Saturday, April 19, 2014

Slush Pile Musings: Opening Pages

Opening pages are egregiously hard to nail. Any writer knows this. At first during the first draft, openings don’t seem like as big a deal. Because we, as the writer, see the novel as a whole piece. A story that begins, progresses, and hopefully comes to a proper conclusion.

But then, after going through many a ruthless edit and critique partner armed with a deadly red pen the manuscript is ready to be sent out to agents. It is time with the world to fall in love with your magnum opus.
Or the first ten pages of it.

Only ten pages? That is such a small fraction of my genius! How am I supposed to place all of my hopes and dreams on only ten pages?

Suddenly that opening scene is EVERYTHING. It must be succinct, original and attention grabbing if you ever hope to get a partial or full request. That’s a lot riding on just a couple of opening scenes and a 200 word query pitch.

Typically agencies ask for the first ten pages, though it varies. Some ask for five (even more horrifying) some ask for 30 pages, and some ask for the first three chapters no matter their length. In the case of the agency I intern for, we request the first fifty pages.

But no matter how much requested there is a lot riding on openings. I get it. Openings have always been the hardest for me. My first book, CHILDREN OF INK, has gone through about nine openings at this point in time. And its not done yet (I am writing a new beginning as you read this). I cannot for the life of me write the perfect first pages for this book and, as a result, it never got any requests from agents when I queried it.

HOUR OF MISCHIEF on the other hand, has only ever had one opening and that opening has never changed. I knew where it needed to start it and, hey, apparently it worked. It landed me my agent.
The point is, some books start easy and some books don’t. Openings are killer hard, especially when you consider they are going up against hundreds of other openings in the slush pile every week. So how can a writer learn to write an eye catching opening to grab an agent?

Using my knowledge of what grabs me in the slush pile, I think I have come up with a comprehensive list.

1. Avoid clichés

This probably seems like it should be a given, but clichés are still alive and well. If you’ve read any list of agent pet peeves, you know that beginning with your protagonist waking up is the kiss of death to any opening because it has been done over and over and over again. And yet, what did I see in the slush pile a few weeks ago? An MS that began with someone waking up and getting ready for the day.

Don’t make your opening a cliché. Make it something fresh and new. There is a tendency amongst writers to think: ‘Well my book begins with this cliché but it’s a SPECIAL version of that cliché so I’ll be the exception’. Never assume this. Sometimes first pages can make a cliché work but these pages are in such a minority that they should be set on a pedestal in a temple to unlikely ‘Eye-catching Openings’. To be safe, try to find a more creative way of opening your novel and stay off the agent’s pet peeve list.

2. Make me Care
Wow, your protagonist got into a huge, bombastic fight and almost died in the first few pages. But do I care? No I don’t. Because I was just thrown into a mess of characters and events before I had time to register these characters as human beings rather than tools to the plot. You want to start off fast but you also need to make agents see your characters as living, breathing human-beings that they could be friends with in real life. That is the key.

 If an agent sees a character as a tool in the machinery of the plot, they will not connect. If they see them as flesh and blood, well, then you have them hooked. Make me care. Make connect with your character’s voice. Do that and I will follow them anywhere.

3. Read Opening Pages
Go into your local library and find the section for your genre. Good. Now start reading. Pick a book off the shelf and read the first ten pages. Focus on the first line, the voice, the character, the plot. Observe the most common opening for your genre and avoid it at all costs. It is important to both learn from successful openings and improve upon them, developing them into your own unique opening. A successful mix of familiar and different will catapult your query into partial and full request territory in no time.

I could do whole posts on each of these three tips and I could probably come up with several others. But these three are what make or break openings for me and what helps me when I’m rewriting my opening pages for the tenth time.

Openings are hard, but you can find the perfect balance of environment, character and plot. And when you do, it is magic. When you do, you will hook the agent—and other readers—in with the first sentence and never let go.

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