The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

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No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than literary agents.

They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work.

Below find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see the first pages of a writer’s submission. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

False beginnings

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

I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

In science fiction

A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Prologues

I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

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, Foreword Literary

Exposition and description

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.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

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, Foreword Literary

To read the rest of this article which covers the following topics, click HERE

Starting too slowly

In crime fiction

In fantasy

Voice

In romance

In a Christian novel

Characters and backstory

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22 thoughts on “The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

  1. The thing that I find frustrating, however, is that these agents keep talking about what THEY like in a book. I suspect that traditional publishing would be in much better shape if agents and editors bothered to spend a little time considering what *readers* like, instead. The two do not always mesh. Anyone who doubts this can comb through the many self-published and indie-published works on the bestseller lists, which are very often the ones that the agents rejected because they committed one of these cardinal sins. I often wonder how many wonderful books readers are missing out on because agents look for what appeals to their own personal reading tastes rather than realizing that they aren’t exactly a representative cross-section of the reading public.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A good article … and some very good advice. However, it doesn’t relate to moi. Every word I write is pure genius. My first chapters are so well done, one cannot put down the book until the last word of the last chapter has been read. But a good article nonetheless.

    Like

  3. I, of course, fret constantly about my first chapter. On one hand it may have been the first squeal of life that I gave the book, a really precious and memorable moment for me. Or it may have been the 10th and counting version and I had to make a choice and finally I just threw up my hands and said, “Whatever! Make a decision, for Pete’s sake.”

    In the end, I assume each author has thought it through, determined what mood or information he(she) wanted to set and dove in.

    In hindsight, I think I opted for a brief easing in, a modest setting of mood, a polite introduction to my protagonist. I also appear to have went with a slight (hopefully more entertaining) take of “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    For full disclosure, and I apologize for this, here is the opening paragraph of my first novel. Like a Child to Home.

    “It was still dark when I arrived at the office. It was always dark when I went
    to work in early winter. Though my commute took less than 20 minutes, the
    winter ride seemed endless. The West Coast rain clanged down like sheets
    of aluminum, drowning all the hope out of the city. Streets were flooded;
    the stripped leaves of deep November were swept into a saturated system
    of gutters.”

    Like

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