One of the sessions at a writer’s conference I attended was set up like an episode of American Idol. Three New York agents played the part of the judges. Instead of performers, typed sheets of paper were the objects of their attention and wounding remarks.
Conference participants submitted the first three pages of the novels they were working on. The agents said they would be able to tell from the first three pages whether or not the manuscript was worth reading further.
In practice, none of the agents got past the first page of any 3-page submission. Some they read to the bottom of the first page, but then they started rejecting them before they got that far.
Starts with dialogue.” Toss.
“Starts with weather.” Toss
“They’re in an elevator!” Toss
“Starts with a prologue!” Toss.
Then there was the submission that got tossed because the title had a misspelled word in it.
“If this writer can’t bother to spell cemetery correctly–in the title, no less–why should I go any further with the rest of the manuscript?!” Crumple, toss.
That little demonstration makes me think that a writer must hook the reader with the first paragraph. Possibly even with the first sentence.
Yes, there are plenty of successful novels that begin with prologues or weather, or dialogue. There’s probably at least one that begins in an elevator.
That’s not the point.
Agents have so many manuscripts coming at them that they develop reading habits to enable them to get through the slush at top speed. Anything–a misspelled word, faint type from a failing ink cartridge, an opening device the agent feels a personal dislike for–can send a manuscript plummeting into the waste basket.
Agents want what readers want.
Readers want a first paragraph that draws them into a world that already exists, not one that will be created as they go along. They want to find themselves in the midst of people who are involved in the life of that world, people they immediately want to know more about.
Here are some opening lines from some novels chosen at random from my shelves. Would you want to read further? If so, why?
(Diary format) 12th Day of September. I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say. —-Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman.
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. —-The Stranger, Albert Camus.
When the power went I was finishing a ten-page report. My office turned black; the computer groaned to a halt. Helpless, I watched my words fade to a ghostly outline that glowed on the screen before vanishing, like the mocking grin of a Cheshire cat. —-Tunnel Vision, Sara Paretsky.
The small boys came early to the hanging. —-Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett.
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. —-The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown.
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. —-Uglies, Scott Westerfeld.