The opening pages of your novel, especially the first five pages, are extremely important if you want to get a literary agent’s or editor’s attention. And yet, here at Writer’s Relief, our Review Board is often underwhelmed by the openings of manuscripts that are sent for consideration. Our job is to help clients secure a literary agent who will ultimately take their book manuscript from unpublished to published, but if a project’s opening pages are not compelling, the chances of success go way down.
Although most writers know that their opening pages need to be stellar, newer writers frequently have trouble getting themselves to not only know that fact, but to accept it and do something about it. Some writers push themselves to the point that they will do whatever’s necessary to write a compelling opening—even to the point of rewriting the entire book.
But other writers tend to be less critical of their own technique. “If only the literary agent reads the second chapter,” they say, “then the story gets good.”
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with asking an agent to read all the way to the second chapter to get involved in a great plot. But the fact, is almost no literary agents will do that. Neither will readers. Consider this: If you have twenty bucks to buy one of two equally good books (the only difference is that one has a great beginning, and the other one doesn’t), which would you purchase?
If you suspect yourself of making excuses for your opening pages, it may be time to face the facts: The better your opening, the better your shot at getting a publisher.
Two Common Opening Turnoffs
There are a number of opening gambits that fall short of making the cut that writers would be wise to avoid. Here are a couple that we see frequently:
Unnecessary prologues. Most prologues do little to grab a reader’s attention—they’re big and splashy but lack substance and are inappropriate for the tone of the body of the book. Sometimes, they can be effective hooks—only for chapter one to fall back on dull, old techniques. If you’re going to use a prologue, be sure it’s totally necessary. If you can cut it, do so. But if you can’t, be sure it’s consistent with the tone of the rest of your book.
Backstory. Some books are bogged down with everything that happened in the past, when in truth what’s interesting about the plotline doesn’t happen until a hundred or so pages into the story. Writers often find it difficult to understand where their narrative begins, and some wind up spending a lot of time describing things that happened in the past. But the power of a story lies in how it looks forward, not back.
For example, a writer is composing a story about a cop whose unusual approach to solving crime stems from his experiences a few years ago when his own home was burglarized. A new writer—thinking linearly—might be inclined to begin the narrative at the beginning, starting with the cop’s house being robbed and showing his evolution toward his particular kind of crime fighting. But a veteran writer might cut to the present—a cop is fighting crime in an unusual way—and then weave in the backstory as needed.
Without looking honestly at how an opening is working, a new writer may fail to make the cut when submitting to literary agents. Regardless of genre—whether you’re writing the most insightful literary work or a fast-paced thriller—the opening pages of a novel must grab the reader’s attention.
In Part Two of this article, we’ll look at specific techniques you might use if you’d like to tighten up your beginning. But if you’re sure that your book is already strong, and you’d like to be considered for our invitation-only Full Service, the Writer’s Relief Review Board would love to see your opening pages.