Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories April 12, 2014 - 9:43pm

I’m wondering if there are some hard and fast rules in regards to the opening of a novel. Not in an artistic sense, but based on pure practicality. Are there specific things you absolutely should/shouldn’t do in the first 5 to 10 pages of your manuscript?

I’ve been querying agents and feel that my cover letter is solid—I got some great help from Lauren Spieller, highly recommend her services—but worry about the open of my novel negatively impacting my chances.

The book opens with a first-person intro: the main character in the middle of a fight. It is short, 460 words, and it’s purpose is to throw you right into this character’s world/struggle. The same scene is fleshed out again later in the story but from the viewpoint of his opponent. The rest of the novel is written in the third-person.

The first chapter is more subdued and is the actual chronological beginning of the story. You meet the main character, learn a little bit about him, see him at work, get introduced to a few more characters—in all it’s close to 2,000 words.

Chapter 2 we meet another character who is following our protagonist but don't know why—437 words.

For the agents I have queried (just 15-20 so far) that’s usually all the text I am able to send given their guidelines. I like the structure of the story, it’s in its fourth full revision and I think it works. However, I can’t help but wonder if the somewhat non-traditional open is turning off agents?

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things April 12, 2014 - 10:41pm

There isn't anything you mentioned that is raising any red flags for me, but it would be easier to know if I was actually looking at the manuscript. You should consider getting a workshop membership and submitting it there.

I guess you could also check to make sure that when you arrange first letter of each line, it doesn't question the parentage of the reader or something. I could see something like that being a potential issue if you can't find anything else.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig April 12, 2014 - 11:01pm

There are a million and one reasons why an agent might pass on a manuscript that have nothing to do with how well it's written. Like Nathan, nothing here is putting me on red alert. Agents are all looking for different things on both the pro and the con side. You can't really know a particular agent's pet peeve, or even what kind of mood they'll be in the day they read your manuscript. If you've worked with a good editor, and you're not getting  bites - your best bet might be to send it out to a few trusted beta-readers (though I don't suggest family because you want real honesty here) and see if there is anything that turns them off. 

I guess I also wonder if you have been rejected by 15-20 agents or just haven't heard back - because there's a big difference between the two. If you simply haven't heard back, you might just need to take a deep breath and relax. 

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers April 13, 2014 - 5:47am

See if you can rewrite the intro/prologue part in very close 3rd person: establish the viewpoint and stay very close to that character. If it doesn't read right that way, then leave it in 1st person. Prologues can be in any viewpoint and any part of the story, but the main rule is usually determining if you really need it at all. Does it show the reader something they will never have a chance to see in the main part of the story? If not, chunk it, it's not necessary. 

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 13, 2014 - 8:40am

What you've done with your opening sounds fine to me, but like Nathan I suggest you workshop it if you want specific advice on how you might improve it.

Openings are a pain. I workshopped two different ones for my last novel, and this topic is well timed because I got a reject email from an agent I sent it to just this morning. It didn't go into detail about it, just that it wasn't quite right from their list. Agents are just like readers: one will love what another doesn't. I'm not going to go changing my opening just on the basis of one rejection that wasn't even very specific. Unless you get a rejection note that does go into specifics, I wouldn't spend too much time thinking 'perhaps they rejected it because of [insert reason here].' Just move on to the next sending out.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong April 13, 2014 - 3:10pm

I'm not aware of any hard-and-fast rules, but I do know agents (and publishers) like to see conflict early. They want to see the hook, and it seems what you've done with the prologue is presenting the reader with that. That said, prologues aren't very popular right now because they typically delay the hook. That doesn't seem like you've done that here, but I wonder if even seeing a prologue is somewhat off-putting. My guess is, if it is, since it's short, it probably isn't too much of a drag.

The other potential issue I see is the perspective shift. Without reading it, I have to wonder why you went with first person in the prologue and then shifted to third. Perspective shifts are hard to pull off and typically don't actually have a payoff that's worth the effort you're asking your reader to put forth, and without seeing what you've done, the task could be a turn-off for someone who's trying to get through hundreds of pitches before he or she can go spend time with the family.

If you're looking to change something, you could consider cutting the prologue in versions you send out from now on. Once you get the attention of an agent, you could work on the prologue idea with him or her.

That said, I haven't personally shopped around for agents, so 15-20 could be you just getting started. I really don't know. Like everyone else is saying, you may just need to keep hitting them up.

Good luck!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 14, 2014 - 1:36pm

Not in an artistic sense, but based on pure practicality. Are there specific things you absolutely should/shouldn’t do in the first 5 to 10 pages of your manuscript?

After 2 days of not being able to send an email because someone had a typo I say this in all seriousness; make sure your contact information is correct.

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories April 14, 2014 - 10:58am

Nathan, the first letters of each line spell out "agentz R stoopid." Is that bad?

Renee, I've been rejected by 3 and have simply not heard back from others. I've certainly got a lot more queries to go if common wisdom holds true so you are probably right, I need to relax a bit and just keep querying. Given the one-shot nature of querying an agent for any given project I may have an unrealistic fear of some boneheaded mistake tanking my queries, which is where the opening pages concern stems from.

Bob, not a bad idea. I like the prologue as I feel it gets down and dirty right from the start, shows the reader a glimpse of where we are going, paints a picture of what the main character will become over the course of the story, and it ties back in with a scene later in the book that comes just before the climax. If I cut it, it will take about 6,000 words for the action to begin. Interesting things happen up to that point, but the hook starts around 6k words. I'm not overly attached to the intro--I would cut it if an editor/agent wanted me to do so--but to me, it adds something valuable to the story.

Chacron, did you workshop the novel opening here on Litreactor? May I ask word count and structure? It seems, and this could be inaccurate, that the workshop mostly contains short stories and so I have wondered what the best practices are for submitting an entire novel, or chunks of one, for critique.

Tim, yes that is the biggest benefit of the prologue in my eyes. It is a sort of en media res device that sets the hook right away (see response to Bob above).

Dwayne, always a good idea to triple check details such as contact info. I will go back and make sure everything is accurate.

Thanks for the feedback, all. I love this place. Group hug.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 15, 2014 - 1:07pm

Chacron, did you workshop the novel opening here on Litreactor? May I ask word count and structure? It seems, and this could be inaccurate, that the workshop mostly contains short stories and so I have wondered what the best practices are for submitting an entire novel, or chunks of one, for critique.

The workshop mainly does contain short stories, but some of us do workshop novels. I've seen one member recently do six novel excerpts and counting. I'm not workshopping at the moment so I actually can't access my own stuff, but I'll try detailing this from memory:

My excerpt was around 4000 words. (I've done a couple previously that got into 5500 teritory, but that's the absolute maximum I'd ever recommend workshopping.) The structure I didn't really worry too much about - conveniently the opening 2 'scenes' were 4k long. Perhaps it's worth saying that one person told me there was no narrative hook at the end of this chapter, only to have me respond that this was not the end of the chapter but simply the opening 4000 words of it (I do very long chapters and if I workshopped one in its entirity I guarantee even people used to reading my stuff wouldn't touch it!) so if you workshop an excerpt, put into your author's agenda whether or not what you've posted is a complete chapter or just part of it.

If you're thinking of trying to workshop an entire novel here are two things I think you should consider:

(1) Start at the beginning. I know this sounds obvious but I've seen people workshop stuff from the middle of novels and it's always damn difficult to completely get to grips with what's going on, even when there are backstory details in the author's agenda.

(2) That said, on one occassion I did send someone an excerpt from a middle section who hadn't seen the beginning, but that was an exception and it was style and mechanics I wanted critiqued rather than plot or characters. If you're going to break the beginning rule, you'll need to be very specific about why you're doing it.

 

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow April 16, 2014 - 8:28am

Yeah, I workshopped the first 6 chapters of my novel. I had to review 5 stories a week to post one chapter a week. That was time consuming, but as the most active workshop member I got plenty of reviews from people I'd reviewed for and a lot of different, very helpful suggestions for ways to improve my writing.

I submitted in chunks of around 4k words. I replied to reviews, engaged with my 'readers' and sometimes sent out revisions so that people could see that I'd used their suggestions.

Cranking out 5 reviews a week was too much for me. I found 3 people who'd receive my chapters by email and are reading the whole story.

But, getting all those differnet perspectives at the beginning was a big help. The first draft of my first chapter got some harsh criticism, but I was getting much better feedback for the later stuff and the revised versions.