some of the million-and-one tabs open on my desktop. They range from serious business to craft to a bit of entertainment.

Authors Say Agents Try to “Straighten” Gay Characters in YA – This discussion has been going on all over the internet for the last few days and I think it’s important for everyone to be aware. I’m kind of horrified that an agent would make such a request. It’s one thing to ask a writer to work on or change a character because something about them isn’t working within the scope of a story, but another thing entirely to demand they change the character’s sexual preference. I think it’s especially important for teenagers to be able to find diversity in what they read so that everyone has characters with whom they can identify at a time of life when they’re struggling to discover who they are.

9 Ways of Looking at a Single Paragraph – Interesting and thought-provoking.

Anthony Bourdain to Acquire Books for Ecco – This just amuses me somehow.

Grift Magazine to Debut in 2012 – For you fans (and writers) of crime fiction.

Mysterious Paper Sculptures in Edinburgh – These are simply lovely and fascinating.

Who’s Talking? The Perils of POV

I spent a good portion of the last few days reading submissions, and whenever I do so in a concentrated period of time, I start to trip over writing patterns. In this case, the pattern emerged almost immediately, as it only served to solidify a suspicion I’d been forming for months: First person POVs are all starting to sound the same.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. First person seems to have become the point-of-view of choice, particularly in young adult fiction where I rarely see anything else, and in some cases it is brilliantly done. There’s always a shining star of an example, a project where the voice is distinctive and consistent and draws you into the story. Unfortunately, these instances are few and far between.

First person narrative offers the writer a very specific set of challenges, the most obvious one being to come across sounding like the character and not like oneself. With young adult fiction, the second most common problem is capturing the teen voice—sounding like the young adult in question rather than a grown up struggling to remember their own teen years. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that writers stop there. They appear to believe that sounding unlike themselves and/or like a teenager is sufficient, and they move on to address other writing issues, from plot to pacing. But those challenges are only the beginning.

Who is your character? Who is this person telling the story? What makes them different, unique, worthy of taking the role of storyteller? First person protagonists are more than their actions within the story, they are the voice that welcomes the reader into the world, and as such the writer’s job is to know exactly how that character sounds. Who are they, and how is that reflected in the way they speak?

Speech patterns are a vital part of characterization, whether you write in first person, second, or third. Word choice and rhythms convey everything you wish to tell, or conceal, about your characters, and this is especially important when you are focusing on the voice of your story. What part of the country or world is the narrator from? You don’t need to spell out a heavy-handed, hard-to-read accent in order to make it clear that your speaker is from the American South or Asia or Eastern Europe; word order and vocabulary choice, along with a few facts, can put that voice firmly into the reader’s mind. Is your narrator well educated? From a wealthy background? Or do they come from a rural, poverty stricken locale where most kids stop going to school by the time they’re sixteen? How would each of these individuals sound?

Even characters who come from an average background—suburban teens whose main concerns are boys, grades, and parents—need to sound like individuals. If the character is interesting enough to become the focus of your novel, they are interesting enough to have a specific voice. The average teen narrator crawls out of my submissions pile sounding whiny and self-involved. The teen years can seem to be a selfish time anyway, but adding on a poorly written first person POV makes the entire opening of a manuscript sound like me, me, me. Even if that is your character’s persona at the start of the story, it cannot come across in a generic manner.

So how do you make your character sound unique? You need to get to know them, and often this happens in the process of writing your book. As the story progresses, most writers learn more about their protagonists than they did when they began, discovering how they react in various situations and what that says about who they are and how they come across to the reader. The key is to go back to the beginning once you’ve made these discoveries and incorporate them into your character’s opening voice. Don’t just revise for plot consistencies—make sure your character sounds consistent as well. This is important for any point of view, but with first person any deviation in personality or voice is much more obvious—and much more jarring.

Also, ask yourself what your character would be willing to share. Just because the thought might go through their head, does not mean it is something that needs to be voiced within the confines of the story. Restraint can sometimes be a good thing. In the same way that you should not include every bit of research you’ve uncovered while preparing to write your book, you should not have your protagonist blurt out every fact about themselves or idea to cross their mind simply because you, as the author, know that it exists. Information can inform the character’s personality without being included in the narrative itself.

First person POV can be an exciting, wonderful way to draw a reader into a story, but, if poorly done, it can also bore them to tears within a matter of pages. With first person, a reader knows almost instantly that this is the voice they are going to be following, this is the character who will lead them on their journey, and your job as the writer is to make that character a compelling one—someone with whom the reader wants to spend some time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be likeable—they can be intriguing or fascinating without being nice or loveable—but they do need to sound distinctive and to make the reader curious.

Begin as You Mean to Continue

I am going to start right here by saying that all parts of your book are important, beginning, middle, and ending. A reader can quit on you at any point, so you, of course, want the entire book to be as well written and tightly crafted as possible, with strong characterization and clever plot, intriguing twists and details that capture the imagination. However, if your beginning does not jump off the page, if you cannot start your story in a way that grabs the reader and drags them along for the ride, then the rest of your story will never get a chance.

There is a lot of advice available on how to start your story, how to grab those potential readers (including agents and editors). Books on the subject, classes, plus of course the example of all your favorite published works. And there are probably several ways you could effectively kick off any of your own projects–it’s just a matter of figuring them out and then deciding which one works the best for you. As with most things involving storytelling, there is no right answer, just a series of choices with varying impact.

An opening sentence can take various approaches. If you look at classic novels, the types of things we study in school, you’ll notice that many of the openers deal out generalities that apply to the story to come. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  Or, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” These start to set the scene immediately, signaling to the reader that they will be reading a history, or a novel about courtship and marriage. Others kick off with an introduction to a character through the declaration of an incident. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken badly at the elbow.” This sets the stage for a book about childhood experiences, narrated by Jem’s sibling–we do not know who that is quite yet. But it also signals potential drama; Jem “got his arm broken”, as opposed to broke his arm, which suggests more than a simple accident.

Modern novels, particularly those in popular genres, tend to throw a lot at the reader from the very start. Even more quiet books cram a great deal of information into opening pages, with details and character information blended into the first pieces of action. I suspect writers are acknowledging the impatience of today’s reader, working to win them over before they jump to some other distraction. But while this might be an admirable (and perhaps even necessary) approach, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re penning those first few lines and paragraphs.

1. Readers want to know who to root for. If you’re introducing your protagonist in the middle of a conflict with a number of other characters, you must make it clear whose side we’re on, and why. Better yet, allow a bit of space to let us know the protagonist before making us stand behind him in a conflict. This is particularly true in fantasy or historical novels, where I often see manuscripts that start in the middle of a battle. Yes, it’s exciting, but who are these people and why do I care?

2. Blend characterization and action together as you move forward into the story. Another common mistake I see is an exciting paragraph or two of action to start the manuscript, followed by three pages of character back story and exposition, or, heaven forbid, a virtual list of characteristics, that throws all momentum out the window. Make those introductions, but weigh your words and leave most of the information to be spread out through the rest of the book. Only give the reader those character details that are vital for the first part of the novel, so you can continue on with whatever exciting or dramatic situation you have used as your opener.

3. Avoid signaling that your opening is not what it seems. Do not give us a past tense description of a harrowing experience and end your opening with a phrase along the lines of “but he soon was to discover just how wrong he was.” This takes the reader out of the book, losing whatever tension and curiosity you’ve developed in those opening paragraphs/pages. It also reminds us that the narrator already knows what’s going to happen–and that the narrator exists. Just let the reader discover that the character was wrong (or whatever) as the book unfolds. Allow them to be surprised. That’s what you want–for them to be anxious to continue to read. Don’t undo the work you’ve done.

Several blogs have been discussing a new book by Sara J. Henry called Learning to Swim, focusing almost entirely on the power of the novel’s opening. I have not read this book yet, but I will say that, after reading the first few paragraphs, I immediately ordered a copy. It is compelling writing, combining tense action with intriguing character development. My response seems to be the consensus. I’m not saying you need to run out and buy this book–and I have no connection to it other than now wanting to read it–but do please read the opening below and think about what the other has achieved.

If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.

But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I’d pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one’s twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.

What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.

It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think. The coldness of the water seemed to suck the air out of my lungs, but instinctively I curved upward, fluttering my feet.

In the weekly mini-triathlons in Lake Placid where I live, I’m always one of the last out of the water. The closest I’d ever come to underwater swimming was picking up my hair clasp at the bottom of a friend’s pool, and that had taken two tries. And whenever I see a movie with scenes where the hero has to swim through a long, narrow passageway, I always try to hold my breath. I never make it.

But I was in the lake, committed, and surging strongly underwater. By the time I broke the surface, I’d traveled more than a third of the way to where I’d seen the thing go in. Both ferries had gone onward, in their opposite directions. There was no one in sight. No shouts of alarm, no ferry slowing and turning about.

I kept my eyes fixed on the water ahead, and saw something bob up, too far away. My stomach gave a nasty twist. Then I swam, harder and faster than I ever had in a mini-triathlon with middle-aged tourists coming up behind me.

When I reached what I thought was the right spot, I took a deep breath and dived. The water wasn’t clear but not exactly murky, sort of a blurred translucence with a greenish cast. I didn’t get very far under, and had to try again. This time I saw only a few flat, colorless fish skittering by before I had to come up for air.

Gasping for breath, treading water while I sucked air, reason began to creep in. I wasn’t just cold; I was close to numb. I was alone in a very deep lake twelve miles wide, diving after what could be a bag of garbage somebody didn’t want to pay to haul to the dump. I was none too sure I had enough strength to get to shore. But I dived once more, and this time something led me straight to it.

It wasn’t a bundle of trash. It wasn’t a doll. It was a small boy, arms entangled in what looked like a dark sweatshirt, straight dark hair floating eerily above his head. For one awful moment I thought I was looking at a corpse, but then I saw a small sneakered foot kick weakly. By the time I got close enough to grab a handful of sweatshirt, I’d been without air far longer than I’d ever managed to hold my breath. watching underwater scenes in movies. My throat was convulsing in an effort not to suck in water instead of the air that wasn’t there.

Troy Chance, the book’s narrator, discovers she has saved a little boy named Paul. Other than telling her his name, he is completely silent, leaving her to search for his parents with few clues to go on. When no one steps forward immediately, having missed their child, the situation grows more suspicious and Troy decides to find out what led to Paul falling off the ferry.

All that aside, think about what you’ve learned in those opening paragraphs, the details of setting and character that Henry includes even as you wonder what fell in the water, and what will be the result of the narrator’s rash leap off the ferry. Think about what makes you want to read a book–any book that drew you in immediately. And keep those things in mind when you’re writing–and revising–your own opening pages.

Above quotes take from: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.