Query letters are difficult to write, and most of the ones I see still have problems. However, I’d like to move beyond them, for a while, to discuss those opening pages that are, hopefully, sent along with your query. Your query letter might get your foot in the door, so to speak, but your writing is what will get you published. Consequently, even if your query is so-so, I will always look at accompanying writing. So, at this point, the question should be, “What are you looking for in those pages?”
I hate to repeat this, but your novel has about a one-minute audition with an editor. That means there are some basic elements that are necessary to get your writing past those sixty seconds. First of all, I want something happening in the beginning. To accomplish this, a writer must dig into his or her story to find its natural opening.
For instance, I grabbed four books from the shelf that have exciting beginnings, ones that would grab my attention. The first needs no introduction. It begins with: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” If that doesn’t start someone reading! And this is from one of the oldest books known to mankind.
I kind of cheated on the other three—well, not cheated, really—because these are books that caught my attention so well I ended up representing them. They are now on bookstore shelves, where, hopefully, their terrific beginnings are capturing the attention of readers.
How about this opening from Heather Sharfeddin’s MINERAL SPIRITS: “An acrid breeze swept up from the river—a hint of rotten flesh.”
Or from Nina Wright’s WHISKEY ON THE ROCKS: “He was laying there like you are now. Only he was dead.”
This one is from DERAILED by Jon Ripslinger: “Monday morning at school, after we won our third football game in a row, ass-kicking convincingly, I might add, Coach Maddox yanked me into his office in the boy’s locker room.”
One question that I’d ask here is: “After reading these simple first sentences, would you read on?” The answer is probably, “You bet!” Why? Because the opening caught your attention, right? The challenge that faces anyone who taps out words and declares himself a writer is, to be published, you have to interest your reader—or you won’t be read.
This is important, so let me repeat it. You must interest your READER or you won’t be read. Notice I didn’t say agent or editor here, I said reader. Why? Don’t I have to get my book past you guys before anyone can have the chance to read my book? Yes, this is kind of true. But aren’t we readers, too? Of course we are.
Okay. I’m getting way ahead of myself. The question is, where do I start my book? Where is the beginning? The beginning is at the point of change. Something has happened that has changed the norm. In the Bible, the Heaven and the Earth were created. That was a huge event—the beginning of all we know. You don’t get much bigger than that. In MINERAL SPIRITS (before the paragraph was ended) a body had been found, but even before that the reader has a sense that something died, which is definitely change. In WHISKEY ON THE ROCKS, Whiskey Mattimoe, our protagonist, stares at Noonan as she begins working on Whiskey’s left calf muscle:
“You were massaging a corpse?” I asked.
“For a minute. Jinx thinks he couldn’t have been dead very long before I noticed.”
I shuddered. Noonan’s strong hands stopped their magic.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “You’ve had enough death in your life lately. You don’t need to hear that.”
“Life is full of death, Either we keep moving, or we. . .stop moving.” I hoped my words sounded wiser to her ears than they did to mine."
Although comical (and this book definitely is) something is still happening here. There has been a change, a murder in this case, and this change, right at the beginning of the story, propels the story from here to its final sentence. Also, the reader gets the idea that Whiskey has experienced a death in her life recently—another drastic change. This should be the case with every novel you write—something has happened and whatever it is will take the entire novel to fix—and maybe even beyond. Did any of these books begin with describing everything is sight? Did they begin with setting the scene? No, they didn’t. They started with change. So how should your book begin?
Something else is happening here at the beginning of all these stories. We begin with a sense of the creation of a character. With the Bible, the reader is introduced immediately to the creating force.
In MINERAL SPIRITS, the story’s main character is identified a couple of sentences after the opening. You should have a definite feeling a character being developed in that first minute of reading. It might not be the main character, but there should be someone guiding the reader into the story. That is not to say that I want a character sketch, including a description. I want the strong presence of character or narrator.
So what do I look for in a novel’s opening? Something happening that is key and sets the theme for the rest of the novel, and there should at least be an attempt at building a character in those first few pages of the book. Do this and you come a long way toward producing a book that agents, editors and most importantly your readers, will love.