Monday, April 6, 2009

Gripping Beginnings

First lines have to reach out from the page, wrap their steely fingers around your throat, and squeeze until you turn blue. Why? So that your work can jump off the slush pile.

It's not easy. It requires economy of words, and a strong understanding of your story.

I follow a number of agent blogs and one of them Jennifer Jackson publishes statistics about the number of queries she receives each day, and how many partial or full manuscripts she requests from those submissions.

The numbers are quite sobering. Last week she received 219 submissions and requested 2 partials. The number of full manuscripts requested was zero.

Of course there are a number of factors that don't relate to the quality of the work that affect those numbers, but you can imagine how jaded you would get looking through that many. Anything that is remotely negative or even neutral will almost certainly be tossed aside.

I am sure a lot of the submissions were for areas she doesn't represent, topics that she has no interest, or just plain bad submissions. But with numbers like that there had to be a number of submissions that were good, just not great. Especially in today's market, submissions have to be great and it has to start with a great opening.

One mistake that I have seen recently is that budding writers try to copy or mimic the beginnings of established writers. That can be a mistake. You see, it depends on how established the writer is at the time of the book you are reading. I have found that the more established the writer, the worse the start of their work. This is not always the case, but I have heard a theory about why this happens.

Early in their career these writers did have strong beginnings, but as their readership gained, they no longer had to pull the readers into the story. The readers were clamoring for the next book. They would read it no matter how dull the story started. If you are going to copy a beginning from an established writer, make sure it is one of their early works.

I strongly believe that you cannot finish the opening chapter until the rest of the book has been completed. But that's my writing style. I have an idea of the story, I usually have the end scene in sight, but things change, characters deepen and only when I have the second or third draft of the story do I feel that I can finish the first chapter, let alone the first line.

Write your story, read it aloud, re-write the parts that don't work, and polish, polish, polish the beginning.


  1. Great post! I agree. It's hard to begin a story if you haven't written much of the book. I wrote the beginning of my current novel when I was halfway through, and it worked out really well. Now that I'm finished with the book, I've reworked that beginning about 50 times, and still counting. :D

    It's a tough job standing out in that slush pile.

  2. Dito what Lady Glamis said. I've polished and polished the opening. And, I've switched which chapter will be the opening, which is easy to do when you have multiple point of view characters.

    Your point about the industry is interesting too. But I would say that not all agents are like Jackson. She's with one of the very top agencies. My fear is that writers (myself included) will lose track of their story for fear of what an agent or editor thinks. Seems like when you are writing you ought to let the story guide you and not write something that is trying to be stunning. That's like trying to impress someone on a first date when we all know the best thing is to just be yourself.

  3. Good post, little scary where statistics are concerned, especially considering that I'm one of those query victims. Must work, work, work....

  4. The statistics are discouraging. I agree that it's advisable to rewrite the first chapter once the rest of the manuscript is complete.

  5. Yes, the statistics are against writers, but just imagine how you will feel if you are one of those in which a partial is requested. That doesn't guarantee a positive response, but it definitely tells you that you are on the right track.

    If you focus on the statistics it's very disheartening. Don't do that. Focus on making your work the best it can be with the knowledge that someday it will get noticed.

  6. i have to agree -- i've majorly reworked the beginning to my currently-querying-novel a half dozen times. It's a much stronger beginning and a much stronger book as a whole, that's for certain. good post!


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