Literary agents and editors at publishing houses are deluged with manuscript submissions every day. More and more, they have to make quick decisions about a manuscript, and rarely do they sit down and read one in its entirety before making the choice to represent or publish. Many utilize in-house readers who only pass on the best of the best of the submissions received. And many agents and editors now, if intrigued by the query letter, will ask to read as little as ten pages to as many as fifty pages, first. Therefore openings, which have always been crucial, are even more important today.
Much has been written about how to make sure your opening is strong enough to grab attention, and here is a summary of some of the best advice:
- Ask yourself if your opening is rife with conflict and/or tension and if it evidences a clear story problem. If it does not, your book should open only when you have identified where the tension and story problem become evident.
- Some authors employ the strategy of “beginning in the middle.” They start the book at the most intense part of the book and then go back and fill in the story that happened before.
- Eliminate or trim backstory. Long bios and character histories slow the opening and, if necessary, this information should come later in the book after you’ve already hooked the reader into your story.
- Be as brief and selective as possible in your opening. Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary impulses-one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” In openings, it is time to be brief.
- Look at every adjective, adverb and modifying phrase. If it’s not necessary, cut it.
If you’re struggling with your opening or any other aspect of your manuscript, consider hiring a professional editor for help.
ANA HOWARD writes and edits contemporary and historical children’s, young adult, and adult literature. She has seen one of her novels made into film and has won numerous literary awards.