Your manuscript’s opening pages: Wow those agents from the beginning

Crowd surrounding a woman skating around a giant skillet with slabs of bacon tied to her feet, holding a giant wooden spatula, Chehalis, Washington

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

November has been a month of serious thoughts about novels and manuscript submission. I’m taking part in the NaNoWriMo challenge (my third year), with my dreams of finishing a major work, submitting it to a publisher, and sharing my story with the world, all floating happily around in my head.

Beyond the NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words written by November 30, there is the “What do I do with this now?” phase. The usual suggestion is to put it aside for a month, step away from it, let it breath on its own, and get back to it come January. Others may not want to let go and will continue working into December, they love that story so much.

Whatever your time frame, the moment will come when you’re ready to submit your manuscript — after much revision, editing, professional help, rinsing, and repeating, of course.

A few months later, you’re elated to receive a positive response to your query letter that requests a full manuscript. You’re ready to pack it into an envelope and send your wonderful novel on its way. But is your manuscript ready? Really ready? Really ready to stand out from the hundreds of other manuscripts that flood agent desks each week?

It will be if you’ve researched and taken the advice of literary agents.

In an enlightening Writer’s Digest article, literary agent Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says:

The biggest trick to rising up on an agent’s list is to wow us from the beginning…. The truth is that most agents rarely read manuscripts from front to back, and even more rarely in a single sitting.¹

Okay. What is Nakamura trying to tell us here?

Agents Always Look at the Opening Pages

She says that “without fail we will always look closely at the beginning pages of your work.” Agents don’t read your whole story. They don’t put aside an afternoon to concentrate solely on your book.

But they will read those first pages of your manuscript. Always, says Nakamura. Always.

Sounds like an important group of words, doesn’t it?

Your Opening is Where Decisions are Made

According to Nakamura, there are two piles on an agent’s desk that are homes for manuscripts they receive: Reject and Possible.

How do agents know into which pile your manuscript will be placed? It’s the opening, writer.

Literary agents are the ones who read more prospective novel beginnings than anyone else in the publishing business. Chuck Sambuchino, writer of one of the largest blogs in publishing, Guide to Literary Agents, says “They’re the ones on the front lines— sifting through inboxes and slush piles.” They have a job to do and are experts on what does and what does not work in a story.

But wait, a writer might be thinking. If that agent would just read into the second chapter, then he’ll see the plot thicken. Please, oh, please keep reading!

Sorry. No agent is going to do that. And, if you think about it, no reader is going to do that, either.

How to Wow

Your opening has to grab the reader’s attention to have a shot at getting published. Literary agents aren’t being unkind when they turn down a manuscript with a ho-hum beginning. It’s the best decision for the writer and the reader. Agents want your book to be as strong as possible so that it will sell. And that’s what you want, too, if your goal is to be a published writer who has readers.

What should go into those opening pages that will grab an agent’s attention? In her article, Nakamura points out these four essentials:

  • Clear point of view. Point of view is the narrative perspective from which a story is told. How and from whom do you want your readers to hear your story? This has to be clear right from the beginning. The reader should not have to spend any time guessing about this aspect of your story. Read my post for a more detailed look at point of view.
  • Strong voice. Your voice is what makes you unique from the competition. It’s putting your personality in your writing. It’s your style. An agent wants to hear a distinct voice in the beginning of your manuscript. Will she hear yours or another’s voice you’re trying to emulate? This is an interesting and important writing term, and I will come back to it for a future post. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel that will get you started.
  • Excellent language and prose. From author and editor Victoria Mixon: “Prose is, in fact, the single greatest over-riding quality that separates passing blips on readers’ radar from timeless classics.” Your language and prose is what gives your novel rhythm and makes your novel sing. Every word used should be necessary to the advancement of your story. Your beginning pages should be alive with literary music.
  • Solid emotional connection between main character and reader. In his helpful article, Making an Emotional Connection, author Joe Moore uses a newspaper article to show how, even though something tragic has happened, we don’t care deeply for the victims because we don’t have any emotional connection to them. In the same way, readers won’t care what happens to the characters in your novel if they don’t become emotionally connected to them. And this must happen in the beginning pages. An agent wants to feel that connection right away.

It’s a simple lesson: Pay attention to your opening pages. Make your work irresistible. What you write on those pages will result in either possible representation or definite rejection.

Next in the series: Handling Rejections and Resubmissions — Conducting yourself in a way that leaves a good impression.

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.

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8 thoughts on “Your manuscript’s opening pages: Wow those agents from the beginning

  1. Darla, I love your posts about what lit agents want, because even though I would love to be traditionally published I always find an argument against their general philosophy. (This is a good thing, because I like being on fire. 🙂 )

    I was told by a published author that by page 2, something “has to happen” in a book for a lit agent to keep reading. This is beyond the great writing and other elements you mentioned above.

    I am on the fence about opening pages. I think about all the classics, and they didn’t have the “wow” factor that books today do, yet we read them all the way through. We stuck it out because the writing was wonderful and the characters delicious, and we didn’t mind if the action took a while to unfold.

    Unfortunately, I think we are catering to an impatient mentality (granted, mostly young people–but they’re running the world) who are accustomed to getting all of their information they seek with the click of a button.

    Even movies from days gone by spent the first 30 minutes setting the stage, developing the characters, building suspense, before we really knew what was going on! My kids grow bored with movies and books that I enjoyed as a child, and it’s because they don’t start out as quickly.

    I still maintain that if the writing is engaging enough, then readers worth their salt will hang on past the first couple of pages. Whether or not a lit agent will, well, that is obviously the stumbling block between an author and traditional publishing.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Kate. I’m really sorry that my series isn’t helpful to you in a positive way. I’m just sharing what I learned from an article I enjoyed, and I hope the advice from professionals that I dig up will help another writer as it has helped me. There are several paths for writers to take and I want to learn about them all.

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      1. Oh my goodness, Darla, I did not intend for you to think your series isn’t a positive one for me. I love how much work you go to in order to educate us. I apologize if I came across as unappreciative. I feel strongly about any discussion regarding literary agents because I have been at this for a very long time. So strongly, in fact, that I think I sound a little rough around the edges in my comments. I deeply apologize if I hurt your feelings or offended you.

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  2. Actually, I do have a full, finished ms., Darla, and it is with an agent. So I totally understand the writing, editing, rewriting, and searching. My agent is very good, and we’ve received some complimentary rejections, but they’re still rejections. So the ms. is still making the rounds, and this is another “hurry up and wait,” but in the meantime I’ve been working on short stories and have been fortunate enough to sell two of them.
    Writing is hard, lonely, frustrating…and I think if most of us could quit, we probably would. But I love writing, and I especially love your advice and encouragement.

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    1. Wow — I somehow missed that during my visits to your blog! You have a finished manuscript and an agent. That’s great to hear, and I can’t wait for the right publisher to read it so that you can share your story with the world.

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  3. Another powerful, real, and specific post, Darla. Now, to do it, that is my challenge!

    You still have almost a week until contest deadline. Afterward, will you let your ms. settle a bit, or will you hold tight, keep reading and rewriting, and search out agencies to approach?

    This is getting exciting!

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    1. Do you have a manuscript ready to present, Marylin? If so, what is it that is holding you back from sending it out? I will be so happy to have a completed novel in my hands. But it’ll be quite a while before this novel is ready to show an agent. The writing I’m doing this month for the NaNoWriMo challenge is just a first and very rough draft, and only 50,000 words. Come December I’ll be able to take it slowly, look at what I’ve created, and start the fine tuning. At the same time, I’m trying to learn all I can about the business side of the writing life before I’m ready to present. Remember the motto: Be prepared!

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