It’s a truth universally acknowledged that as much as an agent or editor might wish otherwise, they will never be able to read each and every page of the projects they have in on submission. They have to eat, pay attention to pesky children and spouses, and occasionally even read other books so they have an idea of the market and the competition.
Because of this, when I was an acquiring editor at Penguin Random House, I went into every manuscript looking for a reason to say no. I can guarantee that many of my colleagues do the same, not out of malice, but because it’s important to save time for those projects that do make your heart race from page one.
Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, and often working with authors before they end up in the submission pile, I’ve given a lot of thought to what exactly makes a starting chapter sing so that I’ll be in a better position to help my clients make that good first impression and stand out from the hundreds of manuscripts that might pop up in an agent’s inbox every week.
Make the reader ask questions.
While it might feel counterintuitive to drop a reader right into the action with little to no exposition, a cold open is often the best way to suck someone into your story. Exposition can always be woven in later. It’s important to make a reader ask questions from the very beginning. Why is Mary standing in the kitchen with a knife? If Ed hates chocolate so much, why is he eating a Hershey bar? Why aren’t the townspeople more concerned that there’s a zombie walking down Main Street? What kind of world are we in?!
End your first chapter at a turning point.
If something big hasn’t changed, or is in the process of changing, for your character or the world by the time you reach the last sentence of that first chapter, then it might be worth revising your outline. A book’s momentum is only as good as an author’s willingness to keep his or her characters on the edge of change. That change could be driven by internal or external forces, but hints of it should be present from the very beginning.
Maintain a good balance between plot and writing chops.
Beautiful sentences will only get a writer so far if nothing happens after ten pages. By the same token, writers with groundbreaking ideas can often alienate a reader with sloppy sentences and choppy momentum. Keep tabs on the ratio of stylistic fireworks to plot in those first few sections-agents and editors know that truly talented authors are skilled at both.
Suggest your character’s personality, but also leave something more to discover.
A large part of the fun of reading comes from watching and/or predicting what different kinds of characters will do under certain circumstances. Subsequently, if a reader can call a character’s every move, it might not be so fun anymore. Does your character have quirks or contradictions that you can subtly underline early on?
Know what genre you are writing in.
While there will always be books that step outside the genre box and still succeed, if you’re going to break the rules, it’s important to be sure that you’re doing it because it’s a necessary requirement to tell the story you want to tell. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to be at least somewhat mindful of your target genre. If you want your book to be marketed as a suspense novel, make sure there’s a suspenseful twist in those opening pages. If you want it to be a light, fluffy, humorous bit of women’s fiction, make sure that the opening scene is light, fluffy, and humorous. Genre conventions are genre conventions for a reason-they please the readers who buy those type of books.
CAROLINE T. has edited 400 novels, including 3 New York Times Bestsellers. Her genres include romance, women’s fiction, thrillers, and mysteries.