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Sunday, March 20, 2011

But My First Chapters Aren't the Best Ones

Recently I received a query from a friend of a friend who has just start submitting his novel to agents. He explained that the tone and rhythm of the first chapters of the book are not representative of the novel as a whole, because for reasons related to plot and character development, the protagonist is quite passive early on. Later, the protagonist becomes more active and the tone and energy of the writing change. His problem: the agents he has queried all want to see the first chapter or two before requesting the whole manuscript. But the friend of a friend believes that the early chapters would give a reader the wrong impression about what to expect from the rest of the book, and because they're more passive, he's afraid no one will ask to see more. Here's how I responded:

The opening pages are considered to be of paramount importance. There's even a book about them by agent Noah Lukeman called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. The reason for their importance is obvious: 1) You need to interest editors and agents, who may see fifty to a hundred queries and proposals a month. If they're not hooked immediately, they're going to stop wasting their time and move on to the next one. 2) Just as important, it's a general belief in the publishing world that readers are not as patient as they were in times past, and so you need to engage them right away.

You need to find a way to make the first chapters as compelling as the later ones. The character can be passive early on and then undergo changes to make him more active, but there has to be something in the opening that commands our attention, even if it's not a lot of action. Perhaps it's that we're compelled by a confounding character, or a really interesting situation -- one that we don't entirely understand, with some unanswered questions that pull us forward. If you absolutely believe that the first chapter doesn't represent the rest of the book AND that it is as compelling as the rest of the book, then you might send the first chapter, as requested, and include a later one, too, saying that the tone (or whatever) changes, and in the interest of full disclosure, this is what most of the rest of the book sounds/feels/reads like. No matter how good the rest of the book is, it's the first pages of the book that have to make us (agents, editors, readers) want to read more. It's that simple.

Every book is unique, like its author. All they same, there are a few rules that apply almost universally -- to novels, at least -- and one of those is that the first few pages have to give readers a reason to keep turning the pages.


  1. The first five pages, five minutes, five words of anything in entertainment or communication is what makes me decide whether or not to go further and I am a professional responder so to speak

    What other books about writing do you recommend?

  2. There are so many great ones. A few highlights: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell; Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass; The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass; Gotham Writers' Workshop: Writing Fiction. In a more inspirational vein, two longtime favorites: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

    And finally, I haven't read Writing What You Know by Marion Roach Smith, but I know you recommend that one so I'm putting it on my personal reading list.

  3. I think I'd revise Nan's "two reasons" because I believe they are actually the same reason. I don't think one should consider any editor or agent as in any way different from one's readers. Agents and editors are, after all, one's first readers and, as professionals, may actually be a bit more "pateient" than someone browsing in a bookstore (you remember those buildings that used to sell books, right?) who opens to the first chapter, reads a page or so,and decides to either buy or not buy the book. So, not only are agents and editors also readers, to take the analogy a step farther, they're also one's first "buyers."

  4. This applies to short essays, blog entries, business letters,... everything. So how would it not apply to a book? It's so much more of a commitment to read through a whole book. If the first line of a blog post that makes us yawn triggers our mouse-clicking finger to navigate us to something more engaging, then that must go for books.
    And since most written pieces readers are confronted with on a daily basis are quite short these days, making people read books is probably getting harder!

  5. Well said. I hope the friend of a friend is reading this.