If you follow us on our Facebook page (and you should!) you’ve already seen this post from the Penguin Random House blog about what editors want to see in a winning first page. I gave it a read and realized a lot of these things are what agents look for, too, when we’re reading the sample materials that come with queries. We talk about queries a lot on this blog, but your sample pages (we ask for the first 25 pages) are just as important. Even if you have a killer query with a great story concept and impressive writing credits, your writing itself still has to hook me! So I thought I’d talk in a little bit more detail about how to apply the PRH editors’ tips to your writing.
The first suggestion is A Powerful Opener, which is really about the rest of the tips all coming together – the Attention-Grabbing Characters you’ve dreamed up, the Well-Realized World they inhabit, conveyed through your Authentic Voice, which stems from your Unique Perspective. Often new writers think a powerful opening means packing their most majestic, glorious prose chunk full of with their favorite four-syllable words into the opening lines of the book. And that’s a fair instinct! But overwriting can actually take away from your Authentic Voice. One well-chosen perfectly placed word can actually do more to convey emotion, place, or personality than three or four well-chosen words; one word doing the job on its own carries more of your Voice as a writer than if you gather two or three together to get your point across. Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one piece off,” and the same thing applies to adjectives in your sentences. Take one off!
Another key to a Powerful Opening is understanding where the story starts. I’ve mentioned before on Twitter my pet peeve about manuscripts that start with the character waking up in the morning, or start with the narrator telling me how they thought it was going to be just another ordinary day. Figure out where the stakes of your story appear – your Attention-Grabbing Character’s first conflict or obstacle or unexpected event – and then back up just far enough to show me who the character is and what their world is like.
Is your story about a poisoning at a cocktail party? Don’t begin with your hero making breakfast that morning, or skip to the moment when the victim clutches their throat. Open when your main character gets to the party and sees their frenemy or love interest standing by the chips and salsa. Open with your protagonist running into their love interest at the wine store on the way to the party and inviting them along. Open with your narrator getting lost in the host’s apartment complex and reacting with the rage, despair, or sense of adventure that is key to their personality. These are all ways to show what kind of place they live, what their friends are like, how much money they make or whether they know a lot about wine, all of which are more important to how the story unfolds than describing to me what they look like while they get dressed in the morning. You want me to get invested in your characters – Attention-Grabbing Characters! – as quickly as possible, and I do that more quickly by seeing their lives in action.
I hope this has been a little bit helpful in taking the tips on a great opening page and applying it to your writing. I look forward to seeing your strong queries and irresistible sample pages in my inbox soon! And let me know in the comments what your favorite tip is for starting your manuscript off strong, or if you’ve learned anything else about writing from Coco Chanel.