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7 Novel-Opening Mistakes That Make Literary Agents (and Readers) Groan

7 Novel-Opening Mistakes That Make Literary Agents (and Readers) Groan

At our annual Festival of Writing, we’ve hosted a number of panels with literary agents that give writers the chance to meet, talk and ask questions.

(And if you’d like to be one of the first to get Festival of Writing news, including discounts, the best way is to sign up for emails or become a Jericho Writers member.)

We have ended past agent panels with a scary-but-brilliant session called Slushpile Live, where some very brave writers stand up, read the first few paragraphs of their work, then get live feedback – X-Factor style – from the assembled agents.

One of the main purposes of Slushpile Live is to get writers to understand that a piece of writing shows its quality very quickly indeed. (Which means, by the way, if you are entering any Festival competitions yourself – read your writing aloud before you submit anything.)

If the first few paragraphs smell wrong, the whole book is going to be wrong. If, on the other hand, there’s a sense of excitement around those opening paragraphs, you can bet that the writer has real quality. That doesn’t mean that everything’s definitely fine thereafter – a plot might vanish, there might be a confusing sprawl of characters, the basic concept might even be wrong – but at least you know you’re in the hands of someone with genuine talent.

That said, let’s jump straight to insider tips that, time and again, caused our panels of agents to groan.

7 Novel Starts To Make An Agent Groan

Or eight, really. One good way to earn a rejection would be to write terribly, but that doesn’t apply to you and it’s too obvious to include. So seven it is.

1) Dreams and Wake-ups

There’s no question that this opening must be the least popular possible gambit with agents. It induced a kind of no-no-no from agents every time it came up – and one of our panellists reckoned she saw these kind of openings in as many as 1 in 8 manuscripts.

And yours needs to stand out.

Those dreams-to-waking-up moments are just terrible ways to begin a book. Partly because they’re just so common but also because they give the reader a false start. The beginning of a book is where you most want to get the reader involved as quickly as possible and those false starts are achieving the exact opposite of that goal. In other words, they put off the moment when a reader feels “in” the story, and you want that moment to come as soon as possible.

2) Starting Your Book Too Early

A playwriting colleague of mine used to ask her students to share the strongest introductory scenes from their works-in-progress and any time someone submitted something that wasn’t the first scene of the play, she would tell them to cut the earlier scenes and start with the scene they’d submitted.

You want to start at the closest possible moment to the beginning of your story — so if your story gets started with, let’s say, Jilly finding a letter sent from her dead husband… don’t start your novel with five pages of Jilly waking up, thinking about her day, brushing her teeth, making breakfast, dropping her daughter at school, stopping by the bank, and no sign of the letter until god-knows-when. Readers are hungry for story and they won’t wait for several pages. They might not even wait for one — so get your reader interested in the first paragraph, or even the first line.

3) Rushing the Punchline

If the first two errors have to do with going too slow, this one has to do with going too fast.

I once saw an opening page from a new writer that was, in so many ways, a fabulous opening. It was a description of a young woman in Victorian-era New York getting ready to go out. The period wasn’t directly mentioned, but it was suggested by lovely, tactfully-chosen detail. The description of the light and the smells were just right. We felt we already knew something of the woman, thanks to the strength and precision of her voice.

Oh, and there was that lovely sniff of story as well. Part of her routine involved winding a bandage around her breasts, in order to flatten her chest and give her the figure of a slender young man. And then I hit the end of that first page, where the writer went from seeding hints of story (why is she passing as a man? who is she? where is she headed?) to delivering an expository ramble that read something like, “It was necessary for me to dress as a man because when I’d arrived in New York two years before, I soon discovered that there was painful little employment for a lone female and so I began to disguise myself as a man and…”

So much of the mystery that had been seeded into the opening paragraphs was trampled over by the too-hurried reveal.

If the readers wants to know something, that’s great, but don’t be fool enough to tell them. Of course, you will need to reveal some answers at some point — but you should only reveal them once you’ve had time to build other little motors to drive that reader-interest, like introducing some other characters, setting up an intriguing situation, or just generally getting yourself much further into your opening setup.

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4) Jumping Scenes

Another thing that really doesn’t work is jump-cutting too often in the opening pages. It might work in movies (although, does it?) but on the page it’s quite a bit more confusing. It’s quite common to see an author to structure their opening like this:

  1. Quick-fire 350 word prologue that is a jump-forward to some exciting scene later in the book.
  2. Key scene between protagonist, Jed, and his boss at work.
  3. Scene with Jed’s future love-interest, Cara, on a bus in the Kalahari.
  4. Then there’s some key backstory involving Jed.
  5. Then the book actually starts.

Now obviously this kind of setup is a good example of starting too early – but it’s not just that the start of things proper is delayed, it’s also that the reader experience is fractured.

Remember that it can be hard for a reader to get into a new novel.

On line 1, page 1, the reader doesn’t know the protagonist, their situation, maybe even the setting or the era. The more you break up the opening sequence, the more times you are asking the reader to make the investment of figuring everything out again. (Oh, who is this? Cara? Hmm, she’s new. Does she connect to Jed? Don’t know.)

Of course a reader is willing to put some work in, but don’t push it. The more fractured your opening, the more at risk you are losing them.

5) Too Many Characters

Don’t crowd your opening page or two with too many characters.

It’s the same issue as we’ve just discussed. Your reader is doing plenty of work already, figuring out where they are, what the situation is and so forth. Don’t make the reader also try to keep track of multiple people (especially ones with similar names).

Just keep it simple until you’ve hooked your reader. Then you can start to complicate things.

For a similar reason, you shouldn’t jump points of view too much (or perhaps at all) in your opening section. Let the reader get into the book, then they’ll be ready to start to explore the minds of other key characters. If you rush that process, you will lose your reader.

6) Too Many Words

We’re writers, so of course we’re in love with words. I, too, have been there: you’ve written a really beautiful sentence that expresses a particular mood or thought… and then you follow it up with seven more sentences that bash away, less gracefully, at the same thought. Or maybe that three-line sentence could actually be ten words and flow much nicer.

You cannot edit your work too hard.

And you absolutely cannot edit your opening page too hard. Although it’s easy to think only about word count, what you’re really looking for is beautiful writing. Chop out anything that’s wrong, or rewrite it. Get rid of any surplus. It’s likely that you could cut 25-30% of your opening page and only make it better — or at least you’ll know then that every word is pulling equal weight.

7) Too Big, Too Soon

One of the brave writers we had read at the Festival of Writing delivered an opening paragraph that involved a widower looking round the room he had shared with his dead wife, musing on her memory, then going into the bathroom to give himself a handjob.

Now, we’re not prudish, nor are agents – indeed, we like big, bold, daring storytelling. But sex and violence can be off-putting until it’s set in the context of a specific character and their situation.

We’re rarely there at the end of the first page, let alone the first paragraph — so keep your powder dry until your reader is emotionally prepared for the fireworks.

An Exception

Listen, there will always be exceptions to all of these rules. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake throws its reader into the deep end of language and setting, leaving you to pick up his hybridized Old English as you hear the narrator talking about plot points and characters you couldn’t possibly grasp off the bat — and Toni Morrison’s Paradise begins indelibly with the lines, “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”

But they’re exceptions to the rules, these great novels, written by great writers so in command of their craft that they’re able to take a risk and have it pay off — and you can bet that they all edited the daylights out of their novels (see rule number 6). Your novel will tell you whether or not it can pull off an opening trick like that, but only if you’re absolutely sure you’re listening closely! And even if it can… why not give these tweaks a shot to see if it gets even stronger?

Best of luck!