It’s a simple fact that people are busy, and have shorter attention spans than ever. We have many things to thank for this: video games, television, and most of all, Twitter. Because books must compete with all of these other forms of entertainment, it’s no longer enough to write a novel that, overall, is good.
Novels Need A Good Opening
With the advent of the sample chapter for digital reading devices, potential customers get to read the first chapter before deciding if they’ll buy a book. And while it’s not my place to speak for literary agents, the fact that many ask for the first 5-10 pages, at the QUERY stage, tells us something. The beginning of a manuscript has to be good. Really good! The closer to the front of your book, the better your writing needs to be. Anyone who’s reading it is probably looking for an excuse to stop.
Luckily, there are many opportunities for authors to perfect these openings. For example, Brenda Drake hosts a writing contest called Pitch Madness every March and September. Writers submit a 35-word pitch and the first 250 words of their [completed] manuscript. A team of readers chooses the top 60 of these for the next round. See my summary of their slush impressions here. The pitches that pass muster go to the final round, when agents look through them and make requests. Although these contests — much like the personal tastes of literary agents — are often subjective, they’re a good excuse for authors to perfect their novel’s opening. And the agents have to play one another in Clue to win request opportunities. How cool is that?
In the fall, Brenda hosts another contest called #PitchWars, in which 70+ writing mentors (agents, editors, and experienced authors) choose pitches from the slush and work with their authors to improve them before the agent round.
Elements of A Good Opening
A good opening needs to do several things at once. You will have heard these things before, but lest your eyes glaze over, I’m going to provide a practical bit of advice for each critical component. A good novel opening must:
- Hook the reader. In other words, capture the reader’s attention so that they’ll keep reading. You accomplish this by writing something relatively unique that has danger, humor, or some other emotion. Recently I critiqued a short story that opened with a narrator pushing a food cart containing the body of a dead musician. The casual way this was presented was funny, and I just had to know what happened next.
- Present the author’s voice. The concept of voice is something agents and editors are always talking about. It’s hard to teach, but fairly easy to recognize. Voice is not a basic element of writing; it’s the final product when style, narrator choice, point of view, tone, and other things come together. It’s easier to control when you’re writing first person POV. Other than that, voice comes from one thing: practice. Write a lot in the tone and style that you intend for your book — even if you end up cutting those scenes later, they were good practice.
- Make no mistakes. Run spellcheck. Put your novel into a different format (PDF it to your kindle, or make it single-spaced in Word). Print it out and read it again. This helps you locate errors missed due to eye fatigue. Search for and fix any sentences that are passive voice.
Avoid These Problems with Openings
When it comes to novel openings, there are common problems that agents and editors seem to notice often. Between those remarks and my own experience as a member of the Critters critique workshop, here’s a brief list of things you should probably avoid.
- The opening is cliché. Google “cliché novel openings” just to be sure. Classic example: novel opens with people being chased through a forest. Second example: someone wakes up in the morning and gets out of bed. Yawn. I’m bored already.
- The book starts right in with dialogue. People talking without any context makes it hard for the reader to commit (or care about) the novel.
- Epic battle scene without context. On the other end of the spectrum, this opening tries too hard with a huge battle– but we don’t know who’s fighting, or why, and thus we don’t care.
- Too much world-building, too soon. The early info-dump, or too many characters with weird names, throws readers out of the story. It doesn’t draw them in.
Write, Revise, and Get Critiques
Very few writers are able to churn out publishing-quality prose on the first draft. As writers, we have the chance to go back and edit, to find critique partners, and revise based on their advice. Contests like Pitch Madness are valuable because you might get feedback from half a dozen different professionals in the publishing industry. So polish up those pitches! And see my article over at Trouble the Write Way: Tips on giving and receiving critiques.
In my next post, I’ll go through some of my favorite openings in fantasy & sci-fi, and talk about why they worked so well.
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