Judging a book by its…first 10 pages?

Sometimes I think that even Tolkien would have a difficult time finding an agent these days based on the first 10 (heck, make it the first 50) pages of LOTR.  Agents like to see the first 10 pages or so with the query letter, to see your writing, mostly, but if the writing passes muster, I know they’re also judging the marketability of the whole project based on whether or not they believe someone turning to page one at the bookstore is going to keep reading or put it back.

Without an impeccable first 10 pages, you’re dead in the water.  The simple fact is that agents get 100 queries a day.  They are desperately seeking excuses to click the delete button.  Writing the opening to any book is hard enough.  Opening a fantasy book in a strange world is REALLY hard.

Clare and I spent 5 hours at Barnes & Noble a while back for the sole purpose of researching the first 10 pages of 50 (yes, fifty) different YA titles.  I came away from the useful exercise feeling that my current book opening is on par with some of the more exciting titles, better than most, but not as good as the best.  I realize that my Chapter 1 kind of feels like an extended prologue and there’s probably too much info thrown at the reader.  I used to be confident that it was compelling enough to keep a reader turning pages, but now I’m wondering…  The goal is to make sure the reader can answer the question, “Why do I care?”

Here’s a compilation of agent advice regarding how to open your novel. I’ve collected these tidbits from Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog:

“Anything cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off.  I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (e.g., ‘Gentle reader’).”
– Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player. Other annoying, unoriginal things I see too often: some young person going home to a small town for a funeral, someone getting a phone call about a death, a description of a psycho lurking in the shadows, or a terrorist planting a bomb.”
– Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency (formerly Ellen Pepus Literary)

“I’m really turned off by a protagonist named Isabelle who goes by ‘Izzy.’ No. Really. I am.”
– Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real (I rep adult genre fiction), then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.  And so many writers use this hackneyed device. I dislike lengthy paragraphs of world building and scene setting up front.  I usually crave action close to the beginning of the book (and so do readers).”
– Laurie McLean, Larsen/Pomada Literary Agents

“I do in fact hate it when someone wakes up from a dream in Chapter 1, and I dislike an overly long prologue.  The worst thing that you can do is let that crucial chapter be boring – that’s the chapter that has to grab my interest!”
– Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management (formerly Wendy Sherman Associates)

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. I might be prompted to groan before reading on a bit further to see if the narration gets any less stale. There are far better ways in Chapter 1 to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader. I’m also usually not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
– Michelle Andelman, Lynn C. Franklin Associates (formerly Andrea Brown Literary Agency)

“I hate seeing a ‘run-down list:’ Names, hair color, eye color, height, even weight sometimes.  Other things that bother me is over-describing the scenery or area where the story starts.  Usually a manuscript can lose the first 3-5 chapters and start there. Besides the run-down list preaching to me about a subject, I don’t like having a character immediately tell me how much he/she hates the world for whatever reason.  In other words, tell me your issues on politics, the environment, etc. through your character.  That is a real turn off to me.”
– Miriam Hees (editor), Blooming Tree Press

“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further. It is what keeps me up at night saying ‘just one more chapter, then I’ll go to sleep.’ If everything is explained away in the first chapter; I’m probably putting the book down and going to sleep.”
– Peter Miller, Peter Miller Literary

“1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times. 2. A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape. 3. A trite statement (“Get with the program” or “Houston, we have a problem” or “You go girl” or “Earth to Michael” or “Are we all on the same page?”), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph. 4. A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter. 5. ‘Years later, Monica would look back and laugh…’ 6. “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
– Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“Here are things I can’t stand: Cliché openings in Fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).  Opening chapters where a main protagonist is in the middle of a bodily function (jerking off, vomiting, peeing, or what have you) is usually a firm NO right from the get-go. Gross.  Long prologues that often don’t have anything to do with the story. So common in Fantasy again.  Opening scenes that our all dialogue without any context. I could probably go on…”
– Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

“I recently read a ms when the second line was something like, ‘Let me tell you this, Dear Reader…’ What do you think of that?”
– Sheree Bykofsky, Sheree Bykofsky Literary

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me – the first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.  Don’t ever describe eye color either…”
– Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking … Authors often do this to transmit information, but the result is action in a literal sense but no real energy in a narrative sense. The best rule of thumb is always to start the story where the story starts.”
– Dan Lazar, Writers House

“I hate reading purple prose, taking the time to set up– to describe something so beautifully and that has nothing to do with the actual story. I also hate when an author starts something and then says ‘(the main character) would find out later.’ I hate gratuitous sex and violence anywhere in the manuscript.  If it is not crucial to the story then I don’t want to see it in there, in any chapters.”
– Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
– Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Slow writing with a lot of description puts me off very quickly. I like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I’m immediately hooked.”
– Andrea Hurst, Andrea Hurst Literary Management

“Avoid any description of the weather.”
– Denise Marcil, Denise Marcil Literary Agency

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character?  I feel cheated.”
– Cricket Freeman, August Agency

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook that’s just too convoluted to be truly interesting.”
– Daniel Lazar, Writers House

” ‘The Weather’ is always a problem – the author feels he has to set up the scene and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in media res.”
– Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

— Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

— Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”

— Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

“Slow writing with a lot of description puts me off very quickly. I like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I’m immediately hooked.”

— Andrea Hurst, Andrea Hurst Literary Management

“Avoid any description of the weather.”
— Denise Marcil, Denise Marcil Literary Agency

“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom—and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon—not admiring the view.”
—Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point of view. How can a reader follow what’s happening? I also dislike beginning with a killer’s POV. Who would want to be in such an ugly place? I feel like a nasty voyeur.”
—Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“An opening that’s predictable won’t hook me in. If the average person could have come up with the characters and situations, I’ll pass. I’m looking for a unique outlook, voice, or character and situation.”
— Debbie Carter, Muse Literary Management

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter 1 in which nothing happens.”
— Jessica Regel, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency

“ ‘The weather’ is always a problem—the author feels he has to set up the scene and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in medias res.”

— Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

“I hate it when a book begins with an adventure that turns out to be a dream at the end of the chapter.”
— Mollie Glick, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency

“I don’t want to read about anyone sleeping, dreaming, waking up or staring at anything.”
—Ellen Pepus, Ellen Pepus Literary Agency

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”

—Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable
and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
— Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“[I dislike] inauthentic dialogue to tell the reader who the characters are, instead of showing who the characters are.”
—Jennifer Cayea, Avenue A Literary

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them—it’s in their DNA.
“To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim: ‘The more the character in a fairy tale is described, the less the audience will identify with him. … The less the character is characterized and described, the more likely the reader is to identify with him.’ ”
—Adam Chromy, Artists and Artisans

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”

— Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
—Rachelle Gardner, WordServe Literary

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2 Responses to “Judging a book by its…first 10 pages?”

  1. I think your opening has clearly just gotten better and better though Austin. It’s changed so much. I think it’s a very rare skill to be able to really incorporate revision suggestions you read about or from other people. I think it’s only a matter of time …

  2. Thanks for this terrific list of pet peeves. Much appreciated.

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