Opening pages: 7 ways to make an agent groanHarry Bingham
At our recent Festival of Writing in York, we host a number of panels with literary agents that give writers the chance to meet, talk and ask questions.
We end those panels with a scary-but-brilliant session called Sushpile Live where some very brave writers stand up, read the first few paragraphs of their work, then get live feedback – X-factor style – from the assembled agents.
One of the main purposes of Slushpile Live is to get writers to understand that a piece of writing shows its quality very quickly indeed. If the first few paragraphs smell wrong, the whole book is going to be wrong. If, on the other hand, there’s a sense of excitement around those opening paragraphs, you can bet that the writer concerned has real quality. That doesn’t mean that everything’s definitely fine thereafter – a plot might vanish, there might be a confusing sprawl of characters, the basic concept might even be wrong – but at least you know you’re in the hands of someone with genuine talent.
That said, let’s jump straight to the things that, time and again, caused our panels of agents to groan. (Oh, and this post is adorned with some images that call to mind some of the best first lines in literature. Read, enjoy and admire.)
Seven ways to make an agent groan
Or eight, really. One good way to earn a rejection would be to write terrible English. But that doesn’t apply to you and it’s too obvious to include anyway. So seven it is.
#1 Starting with a dream or a person waking up
There’s no question that this opening must be the least popular possible gambit with agents. It induced a kind of no-no-no from agents every time it came up – and one of our panellists reckoned she saw these kind of openings in as many as 1 in 8 manuscripts.
Those dreams and waking-up moments are just terrible ways to begin a book. Partly because they’re just so common. But partly too, the dreams give the reader a false start and since the beginning of a book is where you most want to get the reader involved as soon as possible, those false starts are achieving the exact opposite of that goal. In other words, they put off the moment when a reader feels “in” the story, and you want that moment to come as soon as possible.
#2 Starting the book too early
Another reason why those waking up scenes are so terrible is that it’s as though the writer herself is getting ready. The actual story is going to start when – I don’t know – Jilly finds a letter sent from her dead husband. But before we get to that moment, the writer has to limber up for the big reveal. So Jilly wakes up, thinks about something, does her teeth, deals with her five-year-old-girl, then goes downstairs to start gappling with breakfast … when, kazaam!, she finds the letter.
And none of that pre-letter-finding stuff either matters or is remotely interesting. Until Jilly finds that damn letter, she’s just a normal person waking up for a normal day. And readers don’t care! They’re waiting for the first sniff of story – and it’s not OK for that sniff to wait until page 3 or 4. It needs to be there in the first half of page 1.
So you need to apply the old movie-writing advice of “enter late, finish early” to your novel. Start at the closest possible moment to your story. Get the reader interested in the first paragraph, or even the first line.
#3 Rushing your punchline
If the first two howlers have to do with going too slow, this one has to do with going too fast.
I once saw an opening page from a new writer that was, in so many ways, a fabulous opening. It was a description of a young woman in Victorian-era New York getting ready to go out. The period wasn’t directly mentioned, but it was suggested by lovely, tactfully chosen detail. The description of the light and the smells were just right. We felt we already knew something of the woman, thanks to the strength and precision of her voice.
Oh, and there was that lovely sniff of story as well. Part of her going out routine, involved winding a bandage round her breasts, in order to flatten her chest and give her the figure of a slender young man. A wonderful intrigue, deliciously delivered.
And then I hit the end of the page, when the writer started saying something like, “It was necessary to dress as a man, because when I arrived in New York two years before, I soon discovered that there was painfully little employment for a lone female, so I took to disguising myself as a man …”
Do you see how that too-hurried reveal kills the little seedling of story so carefully planted in the previous paras? The writer has successful got to (almost) the end of page 1 with the reader fully immersed in the story and wanting to know why this confident young woman should be binding her breasts … but then the writer answers that crucial question and quenches the little flame of interest that she’s aroused.
Don’t give away your punchlines too early! If the readers wants to know something, that’s great: but don’t be fool enough to tell them! Of course, you will need to reveal some answers at some point, but you should only reveal them once you’ve had time to build other little motors to drive that reader-interest – you’ve probably introduced some other characters, set up an intriguing situation, got yourself much further into your opening setup.
#4 Jumping scenes too quickly
Another thing that really doesn’t work is jump-cutting too often in the opening pages. So it’s quite common, for example, for an author to structure their opening like this:
- Quick-fire 350 word prologue that is a jump-forward to some exciting scene later in the book.
- Key scene between protagonist, Jed, and his boss at work.
- Scene with Jed’s future love-interest, Cara, on a bus in the Kalahari
- Then there’s some key backstory involving Jed
- Then the book actually starts
Now obviously this kind of setup is a good example of starting too early – but it’s not just that the start of things proper is delayed; it’s also that the reader experience is fractured.
Remember that it can be hard for a reader to get into a new novel. On line 1, page 1, the reader doesn’t know the protagonist, their situation, maybe even the setting or the era. The more you break up the opening sequence, the more times you are asking the reader to make the investment of figuring everything out again. (Oh, who is this? Cara? Hmm, she’s new. Does she connect to Jed? Don’t yet know … or: What’s happening here? This is Jed, clearly, but we seem to be somewhere completely different. Ah, I see, yes, he’s at uni and this is a boozy evening with his mates …) Of course a reader IS willing to put some work in, but don’t push it. The more fractured your opening, the more at risk you are losing them.
#5 Too many characters or (worse) too many Points Of View
Don’t crowd your opening page or two with too many characters. It’s the same issue as we’ve just discussed. Your reader is doing plenty of work already, figuring out where they are, what the situation is and so forth. Don’t make the reader also try to keep track of multiple people (especially ones with similar names.) Keep it simple until you’ve hooked your reader. Then you can start to complicate things.
And it should, I hope, go without saying that for the same reason you mustn’t jump points of view too much (or perhaps at all) in your opening section. Let the reader get into the book, then they’ll be ready to start to explore the minds of other key characters. If you rush that process, you will lose your reader.
#6 Too many words
I didn’t keep close count, but I would guess that maybe 50% or more of the submissions we reviewed on those Meet the Agent panels had a word count that was significantly too high. Sometimes a writer had found a really beautiful sentence that expressed a particular mood or thought just right … then quickly followed up with 2 or 3 mediocre sentences that bashed away at the same general idea. Other times the issue was within the sentence itself: A 15 word sentence that would have been happier with its last 7 words cut off.
You cannot edit your work too hard. And you absolutely cannot edit your opening page or so too hard. Although it’s easy to think only about word count, what you’re really looking for is beautiful writing. Chop out anything that’s wrong, or rewrite it, and get rid of any surplus. It’s actually likely that you could cut 30% of your first page and improve it a lot.
#7 Too big, too soon
One of the brave writers we had at York was a (female) writer whose opening paragraph involved a widower looking round the room he had shared with his dead wife, musing on her memory, then going into the bathroom to give himself a handjob.
Now we’re not prudish and nor are agents – indeed, we like big, bold, daring storytelling. But most sex and violence feels offputting until it’s set in the context of a specific character and their situation. We’re just not there, not sufficiently, at the end of the first paragraph. Feel free, please, to talk about handjobs and very much else: but you need to use a little Emotional Intelligence. You need to save your fireworks for a time when the reader is prepared to receive them.
The Agent Panels were held at the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York. Agents present included Sam Copeland, Julia Churchill, Hellie Ogden, Rowan Lawton, Sophie Orme (an editor), Penny Holroyde, Juliet Mushens, David Haviland, James Wills, Clare Wallace, Sallyanne Sweeney, Meg Davis, Sarah Rigby (also an editor.) Sessions were chaired by Harry Bingham. You can find out more about these agents by going to our agents listing page and searching by name.